BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER JAKE MILLER
The year “1920 was an auspicious year for a young person to enter the world as an American citizen.”
Journalist Tom Brokaw used these words to introduce us to “The Greatest Generation,” those Americans born between 1901-1927. In his epic book of the same title, he shares how they grew up watching the world become more authoritarian abroad, eventually leading to the outbreak of The Great War (now World War I). The war was followed by the 1918 Influenza pandemic (also known as the Spanish Flu), where 50 million people died across the globe (including 675,000 Americans) -- more than double (and quintuple) the number of war deaths.
Once the virus was under control, there was a decade of a new normal and explosive growth until the stock and job markets collapsed, thus beginning the long, painful journey of The Great Depression. There this generation remained stymied for another decade until war broke out. When their country called them to service, whether it was fighting on front lines or stepping up personal sacrifice and increased production at home, this generation quite possibly saved the world.
What if the group of students before us, in 2021, is the next Greatest Generation?
The historical outline above hardly is a recipe for replication, but there are more than enough rhymes to allow us to consider it.
To start, 2020 is an equally auspicious year for a young person to enter the world as an American citizen.
As a social studies teacher, former staff member at the Pennsylvania State Capitol, candidate for office, organizer for Pennsylvania State Education Association, and promoter of youth voices in government, I’ve said this more about politics and government in the last calendar year than ever:
“Well, I never saw that happen before.”
Whether it’s the Black Lives Matter or Q-Anon, “Stop the Steal” or a second Presidential Impeachment, or any other events that have tested the elasticity our democratic-republic like a trampoline, students are becoming Constitutional scholars if only because the events of the world have made it a priority to understanding - and fixing - them.
Additionally, while adults like to debate and surmise the difficulty of making sacrifices of wearing a mask to get this pandemic under control, this generation expresses the resilience needed to outlast and outmaneuver a pestilence. While others gawk at the slow crawl of immunization rollout - especially here in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania - children don’t even have a vaccine trial to look forward to. And yet they continue on.
Graduating seniors enter quite an uncertain world already. However, 2020-21 has proven to be the most auspicious; that’s led to necessity being the mother of invention and brother of intention. Schools and their teachers - whether at the college level, community college, certification programs, or high school - have had to pivot more than those on the ice of a Flyers-Pens’ game. And, though far from perfect, teachers have mostly met the students where they are.
To say high school students and teachers are struggling to perfectly meet one another’s needs is an understatement. But what if the important lesson students taught us isn’t perfection - or isn’t in a textbook?
What if it was the auspices of tenaciousness?
At the middle school level, where I teach, coming of age with all the hormones and anxiety of the age is already quite a task. Even the most confident and successful adult can recollect some dour feelings of pubescence. While students have stumbled and failed more than ever, what if the lesson these kids teach us is resilience -- and personal ownership of their learning?
Less than 20% of schools are back to full-time instruction, and that impact has been hardest on elementary students, where attention spans are low and even lower behind a screen. Ask any parent of a Kindergartener, and you’ll know exactly what I mean -- or of any third-grade teacher who needs to see another kid bring another pet to the screen.
And while pundits (wrongly) mention how schools are “closed” (they’re not) and how 2020-21 will be “a lost year,” I have a bigger question:
What if this the year that redefines the American future, and these kids lead us there?
COMPARISONS WITH THE GREATEST GENERATION
I’m sure the adults who were raising the Greatest Generation had more than their fair share of doubts about the kids before them. The decrease in life expectancy was unparalleled. The number of America’s sons and daughters lost to war and then disease was comparable to the suffering in the Civil War. Jim Crow was at a crescendo, and anti-black racism led to an egregious amount of mistreatment and even lynching. The difficulty in determining who or what was “an American” extended to other groups, as Irish and Indigenous found difficulty. A decade of growth in the Roaring 20s was a dream that would pop and crush this generation just as much.
But when the time came to show their resilience, they heeded the call and met the challenges as best they could.
My hope is that this group sitting in our classrooms seats, the Zoomers, will be our next Greatest Generation.
A CALL TO ACTION
But our hope is not enough. The time for action to bridge these gaps is now. The way to make sure that this generation of students before us is the Greatest Generation and not the Grounded one. That’s why the Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee has stepped up to share:
Which brings us back around to 2020, our most auspicious year for a young person to enter the world as an American citizen. In this year, it is the teachers who will bridge that gap and give students every chance to transform into the Greatest Generation. Maybe it will be the year this generation proves themselves beyond our every doubt.
When we work so they may rise, we’ll once again say, in the most positive proclamation, “Well I never saw that happen before.”
Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee