by Sreenidhi Viswanathan
“Connection is the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment.” -Brene Brown
We all know connection is important. In what ways does connection matter to our students? I had a unique opportunity to learn more about the importance of connection this past summer.
I worked as an intern coordinator for a program which was a collaboration between NorthStar Education Partners, a consultant firm, and Purpose Built Schools Atlanta, a local charter. Over a six-week internship, six students from a high school in Atlanta, Georgia, worked together on a school design team project. The project was modified from the Transcend Fundamentals of School Design BluePrint to fit the limited time frame and the student perspective.
I began this internship by conducting interviews with several students, to get to know them, their passions, aspirations, and gather the skills they want to improve on. After conducting the interviews, a common theme emerged. Many of the students had a desire to be better communicators and, particularly, better at making connections. They wanted to be heard or understood by those around them.
CONNECTING WITH RELATED CONCEPTS
The students’ responses could be brushed aside as the quintessential teenage angst of “no one understands me”, but this theme of a longing for connection and communication came up time and time again as we embarked on our School Design team project.
In our first team project meeting, we discussed what the students found to be the strengths and challenges in their school community in order to land on a case for change. A challenge students came up with was feeling as though they didn’t have people, particularly adults, to go to. The interns decided in order to create an environment where students are thriving, students needed to feel safe and have someone they could trust, someone they feel they can talk to.
Communities are considered safe when there is a strong foundation of trust and a web of connections all based in that trust. As educators, Are we allowing space for students and faculty to be building authentic relationships where students feel safe?
The need for connection came up again when the interns discussed mental health. When discussing what they hope students who graduate from their school leave knowing, interns identified the skill “Mental Stability”. They defined it as “having the mental capacity to persevere through the mentally challenging parts of life… [and students] are educated on mental health and aware of resources.”
They wanted to gain a better understanding of those dealing with mental illnesses to be able to put words to what they themselves may be going through but also to recognize peers who may be facing mental health issues. These students identified what seemed to be a barrier for them in connecting with others. They see a problem they care about, but they don’t see a path to meet the problem and do something about it. The knowledge of mental health and its resources was another way for students to address negative emotions and address them in a productive way.
One of the solutions the students offered was a class on mental health along with holding weekly meetings with peers where they can openly discuss issues they may be facing regarding mental health. Students want to be able to better communicate their own challenges with mental health as well as connect with their peers on this issue to create spaces for understanding to happen.
When students are given the space to share their ideas and to be heard, they have a lot to say. They’re just waiting for people to listen.
How are you incorporating student voices in your work? How are you creating space for students to feel heard?