Getting There: Perspectives from Clarke Road Students on Life, School and Everything in Between

Who Should Read This?

  • School administrators interested in learning about the effectiveness of school policies
  • Politicians interested in the youth perspective on their world
  • Community leaders looking to better incorporate youth into the city

Come. Explore.

I ask you for a moment to think about your group of friends. When was the last time you all got together for coffee to talk about the world around you? Have you recently sat down with this group and made an effort to talk about the systems in place that run your life? Unless you have a rather remarkable group of friends, I’d imagine that this doesn’t happen frequently. Perhaps this is what makes this conversation so interesting.

We meet in a coffee shop not far from our school. Being able to find an area to fit six people in this cramped restaurant isn’t easy, but, after a few strange looks from other customers, we manage to rearrange enough chairs for a dynamic talking circle. It’s a chilly Thursday afternoon and we have gathered, not at my request, but at the request of the participants to talk about being a teenager in London in 2016. In this conversation, we are the experts. We are the ones experiencing it right now, and that gives us, a group of seventeen year olds, an ability to speak with confidence that we are often denied. 

Let’s Talk London.

Our City. What does London mean to you? Does it conjure up strong emotions or bright ideas? We begin our conversation with a very open question to get a sense of where the group needs this conversation to go. Ideas varied widely:

  • London is family, where they are when I need them
  • London is home, for now that is[1]
  • It’s constricting, it’s not freedom, it holds me back
  • London is school, it’s where I need to be for my education[2]
  • What can I say? London is boring, there is not enough to do for me to want to stay
  • It’s old. It’s tired. I’m used to it, and it doesn’t seem to want to change[3]
  • My small town. The country is five minutes away, everything is close together
  • Poorly represented; it has potential, but it’s not being used

Connect.

While it’s often difficult for teens to speak out against anything, particularly their homes without being ridiculed for whining, or being told of someone who has it worse than them, the typical criticisms were absent here. We worked to create an environment in which everyone was comfortable sharing their beliefs. As people became more comfortable speaking, it became evident that the responses were not half-formed complaints, rather strong ideas that could be reflected by everyone in the city, regardless of age or background. This understanding was important. Typically youth will refrain from giving opinions on issues important to them because they feel unappreciated. Going to a place where they were comfortable, and not only listening to, but developing their opinions was crucial for this conversation’s success.

  1. Being You. Most of the participants spoke, at one time or another, about not understanding what opportunities or activities there are for young people in London. Many made reference to the festivals and concerts the city puts on, but few gave the city a glowing endorsement for including its youth. One participant made specific reference to how she was at an “in between” age. She said that she was too old to go to the park, but too young to participate in the “college scene”. This left many participants questioning what exactly London had to offer them.[4]

Connect.

Within our communities, there needs to be events targeted at youth. The memories created in a young person’s life will determine their attachment to their city. It is a necessity to look to the future; to determine how to build a city which adults and young people alike can be proud of. We cannot offer our youth so few opportunities within the city while simultaneously complaining we lose young talent to other areas.

On Life. On Leadership.

  1. Touchdown. One of our participants talked about a boy who was an excellent football player; this kid really had a future in the sport. The problem was that his family did not have the funds to allow him to play. It was only because a teacher from the school decided that he would pay for this boy to play in an elite league that his remarkable abilities were not squandered.

Connect.
As a city, as a community, London should focus on building leaders like this. Investment in leadership initiatives allows for needs to be spotted in the community that would otherwise be missed. It is an effective way that we can fill in the gaps in society missed by policy and other initiatives. We must understand though that we need to build leaders based on their strengths. Leadership lessons in a classroom are ineffective. We must be creative, developing leaders where they are, based on why they are needed.[5]

  1. Street Side and Stop Signs. Another participant told of how leadership doesn’t need to be one big act. The most effective leadership is seeing people do little things. He spoke of how he once saw a man confront another on the sidewalk telling him to treat his girlfriend better. The participant really took to heart to treat women with respect. The same participant said that when he comes to an intersection, if the person driving in front of him comes to a complete stop before proceeding, he is more likely to do the same.

Connect.
I had never thought of a leader as someone in such a position and this really shook me. It was oddly reminiscent of the Mayor’s Advisory Panel on Poverty Focus Group[6] I had done about two months prior in that it proposed an idea for creative policy. What would a policy document focused around promoting good daily leadership look like?

Hitting Our Books.

  1. Knowing vs. Knowledge. One student spoke of how most students study for a test by “cramming”. She said that, although she gets good grades (implicit in our education system of knowledge) she couldn’t remember the vast majority of the information much past test day. Everyone agreed. This same student said that some don’t test well. She said that this was not their fault, but that it shows a flaw in the education system. The fact that one can memorize information does not make them smarter than one who struggles to do so.

Connect.

I think that it is important that we as a society make the distinction between knowing the information for a test and understanding the concepts. Showing that you are capable of memorization for a short period of time not only isn’t an indicator of intelligence, but it will not lead to success in future endeavours. We suggested that testing be tailored more to the strengths of the students and requirements to be successful later in life.[7]

  1. Do I Have To? Compulsory credits are, as acknowledged by the group, essential. To an extent. They allow for a breadth of subjects to be experienced by students and expose students to areas that they may not studied otherwise. One participant even said that without being forced to take grade nine science, she would have been going to university for the liberal arts; she now plans to be a medical doctor. What students did express confusion with is the reason for certain subjects to be forced past the end of their useful lives. No one agreed that forcing subjects like Math and English well into senior years was necessary.

Connect.

I believe what the participants were trying to get at was that, if we are going to force students who are not interested in or good at math to take the class in grade eleven, or force those who find lab reports more useful than essays to take English every year, we must make these courses serve a utility to the student and society at large. Past basic exposure, students take classes in an attempt to become proficient enough to have successful careers. Forcing “proficiency” in an area not applicable to the student’s life (outside of the classroom) only wastes time. Application of quadratic functions is hard to justify in the lives of most students. Writing a TPCASTT essay will rarely be necessary. Expanding of one’s vocabulary so that the student can better articulate them self is useful. Learning how to file a tax return or create a budget is necessary. Compulsory credits should be about concrete life skills, not ideas and theories.

  1. Let’s Get Real. “I remember once my dad told me that I was just one person in a stack of people; it is what I do to get out of that stack that matters”,[8] said the young man sitting opposite me. When we as a group talked about this placement, the group unanimously agreed that it was experiences in the real world that separated students more so than any grade on a report card. One student said that, while she felt co-op was important and would be of benefit to her, she had no room to fit it into her schedule. They continued to say that without such ability to gain connections, students with fewer opportunities have a hard time finding employment.

Connect.

This is connected to the previous section. Students need “real world skills” and a full course load is not preparing them for this. More and more we see the vicious cycle of students being unable to get work experience.  Because of this they are unable to get a job, leaving them unable to get work experience. Our education system is leaving students woefully unprepared. It is particularly unfair to those whose parents are not able to help a student gain experience and connections. Co-op should be made compulsory to graduate. Make it so that students have an opportunity to get work experience and “get out of that stack”.

  1. Too Much of a Good Thing. “My priority is school, I don’t have time for much else,” someone said. “The law test tomorrow is everything”, she continued, almost as a reminder of the time limit I had set for the discussion. Another student spoke of how her chemistry teacher said that there was more to life than just studying. None of the participants felt this was reflected in their workload. “I’m just trying to get accepted into university right now”, was another’s response when I asked why they were focussed so exclusively on school.

Connect.

In a world in which teens are being pushed to “resume build”, we seem to be, as a society, forgetting a crucial factor needed for this necessity we call “real-world experience”; time. While it is universally understood that school is a benefit and a necessity, when it becomes all encompassing, it is more hindrance than help. A school system in which a “high-caliber student” spends all of his/her time studying rather than getting involved and networking, is, quite simply, not preparing the leaders of tomorrow well at all. Education is and should be regarded as more than the theories of John Locke; it spreads well beyond finding the vertex of a parabola and it certainly doesn’t revolve around Scout Finch.  Our education system needs to be tailored to the needs of tomorrow, focussed on the “real-world” as we so frequently say it needs to be.

Quote Me.
Some of the most important quotes from our conversation:

  • “Get rid of exams, they don’t show my ability to learn”.
  • “With four classes per semester, and eight all year at some schools, we don’t have time to understand content”.
  • “Classes should have more organic conversations; just sitting in a circle and talking”.
  •  “Getting a job is all about connections. If you don’t have connections [and family can’t help you do so] it’s not a fair system”.
  • “You go to school, work 9-5 if you’re lucky then you die; it sucks”.
  • “Life isn’t about getting there, it’s about the journey; it’s about doing things you love along the way”.

Take. Action.

  1. 1.     Make London a Home.

When international travellers ask us where we are from, let’s make it so that we aren’t ashamed to say, “No, I’m from London Ontario… That’s why there’s no accent”. City development be built around the youth of the city. They are the new target audience, the talent we need to keep in this city to benefit our home.

  1. 2.     Listen to the Youth[9].

No matter how many times youth proclaim that they are not one of those stereotypical teenagers trashing houses and wasting their lives, this perspective will only change as we recognize the great ideas held by so many “kids”. Youth need to be incorporated into policy decisions that affect not only them, but their whole society. We need to do more than just pay lip service to “empowering the youth” and make it a reality.

  1. 3.     Leave Room in the Budget For “Coffee Conversations”

When the LYAC met to talk about “Police Carding” one councillor suggested that rather than police stopping someone on the street and asking them questions, they take the person out for a coffee and get to know them better. While this sounds cliché, imagine this from the perspective of a policy maker or administrator. Imagine the ideas you could hear, the bonds you could build with constituents through mere conversation.[10]

Reflect.

Brandon Dickson, Ward 14 Youth Councillor, Facilitator, Report Writer

It always astounds me how much can be learned from simply sitting down with a group of friends and talking. Opinions I had never heard before were voiced and stories were exchanged in an experience that bettered me as not only a young politician, but a human and a friend.

Perhaps what shocked me the most (and will every time) was the opinions that can be so well articulated by those when you give them the chance to speak. Perhaps this is why I believe so fervently in conversation. As you have seen in this report, it can be incorporated into just about anything, be it Talking London, Building Leaders or simply Learning. The question is, why we don’t do it more often.

In the days following this focus group I went to work at the Pond Mills Branch Library as I do most every weekend. When I walked in through the front doors, a large sign pointed inside and said “Budget Open House”. Allow me to start by saying that I have worked at the library for nearly three years and typically know what events we are hosting. I also consider myself relatively well versed in the world of municipal politics. Even I didn’t know that this open house was happening. Over the course of the hour the city councillors were in the seminar room, they received two whole visitors. One of these visitors was a little girl barely able to walk and, while she was adorable, I doubt she gave much input on the budget. This made me reflect on my focus group and how much more beneficial a conversation would have been to getting input on the budget.

Good conversations are a lot of work. For this to happen many things are necessary. First, a time must be set in which a conversation can occur, without rushing it, for about an hour. Second, caffeine must be provided.[11] Now comes the challenge. Where to find a group? This is where the uncomfortable part comes in. Politicians and administrators need to go to the places where community occurs naturally[12], and find a group that is willing to talk about the issue at hand (because they will have an opinion). Doing this requires the facilitator making themselves an outsider; it requires feeling uncomfortable and putting oneself in an alien situation. It will be worth it. The stories you will be told of, and the ideas you will hear are not only important to the decisions you will make, but are part of experiencing and growing in this strange thing we call life. I truly hope you will try this sometime. If not for you constituents sake, for mine. If not for mine, for your own. You’ll thank me later.


[1] Many of the participants looked at London as a short-term necessity, not a long term dream. While many admitted that they would like to stay in London, they didn’t seem confident in its ability to provide for them.

[2] This was a recurrent theme throughout our conversation. Education seemed to control the lives of the participants, not better them. While a necessary evil, it seemed a hindrance more than a benefit.

[3] It was admitted that this was a “phase”, being bored with London, though the lack of change rang through. It is difficult to find how London is adapting to fit the new world, socially, economically or otherwise.

[4] We never as a group quite answered this question. I found that rather concerning

[5] This to me could be similar to the SPARKS Neighbourhood Matching Fund offered through the city. Ideas should be proposed by community leaders for new ideas and initiatives. If money were allocated to help these ideas as they arise, we would be assisting the leader in a way still allowing the independence needed to be effective.

[6] For those of you unfamiliar with this report, in the discussion, the group proposed that maybe poverty was a lack of love and a lack of connections. We discussed what a poverty reductions strategy focused around connections rather than money would look like.

[7] We do not mean to say each student have a separate test, but that “testing” and “examinations” be inclusive of presentations, research and other more experiential forms of learning.

[8] This same student had an interview that day for a co-op placement at an accounting firm. He was successful.

[9] Allow me to say that as much as I have used this word in the report, I can’t stand the word youth. It implies (frequently) inexperience and lack of knowledge, rather than just referring to one’s age.

[10] I am not suggesting that these conversations be frequent, but that they be used in cooperation with consultations and other tools to help make the voice of the individuals better heard.

[11] I suppose this isn’t a necessity but I have found it a good source of motivation.

[12] This does not, in my experience happen in a library seminar room. Local coffee shops, restaurants, parks and the like are excellent locations.