Going far, together.
What I’ve learned from teaching, and what that means for the way I think about teens protesting guns
I teach masters students the principles and methods of design and design thinking. Many of them are or aspire to be entrepreneurs. They come from many backgrounds and countries and experiences. They are all adults.
But they come into the program as, I suspect, many students come into any program. Most are at least a little optimistic — that this program, this course, will teach them something valuable, something that will enrich their practices and careers, that will help them create and spot new opportunities, that will change them.
Some of my students are so practical — how can I apply this or use this tomorrow? Some are juggling the studio course I teach with their jobs or job searches. They stay after class a minute to ask advice about informational interviews, or how to approach a mentor, or how to talk to investors.
I learn from them every semester. I discover something about my own practice outside of the classroom that can be improved with the tools or ideas I teach. I deepen my understanding of those principles and practices. I am moved to question and adapt if the practice or tools need adapting, or I retire them if they need retiring.
I am learning how to motivate the students, how to keep them on track, how to help them see the value of the work they’re doing, how to be both realistic and idealistic about their projects. Vary rarely is my advice that they should “try harder” or “do better” — it’s usually in the shape of “try this” or “sketch that” or “run an experiment” or “have you thought about it this way”. I trust them to work the process, and I ask them to trust that the process will work, even if they feel like they’re absolutely nowhere.
I ask them to trust me. I am the pressure valve. I can turn the pressure up or down. I can acknowledge that this tool just doesn’t work in this context, so don’t sweat it. I can say that sometimes good enough is good enough. I can say, that’s okay, maybe that tool or idea will make more sense later, let’s set it aside and try again then. I can say, try it anyway and see what happens. I can say, there’s no sense in arguing about it, you won’t know for sure until you prototype and test it, so get on with that.
I walk into every class convinced I haven’t done enough. I make notes during classes about what goes well and what doesn’t. I literally beg students for feedback; and I take time every month to reflect with them, and to let them know how I think things are going, to thank them for teaching me.
I’m thinking about this today because of this post from Dave Pell.
He says, of the students speaking out after the shooting in Parkland, Florida last week,
Emma, don’t get tired. Don’t move on. Do better than us.
This is a prayer I think many of us are saying these days. But the design teacher in me thinks,
“How might we help Emma stay engaged, energized and focused?”
These students don’t need us to tell them how to feel, or what’s right or what’s wrong. They know all that. They don’t even really need us to tell them how to speak in front of a crowd, or to a camera, or how to use social media. They — and their journalism and debate teachers — have that nailed.
But as they move to action away from the glare of the cable news cameras, they will (and already do) encounter familiar obstacles: obstinate and robotic politicians, gatekeeping staffers, dismissive commentators, cruel and crass lobbyists, to say nothing of the trolls and bots and oppositional media types who will try to discredit them, to sap their will to change things, to protect themselves and each other and all of us.
If you’re an experienced campaigner, pollster, lobbyist, civil servant, or politician, how might you be their teachers?
And by that I do not mean, how can you conform them to your own way of doing things, to your expectations of what is possible…
I mean, how can you help them troubleshoot the process, prepare them for these obstacles, and work with them to strategize ways to surmount them?
How can you help them navigate the landscape of policy-makers and influencers?
How can you support them as they stand up to people who are not used to being stood up to?
How can you fuel and feed their passion?
How can you teach them when to ask for help, when to take a knee, when to lean on others, when to take care of themselves, and how to do those things?
They will, by definition, see things differently, because they are seeing things for the first time. They will see things differently because they are different from you. They will question your assumptions.
If you greet their questions and ideas with the soul-sucking “Yeah, but…” response, you will earn their scorn — and you might risk losing them to the desensitization the rest of us think we’ve developed.
If you answer every idea with, “We tried that, and it didn’t work” then you’re not thinking critically enough. Is what they’re proposing really the same as the thing you tried (and did you really try it, or merely float a trial balloon)? Is the context or timing different? Does it matter if it’s a different group of people doing it? What did you think “working” looked like? How could the definition of “it worked” be better or more useful?
If you’re not questioning your assumptions about “what works”, you’re not paying attention to the moment we’re in. Comparisons to the movements of 30 years ago, or even 10 years ago, don’t work in an age of openly partisan broadcast media and social platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. It doesn’t work when a generation is defined as much by its diversity as by its technology. Things are different. Maybe things that didn’t “work” before will work now. How do you know for sure? (Hint: experiment, try again.)
If you assume that everyone is numb because you are, that nobody cares as much as you do (did?), that “I’ve been saying this forever but nobody listens…” well, here’s a group of young people who aren’t numb, who care, who are listening and demanding to be listened to.
Get back in the game.
In my lifetime, I’ve learned all the euphemisms for indiscriminate civilian gun violence: drive-by shooting, road rage, shooting sprees, going postal, rampage killer, school shooter, suicide-by-cop. Each time another mass shooting happens, I think of those shootings that came before, of post offices and McDonald’s, of high school cafeterias and Kip Kinkel, of freeway shootings that made me nervous on the drive to Disneyland as a kid. (I grew up in the 80s & 90s, so I used to also be afraid of terrorists hijacking planes, but then 9/11 changed that fear into something worse.) Am I desensitized if I can practically recite them like some gruesome rosary?
Maybe it’s not that we’ve been desensitized at all — maybe it’s that all this violence, all this inaction, all this tribal conflict over the symbol of gun ownership v. the public safety threat guns pose — has been building up like heavy metals in our bodies. Maybe we’re tired of the watchful waiting our leaders have advised; maybe we finally feel sick enough; maybe we’re finally ready to get well.
If we thought about it that way, maybe we wouldn’t abdicate our responsibilities to Emma and her classmates. Maybe we wouldn’t question or undermine the journey they’re on.
It’s a long road, and a heavy burden.
We should go together.