I was planning to ignore Youth Day until I accepted an invitation to the Youth Radio Awards on Sunday evening, June 16. Instead of a march or yet another speech-making event, I found myself in a hall buzzing with youth exuberance as the work of young reporters was celebrated with a programme filled with music and laughter (the atmosphere reminded me of my classroom where a room full of teenagers can never be completely silent in spite of the decorum that is expected at such events under the watchful gaze of adults).
The event was hosted by the Children’s Radio Foundation (CRF) which is an organisation that gives young people a voice through radio. They have over 50 youth radio stations in five African countries. These radio stations create opportunities “for youth dialogue, leadership, social engagement and action”. I loved watching the teen reporters’ excitement as they are a group of young people who are part of something meaningful. Providing teenagers with something meaningful beyond their time at school is often understated. Schools are expected to fulfil everything in teenagers’ lives but this is counter-intuitive and an unrealistic expectation. Only privileged schools often provide the perks where teenagers are given opportunities beyond the classroom which are relevant to their interests and daily lives. This ameliorates the tension where school and “real life” are divorced from each other rather than an approach to education where school and “real life” are interconnected. These are often referred to as “extra-curricular activities”. The idea is to provide other ways of learning where talents can also flourish (we all know that there’s very little talent that can flourish when work done sitting at a desk for up to 8 hours a day in a teenage body).
During the awards evening a short video clip was shown about a young man in Limpopo who is part of the youth radio station. He is 21 years old and in Grade 11. The brief clip we watched suggested that the work he does for the radio station seems to have given his life new meaning and purpose. Radio is a powerful medium to use to tell ones story and that’s what CRF is doing, helping teenagers tell their stories and be heard.
It’s so easy to think of teenagers as a homogenous group who are only interested in social media, swag and celebrities. When they are given opportunities outside the classroom, teenagers rise to the occasion and even surpass our expectations. Whenever I take my students on a field trip they are transformed. They are often riveted by a performance and they become human beings who ask questions without me egging (or nagging) them to do so. I have had a few magical moments in the classroom but the “outside” learning experiences have often transformed my view of some students. I have seen the same thing happen when we have speakers come to our school and the kids hold onto their every word even when they say the same things teachers say to them every day. When they hear Siv Ngesi, Shaun Johnson or Sibongakonke Mama tell them about the importance of working hard and reading, it seems more exciting than when I say it standing in front of the classroom behaving like a deranged teacher!
The more I “hang out” with teenagers, the more I realise they are a force to be reckoned with. They are complex human beings who are the best and the worst part of my life. As a teacher I get to see them at their best and their worst. It’s a priceless moment witnessing the gradual change that happens when human beings are given the opportunity to grow and learn about something they are interested in or they surprise themselves by doing something they thought they couldn’t do like writing thought-provoking poetry or asking complex questions I can’t answer. Teenagers are also the worst part about my life because they can reduce me to tears at the end of a bad school day.
After surviving yet another term with exams and endless marking, I was happy to witness another form of alternative education happening by being at the Youth Radio Awards. Exams are a perfect example of how ludicrous the system can be and how we easily perpetuate practices with little thought about their relevance in the bigger picture. And what is the bigger picture? Teaching teenagers about living and being alive. Helping them find something they are excited about doing and to keep doing it and sharing that talent with others.