A School-Starting Conversation

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Original photograph by Richard D. Cole

Fifteen years ago,  I was asked to sit on a panel at a conference for the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership Program (HOBY). HOBY is an international organization dedicated to training and nurturing the young leaders of tomorrow.

Over 70 high schools were represented by their top students. The panel consisted of business leaders and me. I was chosen for my background in business and that I was an educator.

Driving to the conference, I was concerned that the students would have absolutely no use in hearing me talk about my progressive vision for education. Why would they? These were the kids who would be moving on to Ivy League schools and whose pathway toward success were all but assured. Surely, traditional education had served them well. The seven other panelists spoke about leadership and the opportunities that awaited the students out in the business world once they had completed the prestigious track they were headed down.

Finally, it was my turn. I stood at the podium. I told them that traditional school had failed me and many others like me.

The conference room was dead silent. I could see the conference organizers fidgeting uncomfortably wondering which one of them had asked me to be on this panel.

I went on to say that schools should be a place where each student is honored for their unique qualities. That students’ passions and interests should be the jumping off point for in-depth inquiry, and that their questions should drive their curriculum instead of a prescribed package of knowledge that adults think kids should know. That meaningful learning most often comes from outside the classroom in the real world through internships and relationships in our communities.

I scanned the crowd, wondering if I had already lost them. They seemed attentive, listening. But these were the “good kids”, maybe they were just being polite.

I told them that I thought it was downright disrespectful for adults not to listen deeply to what students think is important. That students needed to be engaged as co-architects of their learning and that teachers needed to be more like facilitators of students’ learning and not the deliverer of almighty knowledge. That schools needed to engage these “business leaders” and invite them to their classrooms to tell their “stories” and that these “business leaders” in turn should invite interested students into their businesses so they can explore and experience first hand how things work in the real world. I questioned if studying hard for a test and getting an “A” meant that meaningful, real learning had taken place. I suggested that getting up in front of an audience of peers, business leaders, teachers and parents and presenting weeks of learning through a multimedia presentation and fielding questions afterward seemed to me a much more authentic way of showing what they had learned. And that an evaluation that spoke to their strengths and challenges in a narrative format would be infinitely more insightful and helpful to them in their continued growth then a simple letter grade.

When my 15 minutes of ranting had mercifully come to an end, I began to pack up my things. The next thing on the agenda was for students to sign up to sit in on a more intimate conversation with one of the panelists in various “break-out” rooms. Expecting that no one would show up at my designated room to continue this conversation, I figured I could slip out and into my car and head home. I grabbed some coffee “to go” and headed first to the room to see if any one had showed up.

The room was packed with no where to sit — standing room only.

I had assumed that what I had to offer was more for the marginalized students. Boy, was I dead wrong. The next 45 minutes was one of the most engaging conversations I ever had about education. The students taught me so much, and I left feeling energized to forge on with my dream of starting a school. Since then, virtually all of the students I’ve worked with have affirmed this style of education.

LiHigh School is the culmination of conversations with students, parents, educators and community leaders. And while it is a work in progress, I hope it always will be.

2 Comments

  1. Coming from a special ed. background it is clear to me that reaching to students through their interests is a must- have. In over 20 years of teaching, I found that intrinsic motivation is a force that can not be taught or replaced. I have met with students who were brilliant but unless they were motivated and inspired to learn their learning products were nothing but mediocre. I also met those students who society may consider disadvantaged cognitively or emotionally who ended up inspiring ME as an educator because their drive to learn was incredible. That is not not say that teaching basic skills is not a necessity but it seems to me that what’s common today is a focus on the basic skills and superficial assessment of products while neglecting feeding the fire to engage in learning and dig deeper. This fire has to be individualized as we are all unique and diverse. Isn’t it the beauty of the human race anyways?

  2. I’m always happy when a student asks, “Why do we need to know this?” I’m always unhappy if I don’t have a good answer. Progressive schools, and LiHigh in particular, give students the right answers to this question. Real world experiences, internships, and collaboratively-derived curriculum help students learn to be critical thinkers, professionals, and thoughtful and compassionate people. Our country could be pretty amazing if these were the three ideas everyone mastered in high school.

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