I’m always fascinated by what gets kids excited about school.
Take a 12th grade student in my school, Rebecca.* Rebecca is known for a sweet smile and enthusiastic participation. However, at some point this year, everything got cloudy for her: nothing in school was fun or exciting. A few teachers told me that she might have had a falling out with some friends, hence the blue outlook, but Rebecca wouldn’t tell us what was bothering her.
A few weeks later, I got an email from Rebecca and some of her classmates: “Greetings, Ms. Nariman. We are writing this email regarding some suggestions that we seniors have come up with concerning our school’s lack of a mascot.”
A mascot? I had no idea a mascot was something our students wanted, or even cared about.
I founded our school in 2011, part of an initiative of New York City to form smaller public high schools with a special focus. Our school was created for newcomer immigrant English Language learners, for students like Rebecca who arrived from Dominican Republic in her early teens. Amidst the many decisions we made about the school– curriculum, staffing, grading system, discipline system, and even school colors and a logo– we never really thought about a mascot.
And now I was discovering that it meant something to our students. The email continued: “While many may say that this is an irrelevant topic, we feel as though it would be empowering to have a school mascot that represents our school as a whole. We want this to be part of our legacy so that other generations of school graduates can also feel honor gazing upon our mascot that not only represents us as a whole but also them as an individual.”
I responded enthusiastically, telling the students that I wholeheartedly supported their initiative, and would love to partner with them on the project. (I also complemented their professional email– one of our teaching initiatives this year.) Their English teacher later told me that he had been talking to his students about the idea of a legacy, and when he heard their idea for a mascot, he encouraged them to write an email to me.
I saw Rebecca and her friends in the cafeteria later that week. They were working on illustrations of various mascots: an eagle, a lion, a panther. They excitedly told me what each animal symbolized, and said they wanted students to vote on their favorite one.
There was an enthusiasm and lightness in Rebecca and her friends that I was seeing for the first time this year. I would never have guessed that she would regain her passion for school by advocating for a mascot– I would have assumed it was too “uncool.”
What really made a difference was Rebecca’s teachers. They found projects to give her and her friends ownership of the school, helping then to find things to care about. And for Rebecca, the ownership made all the difference.
*The names and identifying features of students have been changed.
Photo credit: Julie Nariman