PUBLIC EDUCATION FAILED me in a lot of ways. I was involved in gifted programs that put emphasis on pressure, and I dealt with things like depression, anxiety, and suicide attempts. After emerging and going to college, I wanted to support kids in the way that I needed support. I realized that my problem wasn’t just a Tony problem. A lot of young people think that they’re alone. They feel everybody else has it figured out and is doing okay. But the students I was mentoring in college were dealing with the same issues of lack of self-image and confidence. And, for me, the thing that brought me out of it was stories.
We created a world where everyone can find themselves. Everyone can see someone that’s like them. Everybody can feel like their story and their perspective matters.”
It took me until I was in my early twenties to say, you’re not doing what everybody else is doing. Your brain doesn’t work the way everybody else’s works, but that’s okay because it only needs to work for you. And if you embrace it and focus on the things that bring you joy, rather than trying to shove yourself in a box, a significant amount of happiness will come from that.
Young people are learning all the time—whether they’re in school or on Instagram or on TikTok—and it’s our job as educators to understand how to engage with them. At Weird Enough, we focus on telling stories that young people actually want to read. I write a series called The Uncommons—they’re a very diverse group. We created a world where everyone can find themselves. Everyone can see someone that’s like them. Everybody can feel like their story and their perspective matters. The experiences the Uncommons have reflect those that young people are having right now.
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When it comes to education, it’s not even a kid problem. It’s an adult problem. They say there’s so much learning loss, and the kids are behind. They won’t be ready for college. I say, no, colleges aren’t ready for the kids that they claim to want to serve. Considering how expensive they are, you would think that colleges would have the budget to adjust and prepare. If you know that the incoming class of students you’re serving have had their learning disrupted by a global pandemic, that means that you as an institution make the adjustment. It doesn’t mean that you create this weird deficit around students.
I think the reason education gatekeepers are hyping up so much about learning loss is because they understand that the way that our system works is fundamentally about to change, and that scares them. Good! Go back to the drawing board.
I find hope in young people, because regardless of what they’re told about what they’ve lost, their dreams are just as big, and their tenacity is not dulled in any way. We as education leaders don’t know how to categorize the level of brilliance they have because it’s a different knowledge base than the one that we’re traditionally able to put on a report card. But from what I’ve seen, I don’t think they’re behind. I think they’re so far ahead that we don’t even know how to measure it yet.