2020: Looking Back, and Looking Ahead: Why Parents, Teachers and Teens Should Listen To These 7 Stories.

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2020, in many ways, will go down in history as a notorious year in the same way that 1968 did.

Both years were marked by tumult and huge protests. In 1968, both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. Apollo 8 orbited the moon.

In 2020, the COVID pandemic killed 345,737 people. An agonizing recording of a policeman suffocating George Floyd upended our notions of justice. An American President tried to invalidate an election that saw historic levels of participation from every demographic. Everyone, including the president, was talking about Cancel Culture (instead of counterculture in the 1960s.)

Through it all, seven San Francisco Bay Area high school students produced radio/podcast stories at KALW radio that reflected some of what was going on around them. The name of the podcast is tbh (you can download it on your favorite player, or access the whole series here.) Each student contributed one story to season 2. I helped to produce and edit three of the stories, and taught alongside KALW Producer Holly McDede.

The students memorialized the summer of 2020 through their ambitious radio stories, which are all timeless: High school peers and their teachers and parents can listen to them at any time to spark off a discussion about any of the subjects and how their own community deals with them in their own context. We produced a series of stories that ponder these questions:

  • Why do so many toxic relationships plague the news, and why do so many people accept these as norms? Why don’t we learn more about healthy relationships in high school?
  • What is “cancel culture,” really? And is it ethical?
  • Why are the mainstream products for video games still so skewed to cater to viewpoint white males when the demographics of the massive, multi-million dollar market are so obviously diversifying?
  • How to find community and self-acceptance in school through wheelchair basketball
  • How students in a highly diverse high school perceive academic tracking and how it contributes to in-school segregation
  • Why school systems need to support rather than reflexively punish students who “act out”
  • Why basketball has become a powerful platform for activism

tbh, it wasn’t easy learning through a pandemic! Nevertheless, the students pulled it off.

1. Healthy relationships

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InLearning About Sexual Assault And Healthy Relationships,” Ohlone College freshman Zara Ahmed and her friends argue that schools need to help teenagers understand personal boundaries and the idea of consent more explicitly. Simply learning about sex and drugs isn’t enough.

Ahmed said she wanted to work on this story because she was haunted by the light sentence received by former Stanford swim athlete Brock Turner.

Sexual assault is an undercurrent of life for all kinds of students in America, which is why we must have open and frank discussions about consent and healthy relationships.

It’s never too early to talk about healthy relationships.

2. Representation in video games

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When University of Chicago freshman Hannah Ni pitched a story about sexism and representation in video games, I wondered what a new angle to an eternally-discussed phenomenon would be. But the story is that it’s still an issue after years of discussion, and we jaded adults shouldn’t expect new generations of gamers to simply accept the lack of non-white representation and sexist portrayals of women. (I recently faced my own quandary when my own young daughter downloaded a game that stereotyped relationships between young men and women.)

But what’s even worse is that the gaming environment can become even more stressful now than for past generations because multiple strangers can gather online and harass others with toxic commentary.

But there’s also good news: Ni talks to people who are working to change the field. This includes Tanya “Cypheroftyr” DePass, founder the non-profit “I Need Diverse Games,” and Latoya Peterson, co-founder of Glow Up Games, which is developing a game component to HBO/Issa Rae’s Insecure.

The gaming reviews and news publication Kotaku just nominated DePass one of four “2020 Gamers of the Year” for combining activism with gaming.

3. How to think through “Cancel Culture.”

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You couldn’t get 2020 without reading about — or in some cases — participating in “cancel culture.”

Bay Area high school rising senior Ava Richards spoke for millions when she explored her own relationship to the complex subject in her story: “The Tangled Web of Cancel Culture And Activism.”

When students perceive that school administrations aren’t doing enough and just paying lip service, they take action on their own through social media, and the direction of a life can change in an instant.

So it’s important to clarify for yourselves: When do influencers and others deserve to be “canceled?” What does it mean to be cancelled? Should high school students be cancelled for racist acts by having their college acceptances rescinded?

4. Finding community and self-acceptance in school

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High school senior Avery Dauer speaks for many when he said in his story that every middle and high school student needs to “find their people,” whether it be through sports or any other kind of activity.

In “Wheelchair Basketball Is Just Basketball,” Dauer tells the story of how Paralympic coach Trooper Johnson came to train young athletes like himself, and what that means to him.

It’s a beautiful story about the power of finding and building community.

5. Academic tracking and in-school segregation

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Oakland Tech Senior Chosang Tenzin and her friends takes us on a lively tour of different student groups at the school, and they explain why they do or don’t take some of the academic classes on offer.

Along the way, they explain some of the sterotypes they face, and why they feel more comfortable participating in some classes than in others.

Tenzin is deeply rooted in many student government and other extracurricular activities in her school. She’s bothered by the inequities that she sees everyday. This story is part of her ongoing effort to improve the high school educational experience for everyone.

She talks to her peers, as well as some academics, who offer ideas on what administrators can do to help schools become more integrated.

6. Schools should support students — not criminalize them

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Masiyah Edwards was 7 when she was first suspended. In her story for KALW about school and discipline, she recalls that she was fighting back against a boy who had been harassing her.

The Grambling State University freshman’s bigger point is about how she and her friend Kevin experienced the school discipline system in San Francisco, and how if it hadn’t been for the support they found, they might have ended up in the state’s prison system.

My friend Katherine Reynolds Lewis has written extensively about how flawed school discipline systems often lead to the famous “school to prison pipeline.”

Edwards’ story is another real-life example of Lewis’ story’s point: Teachers and school administrations need to talk to students and understand what’s going on rather than jump to punish students who are acting out.

In the wake of 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, school districts are putting on lectures on this subject.

But Edwards lived this precarious existence and shares how support and expectations helped her change her life’s direction.

7. Basketball activism — and why it matters

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UC Berkeley freshman Maddie Johnson tells the story of how basketball became political, and how that wasn’t always the case.

It’s a powerful subject matter because athletes are influencers, which is probably why Fox News’ Laura Ingraham felt moved, a couple of years ago, to silence LeBron James and Kevin Durant when they criticized Donald Trump for lack of leadership.

Johnson tracks a San Francisco-based group formed in response to Ingraham’s comment. It’s called “Speak Up and Dribble.”

Teens’ lives are infused with sports. Again, this is a conversation that simply isn’t going away, and worth a discussion.

There will be plenty more of it in 2021, and lots more action. ###

Support for tbh comes from the Association for Continuing Education and the California Arts Council. This project was also made possible with support from California Humanities, a non-profit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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