Stephanie Fiorelli, Urban Assembly Deputy Director of Alumni Success

Say what you will about silly TikToks and trivial selfies but you’ve got to give it to them: Gen Z seeks out joy. It’s time we learn from them.

I’ll be the first to say that our public schools in NYC are in bad shape. That their admissions criteria promote inequity. That they are racist. But lately, a realization has been steadily rising through my rage: people are trying to do good. I don’t know Bill De Blasio. I don’t know Richard Carranza. I don’t know Eva Moskowitz or Michael Mulgrew. But I don’t think they’re trying to make schools worse. That’s been the outcome, unfortunately, and yes, they must be held accountable because Black and Brown lives are at stake. But what if we took a cue from the young people at the center of this fight and viewed the world through a new pair of glasses?

Take a seat. Let the phoropter steady into place. Watch as the refracted glass flips and shifts before your eyes. Flip shift. Flip shift. Agree to settle on a different lens. Our kids know we’re fighting. Any local newsfeed tells them that. Any Instagram sound bite does, too. They know we’re fighting each other to save NYC schools. But I’m not sure it’s apparent that we’re fighting for them. We seem too invested in the fight, itself. Too excited by the thrill of it. For them, we need to start seeing things differently. We need to try as hard as they, to seek out the joy.

I’ve been reading a lot of Diane Ravitch’s work lately. It’s interesting to watch her views grow over time. One point she’s made recently is that we’ve been led to believe that the American public school system is failing. She asks one simple question: what if it’s not? What if “the overreliance on and misuse of testing and data have created a sense of crisis, lending credibility to claims that American public education is failing and in decline”? She goes on to point out that the media exposes us to this story, blinding in its clarity. That question — what if it’s not? — motivates me to choose a different lens. I’m not saying she’s right. I’m just saying: if her question helps me lean into joy, then I’m going to stay with it for a little while.

I run a texting campaign at the Urban Assembly for 3,000 alumni. We keep Gen Z talking to us so they’re reminded of their greatness, encouraged by our advocacy, and engaged in heartening conversations. The system is designed for your failure, we admit to them, but rest assured, you got this and we are fighting with you.

This kind of engagement can work for adults. I’m not suggesting we send policy makers motivational texts. I wish it were that easy. What I’m saying, is that we should text our hundreds of thousands of middle and high schoolers. See what they think about their classrooms. Their buildings. Their playgrounds. Ask for their insight into their peers. Their teachers. Their principals. And here’s the most important one: ask them for help. Because they are the experts. They are the ones hustling through hot trains, policed hallways, crowded classrooms to make sense of the curriculum over which we fight. How dare we not ask them for help as we rebuild their so-called public school system. And once they start talking — and trust me, they will — their voices can populate digital pages like these and their eyes can occupy Instas like yours to remind, to nudge this jaded, troubled leadership of ours into remembering what it means to be great. To find their way to an education of joy.

We need to choose a lens that builds our kids into its frame. And like my Gen Z daughter who as I write this dances alone in her room for a TikTok audience she only barely fathoms, we too must make our way to the joy that, unobtrusively but unmistakably, awaits for us on the other side.

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