School Talk

What I Learned on A Listening Tour With 100 Students

By Charles Cole

“If you could address any issue regarding education, school, and your community, what would it be?”

That’s the question that got students talking the most. You see, I just embarked on a 100-student listening campaign to hear more about what students want from school. Before we launch the Energy Convertors Student Voice Fellowship this fall in Oakland, I knew I had to go straight to the students, the ones who are most impacted by our schools and policies.

My goal on this listening tour was to do just that: LISTEN.

Every group we spent time with was incredibly thoughtful during these conversations. Here are the top three answers we got. I am sharing this with the hope that educators, community activists, parents and the like take heed.


More than 50 percent of the students called for an education that is relevant to their real lives. Students were clear and cogent in their disappointment with the lack of life skills. These students wanted to learn about money management and investment. They made it clear that Shakespeare was cool but I’m crazy broke. They wanted to learn about entrepreneurship and how to pay for college without going into debt.

Here’s an exchange I had with a student:

Student: Charles, keep it real, how often are you using Algebra or Biology on the daily?

Me: Honestly, the math some but as a whole, not very often.

Student: Exactly, but you know what I think about EVERY DAY? Getting this money or getting my moms a house, or stuff like, “what are stocks and how can I get down?”

Me: I hear you, so what do you think should be happening?

Student: Teach me how to build a business or how to invest so I can own a crib. If y’all was doing that, I’m early to class, every day, swear to GOD.

And they wanted to learn about business and the economic market. They wanted to explore careers and understand the salary differentiation between them and the list continued.

A few students pointed out that while they appreciated their history class, they’d be excited to learn more about the history of Oakland or even their particular neighborhood. The students explicitly asked to learn more about their own culture.

Overall, they wanted to feel like the material they were learning would apply to life so they could thrive as adults and be happy.


This one came up with a lot of passion. Students were quite vocal on this point. They each could point to one or two teachers they felt were “different”—who really connected to them. But for the most part, they highlighted that they did not feel cared for. I pressed them for examples.

One student said: “It feels like my teachers don’t wanna be here. And I’m like, if you don’t wanna be here, what makes you think I wanna be here?”

Another student: “My teachers know nothing about me. Nothing! Like, damn, you want me to do all this work that has nothing to do with me, but you can’t even take the time to find out what I care about or where I come from?” That one got a lot of head nods and verbal agreement.

One young lady at first seemed shy but when she spoke, the thunder came. “Some of these teachers just suck. No disrespect to the good ones, because I got some good ones—but there are some teachers that I feel like are learning the material the day before. Ummm, you’re supposed to be helping me with my geometry, we can’t both be struggling!”


I must admit, this one was a little surprising. But students were adamant about the pothole issue in Oakland.

After thinking about it, it makes sense. A bunch of 16- and 17-year-olds that bike to school or just started driving are having a rough time making it through the city. But maybe more importantly it’s a sign of respect. What does it say about a city when it can’t even keep its roads safe and usable? Our young people pick up on this and they won’t stand for it.


The talks were so compelling with these young people now we just have to do something about it. And I think there’s a lot we can take away from these findings.

For example, when more than 20 percent of the students mention potholes, I’d expect educators to think, “Oh, there’s an opening to educate on local civic engagement.”

Or when a student questions the point of something as basic as algebra, it is an opening to go deeper in real world application.

So how are we as adults, educators and community members going to take this type of information and work for children?

As we move closer to the launch of the Energy Convertors Fellowship, we’ll continue to have these conversations with students. Through the fellowship, these young people will research the problems and solutions they want to see in education and their communities. They’ll be empowered to lift their voices through blogging, video storytelling, public speaking, publishing op-eds and anything else they can think of.

These students are going to help shape the experiences of thousands of students by flexing the mighty voice they have. The question for us is, are we going to help or hinder?

This originally appeared on Huffington Post as What I Learned in 100 Student Listening Tour in Oakland.
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