Jean Carlos is playing in Denver’s City Park with his little black dog the size of a tea cup, I swear. He’s wayyyy more interested in his dog than an interview about the beginning of his academic career so today, he’s a man of few words and prefers to interview in his native Spanish language. First, how old is the first grader?
Five. What does he do in school?
“Escribir y leer.”
Write and read. What does he like best about school?
“Jugar con mis amigos… Jesús y Aarón.”
Playing with his friends – Jesús and Aarón. What’s missing from school?
Taking care of dogs — I think we can all agree on that. Like Jean Carlos, students across Colorado are all back in school this week, with Denver Public Schools being the last major district to open its doors.
Many students seem happy to be back, especially after two and a half years of disruptions. Others not so much. Students across the state are eager to share what they like to learn about and what could be better about K-12 schools.
While Jean Carlos is just starting his scholastic journey, Amaryana is launching her senior year. The 17-year-old is excited about the classes at her Denver school, DSST Montview, and excited for her last year of playing volleyball. When asked if she has played all four years of high school, she answers with a polite, “Yes, ma’am.”
Amaryana said she likes the team bonding on the volleyball squad – it’s like a family. On the team she’s learned the nuances of good communication and knows that will help her in life. She’s also looking forward to her advanced placement classes this year. She doesn’t really like reading but said the heavy reading and writing load gets her ready for college.
“I’m being prepared for that,” she said.
What she and her friends don’t like about school is the dress code. She said it's too strict, particularly for females. Jeans can’t have rips. Shorts and tops can’t be too short.
“What they don’t get is that a lot of us are trying to embrace ourselves,” she said. “If we’re told to cover up, we’re not really confident in ourselves anymore. Being able to wear what you want to wear helps us have that self-confidence in our bodies and our image.”
One change students pressed for and Amaryana got to take advantage of is a personal finance class. She said she’s grateful. She learned about things like taxes, loans, credit scores and savings.
“I know when I first started working and I saw that they’re taxing me I was like, ‘Why am I getting taxed for all these things?’ And so being able to have that class, they explained why and how they’re using (taxation). It really explained how money works in real life.”
As a senior, Amaryana is thinking about what’s next in real life. She’s thought about being a police officer, or perhaps a real estate agent.
“Jobs where I can get enough money to be stable in my life,” she said. “I’m still thinking about it.”
Mason, 12, and his friend Anthem, 11, roam around gigantic slabs of marble at a tiny music festival in Marble during one of the last gasps of summer in Western Slope’s Gunnison County.
“I feel like summer wasn’t long enough,” said Mason, taking a break in a patch of grass. “It also feels like it’s been forever since I’ve been back in school.”
It’s that double-edged sword kind of thing. Mason is looking forward to seeing his friends again and "getting back to how it usually is." But he confesses:
“I don’t really like school.”
He said a lot of kids would rather be doing other things. School feels too fill-in-the-box for him and kids don’t like being told what to do.
His friend Anthem wants to be a car designer so he knows school is important. If he gets behind in math and science, he said his grandmother is on standby to keep him on top of things.
“I definitely like learning, but if it’s with the wrong teacher, I hate it,” he said. “For me it’s just like their teaching strategy, whether it’s fun or strict.” Anthem prefers fun. He also dislikes that some teachers didn’t intervene last year when he was being bullied, he said.
“Last year I left this school because of how I was being treated by kids,” he said.
Mason switched to an online school but that didn’t work out so he’s going back to the first school.
“I’m a little bit nervous,” he paused, as the music stopped playing, “.…. I don’t know, I’m just hoping it will be a better year than last year.”
15-year-old Tanner initially had a hard time with other kids in school, too. But then he switched to a little school in Marble and now goes to an alternative high school that he loves — Yampa Mountain High School in Glenwood Springs.
“It gives me a lot of freedom to pick and choose what I want to learn,” he said.
He’s jazzed to be back. He reads a lot on his own, does well in all subjects, but is excited to learn more about the humanities — history, art, sociology.
“There’s no right or wrong answers – or less so than there is in math and stuff - there’s more freedom to come to my own conclusions and come up with my own ideas.”
Tanner is particularly interested in theology. He grew up Presbyterian but, “I’d say I have a more nuanced view of religion as a whole … I’m definitely not an atheist, but I definitely have a more pantheistic view.”
A sophomore talking about pantheism on a hot summer day in the middle of Marble. Kids are amazing! He likes studying the commonalities in the world’s faith traditions.
“They all have some of the same driving goals, there’s fear of death, want of community, explaining moral codes, explaining natural phenomenon – they all go back to the same things.”
At his current pace, Tanner could theoretically graduate in his junior year. But he'd like to stay in high school so he can take college courses for free – even graduate high school with an associate’s degree in tow. Tanner loves school and is quick to tell you why some kids don’t like school – it’s the reason he didn’t like his old school.
“A lot of regimentation, forcing kids to learn things, saying ‘memorize this,’ not telling them why they need to learn it and not telling them the context in what they’re learning it…. just saying’ memorize it and spit it out on a piece of paper.’ I think that’s what turns a lot of kids off.”
The more you talk to kids – the more you understand when you can tap into their creativity, imagination and interests, the more they love learning. Interviewing kids, I learn a lot about their persistence too. Exiting a Target store one summer weekend, I bump into Esmeralda, 10, in a pink flowing dress. She’s entering fourth grade in a school in Aurora. Her favorite subjects are art and P.E.
“I like art. I know how to paint, like galaxies and animals are things that I paint.”
What she wants to get better at this year is math. Esmeralda has a complex relationship with math.
“Because I like math but I’m, like, not good. But I know math.”
Her mom interjects and tells me Esmeralda was born prematurely at seven months. Learning has been a real struggle. But she’s doing so much better now. Esmeralda said ‘string stories’ are the hardest part of school, where students build complex stories. Esmeralda has big dreams. She wants to be a doctor, “because I like to help people.”
If there’s one thing she could change about school it’s the start time. She wants it to be 9 a.m. instead of 7:50 a.m.
“Because I’m like a zombie when I wake up….…because, like, I’m sleeping still…(I want to be) like a lot wake up, not just half of wake up,” she laughed.
Two sisters in Grand Junction – Olivia, 7, and her sister Juniper, 10 - don’t have to worry about getting up late. Their elementary school is right across the street from their home. Commute time?
“Usually like one minute!” exclaimed Juniper.
Olive is excited to learn how to write better this year, especially perfecting her handwriting.
“My teacher’s really, really nice and I like her and we got a student teacher which is really nice too,” she said. “I just love school.”
Her older sister’s goal this year is to learn and memorize prime numbers. Juniper also hopes to get a lot of reading in, like from the Harry Potter series– her favorites so far are the second one or the fifth one.
Alongside participating in the great American ideals of public education — creating a literate and productive citizenry — the two sisters are getting to experience what public education perhaps does best: the chance to learn from and appreciate students who are different from themselves.
“I like all the people in my class,” said Juniper. “I have somebody in my class and he has autism and he’s really fun to play and talk to…autism is where you see the world differently. He’s good at math and reading….he’s really good at reading and I like having him in my class.”
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