It was midway through a Friday afternoon in February when I received a jubilant text from Jorge. 

He’d been hired by the City of Grand Rapids, Michigan, to coordinate a program creating equitable access to outdoor recreation activities for residents of color. What’s more, he’d also been accepted to the city’s first Equity Champions cohort, formed to embed equity into every department’s budgets, operations, practices, and culture.

I beamed. His confidence and self-efficacy had grown tremendously since his arrival in my Step Year class three years ago.

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Step Year is a college and career exploration program offered by the West Michigan Center for Arts & Technology to support recent high school graduates who aren’t sure what their next educational and professional steps will be. In the program, we have conversations about identity, purpose, passions, and the power of lived experience. Indeed, we couldn’t support students in determining their next steps without having these discussions.

Jorge was in a pilot cohort that happened to be made up of all Black and Latino students. He was a first-generation American wrestling with his identity while exploring his Guatemalan heritage. Seeing racism and inequities the Latino community faced in Grand Rapids, Jorge knew he wanted a career supporting more equitable policies for his family and community. But he had doubts. Could he actually make an impact?

I could see the emotional and mental toll it was taking on Jorge to navigate this journey. It’s an enormous amount of pressure, and Jorge’s story is a common one. Many students are attuned to inequitable societal forces that privilege some and oppress others. Students who are marginalized are not only aware—they have had every aspect of their lives shaped by these forces. It’s a large burden to carry.

We as educators can support students in building agency and purpose by creating opportunities for them to explore and discuss the world, their place within it, and their desires to meaningfully shape their surroundings. Figuring these things out can help mitigate feelings of powerlessness.

However, teachers are not often taught how to lead that exploration. So when I taught with Step Year, I found support from the Purpose Toolkit from Project Wayfinder.

One of my favorite activities from the toolkit prompts students to reflect on how they view aspects of their identity, how those aspects are viewed by society, and how those two could be at odds.

This was especially empowering for Jorge and his classmates, as they often felt labeled and defined by a single story that had been created for them. The lesson equipped them with language to address inequality and the space to interrogate racism, two key aspects of developing what educator and philosopher Paulo Freire calls “critical consciousness”: a three-step process of gaining knowledge about the systems and structures that create and sustain inequity (critical analysis), developing a sense of power or capability (sense of agency), and ultimately committing to take action against oppressive conditions (critical action).

Through the activity, Jorge and his peers challenged false assumptions about Black and Latino students and began to take control of their own narratives. The Purpose Toolkit ends with a Purpose Project, in which students take everything they’ve learned about themselves and the world around them and apply it to critical action on an issue important to them.

For Jorge, that meant joining organizations advocating for the rights of Latino residents. As he became more rooted in his identity and power to effect change, he was more confident in building relationships. In the year following his participation in Step Year and Project Wayfinder, Jorge was also part of a process that gave direct aid to families who were undocumented or mixed-status, and who were unable to access state and federal financial aid during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In my new role at Project Wayfinder as the director of school success + training, I share practices to help educators empower students to explore their identities and their worlds as they build critical consciousness and develop a sense of purpose. To support similar work in your classroom, you may consider incorporating these four ideas into your planning and practices.

1. Co-create classroom culture

When difficult conversations arise, teachers often struggle to find quick ways to address them. You can help avoid this situation by deciding on class practices with built-in protocols in place for addressing these conversations.

Community agreements: Early in the year, take time as a class to identify expectations for communication and behavior that everyone can agree on. Give students the space to discuss why they think these expectations are important to the healthy functioning of the classroom community. As the year progresses, make opportunities to go back to the community agreements to ensure everyone still feels like the class is adhering to those agreements and to check if they need to shift.

When the occasion for a difficult conversation arises, these class agreements will be there to remind students what they expect of themselves and others as you broach potentially sensitive topics.

Reflection protocols: Give students regular opportunities to reflect on their emotions, hopes and fears, habits, and behaviors. Encourage students to share their reflections in pairs or small groups. When students are comfortable analyzing and sharing their feelings, they are more receptive and willing to engage in challenging conversations.

2. Model vulnerability

For students to feel comfortable participating openly, it’s important for them to feel that they can be vulnerable and share when they are struggling. You can model vulnerability in an appropriate way by sharing short, personal stories.

The human brain loves stories. In fact, research has shown that when we hear stories, our brains release the neurochemical oxytocin, which prompts feelings of connection and empathy.

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In your classroom, make a habit of sharing your own personal connection to class conversations. This will help make the learning experience feel meaningful and relevant. What’s more, it models for students how to connect their lessons, discussions, and behavior in the classroom to their experiences. Over time, it can also encourage them to reflect on and openly share their personal values and perspectives.

3. Approach discussions with empathy and curiosity

Sometimes, it is about you: Spend time reflecting on your feelings and longstanding beliefs. Channel your empathy and lean into curiosity. By examining our own feelings and beliefs, we can begin to understand biases that shape our interactions. What part of your content is most meaningful to you? Are your own values being challenged by it? Do you feel discomfort around certain topics? Why or why not?

But ultimately, it’s not about you: Try to share your own experiences when relevant and appropriate, but remember to center student feelings and needs, especially during difficult conversations. Ask questions to dig deeper. Where do they think the feeling or idea they are expressing came from? Can they share an example of when they felt similarly?

Young people are capable of navigating complexity, but they may not always have the language to express their thoughts around it. It may be helpful to have concrete tools and visuals such as feeling wheels or feeling charts on the board to support students in naming their emotions. By asking questions and digging deeper, we can help them name the root of their feelings or behavior. Having the linguistic tools to express their thoughts and feelings accurately can be greatly empowering for students.

It’s also important to consider the best time to have tough conversations around identity, biases, and values. Sometimes it’s appropriate and relevant to incorporate them into class discussions. Other times, it’s better left for one-on-one talks. You know your students best. And for topics you find particularly challenging, work with a school counselor who can co-present or co-facilitate discussions.

4. Add to your toolkit

Project Wayfinder’s SEL curricula equip students with frameworks and tools to build meaningful lives filled with belonging and purpose. The aim is to help students identify and maximize their strengths and potential by providing opportunities for them to explore their lived experiences, identities, skills, and values and apply them to the broader world.

The Purpose Toolkit gave me a framework with prompts, lessons, and research to create opportunities for conversations Jorge and his classmates didn’t even know they were craving. It also included ways to create a safe classroom environment and trusting relationships, both among students and with me, by ensuring that everyone’s voices were heard and their identities fully seen and affirmed.

There are a number of other resources out there that teachers can use to facilitate meaningful conversations that help students develop critical consciousness and a sense of purpose, as well. For example, Project Wayfinder released a Racial Justice Toolkit to help educators engage students in anti-racist discussions and the ongoing fight for racial justice in the U.S. Learning for Justice (formerly known as Teaching for Tolerance) also has a large variety of lessons that you can pull from to do deeper dives into meaningful topics that can help students explore identity, bias, discrimination, and the importance of social action.

The more high-quality curriculum, prompts, activities, and lessons you have in your toolkit, the more prepared you will be to engage students in meaningful work with the potential to support their growth for years to come.

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