“Our New Normal” special takes a look at the changing school landscape for millions of students

By Owen Shao

PBS Newshour Student Reporting Labs (SRL) hosted Our New Normal: How Teens Are Redefining School Life. The hour-long special detailed the thoughts, feelings and experiences of teens attempting to reclaim a sense of normalcy within their education.

Hosted by PBS NewsHour’s Amna Nawaz and student co-hosts Kate Nakamura and Terry Jones, Our New Normal showcases student submissions from around the country that cover a variety of topics. Individual segments explored issues relating to mental health, vaccines, race, social media, trans rights, and more.

In the segment entitled, “Letters to my middle school self,” students and influencers were asked to write a personal letter containing advice to a younger version of themselves. “It’s way more impressive to try and fail with a smile on your face, than not try at all,” said actor Rudy Pankow.

College student Meera Varma shared, “You are deserving of having people in your life that treat you with kindness, respect and make you feel loved.”

As attention toward school boards began to heat up in fall of 2021, student journalists from Leander, Texas attended their local school board meetings to cover hot-button  issues. “I think it’s important to have a say in your community, especially if it affects you directly,” said Mak Lambert, student journalist who produced the segment. Along with Jeremiah Sudarmanto at Rouse High School, Mak interviewed parents to understand the motivations behind why they attended. 

In Gypsum, Colorado, student reporters Sam Elliot and Langston James explored how skateboarding can be a powerful learning tool. They spoke to students at Red Canyon and Eagle Valley High School about how a teacher incorporated skateboarding in her classroom as a means to foster community and problem solving skills.

Mental health continues to be top of mind for young people. In a follow up interview—almost a year after her interview for SRL’s previous special, Disrupted—high school counselor Edith Porter at Caesar Rodney High School in Camden, Delaware speaks to student reporter Teri Bell about her predictions for students’ mental health in 2022 and what schools can do to help. 

In a related segment on the effect on teens’ mental health, Rebecca Lewis and Lola Nordlinger of Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Maryland recorded letters to their middle school selves. They detailed the effect social media in particular had on their mental health and concluded by offering some solutions. Their letters sprung up from a documentary they produced on the effects of social media applications like Instagram on young girls’ mental well being.

Book bans have increasingly been in the public eye. In one town, students pushed back. After a school board in York, Pennsylvania voted to ban hundreds of books and other educational resources by and about people of color, students organized and protested—successfully pushing the school board to reverse its decision.

In one final segment, SRL hosted a panel featuring transgender and gender non-conforming teens, who have become the center of debate especially around sports participation in school settings. They weighed in on the passage of a new law in Texas, providing insight from their lived experiences of being trans in school. 

To watch the entire show, click here

Excerpts from viewers who engaged in the live chat on YouTube:

“I love this forum. So much respect for these teens and the project. I love the notes to [my] middle school self. I have a middle schooler in my home. What is your best advice to parental figures to help draw them out and identify where they may be struggling?”

Tracey Mostyn, viewer on Facebook

“What a powerful and insightful experience. These young citizens are passionate, thoughtful, articulate, and ready to be heard. Thank you @ReportingLabs for sharing these stories and amplifying the voices of our young people — the purpose of our work in education”

Christian Wrabley, 6th Grade Educator in Pennsylvania

“Amidst these challenging times when so many students are disengaged from learning, what all the students shared were spot on. I see this show as being our beacon of hope that together, we’ll make it through, grow, learn from what we’re experiencing and change what we need to for the best interest in supporting students.”

– Leah Aiwohi, Educator, Kauai High School