New peer-run PHS group gives students a space to agree to disagree
PITTSFIELD — Is it possible to have a civil discussion with differing views on hot-button topics like racism, abortion and homophobia?
The answer is yes, and a group of students at Pittsfield High School can prove it.
Over the course of this past school year, any interested student had the chance to meet up and talk about these and other issues through a peer-led initiative called Students Who Have A Voice, or SWHAV (pronounced like "suave"). The school administration permitted students to run the group on Thursdays and Fridays during a "personalization period," a 40-minute time slot that allows students to get additional academic support or take part in an elective enrichment activity.
Despite the demands of being a senior, Lorie Alcin, took it upon herself to work with other students to generate a list of topics for each SWHAV meeting, to sign students up to participate and to moderate the discussion to keep it flowing and civil.
Alcin saw taking this on as an opportunity for personal growth for herself.
"I'm mostly usually quiet, so for me, I knew I had to step up, too."
Between 20 and 40 students from all grade levels showed up twice a week to talk among themselves and to speak up — relative to the topic brought up that day — uninterrupted and uncensored by adults.
This reporter sat in on a May 10 meeting, during which four staff members — interim Vice Principal Maggie Harrington-Esko, chemistry teacher Scott Eldridge, and math teachers Crystal Czerno and Brian Rathbun — were invited to talk with the teens on the subject of "the older generation disrespecting the youth" and vice versa, as well as a May 17 meeting on the topic of dress codes and whether what you wear affects how you are perceived and treated.
In both meetings, at times, voices were raised, curses flew, eyes rolled, heads shook and sometimes fists pounded on the table. But each 40-minute session let people have their say, including "I agree," "I disagree" and "tell me why." Participants said that the conversations often continue as students move onto their next class and throughout the day.
During the latter session, the debate got heated about whether low-cut shirts or exposed bra straps on women versus saggy pants exposing underwear or sleeveless gym shirts showing the chests of men were any different. When a male student said that he shouldn't have to see the mounds of a woman's breasts because of her wearing a low cut dress, a female student shot back that she shouldn't have to see his backside because he's wearing saggy pants.
"You can't see my a—," he said.
She said, "Then why do I know what brand of underwear you have? Your band is showing!"
While this discussion continued informally, some students also took it to a more concrete level, proposing to discuss school dress codes during an assembly at the beginning of each school year, so that it's not a yearlong debate between staff and students.
Some students say they like going to SWHAV because they want the chance to exercise the art of argument.
"I love to debate," said rising senior Kymani Harley. "If I have an idea, I love to talk about it and love hearing how others would talk about it. It gets the brain moving. My days are so much better when I come here [to SWHAV]."
Said Katherine Blay-Tandoh, a rising senior who has helped Alcin coordinate the sessions, "Being able to have these kinds of discussions is very important. As we grow older, it's very important for us to voice our opinions but, in schools, we don't always have the space to do so."
The Pittsfield students said they'd advocate for other high schoolers to host their own version of Students Who Have A Voice by getting the school administration on board to allow students a designated space and time for such debates and conversations.
"You see current events on the news, and there's nowhere to go to talk about it if we don't have this," said rising senior Emanuel Brown. "Here, you can break it down, not to mention that this is the most diverse group and setting where you can put your knowledge to use."
"I like that this is an open-minded kind of thing where I can have my views and listen to others," said Shalia Kisic, now a recent graduate.
A few other students say SWHAV gives them the opportunity to hear and speak about different perspectives than the ones they're exposed to at home or would not learn about otherwise.
Said rising senior Hannah Easterwood, "It's cool because I've never even heard a lot of [the other participants'] voices before. I wasn't really taught how to observe and form my own opinions like this."