Take Part Op-Ed: If You Ignite a Kid’s Passion, a Zip Code Is No Longer Destiny
I met Sandra as a first-year teacher to 165 10th grade students at Locke High School in South Central, Los Angeles. Sandra grew up in a home plagued by domestic violence; she witnessed her alcoholic father nearly kill her mother. Sandra regularly showed up to my English class with just a few hours of sleep. At lunch time, she would go to the main office and sleep until the bell rang to go to her next class.
Watts, the community where Sandra lived, was infested with gang members, drug addicts, and prostitution. She witnessed policemen raid her home several times. She watched most of her male friends who were not a part of gangs lose their lives. Gun violence and drugs were daily activities in her community, which affected Sandra’s high school experience and her learning.
There were plenty of reasons for Sandra to lose focus in my English class. The relevance of her daily life’s struggles often clashed with my whole-hearted efforts to inject passion into topics like comma splices and essay structure. After one particular research paper assignment, an abysmal 5% of students turned the paper in—and not even on time. I took a step back to re-evaluate my efforts and my purpose in these kids’ lives. What was the point of teaching the California State Standards if kids couldn’t connect to the greater picture of why this mattered for them?
I changed the research paper assignment: “Tell me about your passion, find a program outside of school that supports your passion, and present a position about why you should attend that program.” Over 80% of students turned the paper in—and on time. Eleven papers began with the sentence “No one has ever asked me what my passion is.”
Sandra’s paper was especially poignant- she had researched UCLA’s Mock Trial Institute and wanted to explore law in the hopes of one day supporting women against domestic violence. I was so encouraged by students’ passions that I ran a marathon to raise $12,000 to send 7 students on their experiences. Sandra attended UCLA’s Mock Trial Institute. Despite being the only African American participant in attendance, she became the lead defense attorney in the trial—and won!
Sandra returned to Locke in her junior year, brought her grades up, graduated and was accepted to Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, North Carolina. As a current junior at Bennett College, Sandra is an honors student, a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow, and a Ronald E. McNair Scholar. She will be applying to law school next year and hopes to attend Columbia University.
The most powerful message of Sandra’s story is the sheer force of passion—what happens to students when they become a part of something greater than themselves and how this passion affects the way they see themselves in the world.
As a result of students like Sandra, I started a foundation called Wishbone.org that ignites passions by sending low-income high school students on path-changing after school and summer program experiences. Wishbone’s core service is delivered through our online platform, connecting students to a database of qualified out-of-school program opportunities. Wishbone guides students through a digestible application process, ensuring affordability through crowd-sourced funding and aggregated scholarships from program providers and foundations.
I have found in my work with Wishbone that when students come alive and truly find their spark, curiosity follows. This curiosity for both learning and life leads to long-term success. Students re-define who they are and who they could become on the field, on the court, in the mock trial, in the classroom, but most importantly, in life.
Educators and parents alike are starting to turn the conversation to character, and we are learning that the true agents of life-long success—persistence, self-confidence, and grit—are best learned through out-of-school, real-life experiences. While Sandra exemplifies the power of such an experience, the real question will be how we as a nation begin to level the playing field, providing these types of important game-changing opportunities to students who cannot afford them.
Resarch by Greg J. Duncan at the University of California, Irvine, and Richard J. Murnane of Harvard shows that affluent families spend seven times as much as low-income families on path-changing opportunities like music schools and sports activities for their kids.* The achievement gap has grown in parallel to a true opportunity gap, and it will keep growing unless we prioritize access to real-life experiences for low-income students.
Sandra’s story is a universal story, relevant to anyone who has ever had a dream. The opportunity to become something greater— something bigger than oneself—is powerful enough for any kid to overcome great circumstances and find true success, no matter where she’s from.
* “Two Classes in America, Divided by “I Do”, by: Jason DeParle, NY TIMES http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/15/us/two-classes-in-america-divided-by-i-do.html?smid=tw-share
A Test in Engagement and Compassion
I recently wrote an article for the December 2, 2012 issue of Philanthropy NYU. Check it out here or read below. Enjoy!
I taught English to 10th graders at Locke High School in South Central, Los Angeles through Teach for America. While my students stepped inside of my classroom each day with soaring amounts of pride, rarely did this pride apply to school achievement. Yet, no one asked them of what they were proud. No one asked them what they would pursue if they could. I quickly realized that low-income students lack the opportunities to explore these prideful passions outside of the classroom, which leaves them disengaged throughout the school day and discouraged when trying to meet their true life goals.
What is your spark?
Wishbone looks to the late Dr. Peter Benson very often for motivation- largely, because he was one of the greatest pioneers, inspiring America to focus on kids’ sparks to bring joy in their lives and relevance to their school days.
Today, I was revisiting this incredible speech Dr. Benson gave in 2011. This is 20 minutes you won’t want to miss.
Here are a few of our favorite highlights:
- “When you actually listen to people’s statements about their dreams for our kids, you hear a very different language. Kids who experience joy. Kids who are connected and engaged. Kids who fall in love with their life and all of life. Kids with kindness and generosity. Kids who are happy. Kids who contribute. That my friends is the language of human thriving. And it’s the language of quality, isn’t it? Not the language of quantity.”
- “Here’s something we know now based on a series of scientific studies: That only ¼ of the 80 million, ¼ of kids when they become high school students, are on a pathway to human thriving. The other ¾ have fallen off that path. It’s no longer about purpose and hope and connectedness and engagement and joy, but it’s about being alone, it’s about being empty, it’s about being medicated, it’s about being confused and it’s about being lost. Only ¼ of America’s teenagers stay on a pathway to human thriving.”
- “The core idea in human thriving is the identification of that fire— that inner light—that human spark.”
- “100% of high school kids know what spark looks like and feels like.”
- “Nobody has ever asked me this before. You want to know what my spark is?”
- “2/3 of America’s young people can quickly name one spark. Another 20% can identify their spark with a little nudge.”
- “The winner in all these categories is the creative life—art, music, drama, dance, movement- is the largest category in which sparks fall for America’s kids. That’s the arena in which most kids say, “I’m my best self.” That’s the arena in which most kids will say, “This is where life is the fullest and the most hopeful.” How are we doing in America in supporting art, music, drama, dance, movement? It’s not that we want all those kids to necessarily become professionals in that field. It’s about right now. Human development is about today. It’s about how I awaken. How I am seen. How I am known and how I am embraced.”
- “I would make knowing kids’ sparks at the very center of school life. In fact, I’d put it right at the front. I don’t know how you can engage and connect and bond kids to the institution called school without knowing their spark.”
Coming soon: ‘How Children Succeed,’ by Paul Tough
As students and teachers are thinking about heading back to school, I am anticipating the September release of Paul Tough’s new book, “How Children Succeed.” Reviewed here in the New York Times, Annie Paul notes that Tough’s book focuses on “the character hypothesis”, which is “the notion that noncognitive skills, like persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence, are more crucial than sheer brainpower to achieving success.”
Wishbone is built on this same principle—the non-tangible qualities like confidence, persistence and grit occur only through experiences. These experiences truly build character. Character is what leads to success.
As we often only focus on what comes from a student’s time between 8am and 3pm, it’s time to start thinking about what kind of qualities a student is honing outside of the school day. Reviewer Annie Paul sums up Tough’s thesis by stating that children’s “character is created by encountering and overcoming failure.” While failure most certainly can be felt and overcome in the classroom environment, we cannot ignore what types of character-building experiences students should be encountering outside of the school day to develop their sense of self and ability to overcome challenge.
Annie Paul sums it up perfectly: “Fewer and fewer young people are getting the character-building combination of support and autonomy that Tough was fortunate enough to receive. This is a worrying predicament — for who will have the conscientiousness, the persistence and the grit to change it?”
We are sure going to try.
Pass the Chalk, re-blog
This one is worth a re-blog:
Magnolia’s Mini Documentary
We have a beautiful mini documentary coming from the amazing team at the Good Line.
Here is just a taste of some of the photos they captured during this shoot.
We are really honored to be working with them on such a special project, following the life of a remarkable Wishbone student, Magnolia, from Richmond, California.
Stay tuned for this piece. It is going to be a good one.
The Opportunity Gap Unveiled
Today I was over the moon to see the issue of “the Opportunity Gap” take center stage in the very articulate New York Times Op-Ed piece by David Brooks. For so long, we have focused on the “achievement gap,” yet we all know inherently that in order to learn anything, we have to hone curiosity. Real life experiences breed curiosity. With curiosity comes learning potential. Period.
The kid who has the experience of joining a soccer team out of school grows so much pride and dedication towards the sport that he becomes the captain. With this captainship, he then starts to define himself as a leader and discovers who he is and who he is not in the world. This discovery of himself as a leader translates to his classes in high school, where he decides that “who he is” is the boy who leads in the classroom the same way he leads on the field.
Yet, these very important experiences that breed learning potential—and quite frankly create true character— are systemically prohibitive for youth who can’t afford them. And so the divide grows; the high schoolers who are growing up in low-income neighborhoods aren’t having the experiences that grow their passions, stimulate curiosity, build confidence, and create pride. Instead, these kids start to define themselves as the kids who have not and get bogged down in lack of possibility. They become the kids who lack “purpose and responsibility,” as Brooks puts it. Yet, in our American culture, we instead, often refer to these kids as the “kids who can’t learn.” And worse, assume it is their own fault.
Until we lose that stigma—that poor kids can’t learn—and until we shine a brighter light on the types of experiences wealthier kids are having that are truly responsible for their curiosity, excitement and purpose in school, we are doing a major disservice to the bright, brilliant low-income kids who can learn, want to learn and when given the opportunity, will shine bright just like the rest of them.
The Role of Compassion
Wishbone exists to help underserved students meet their personal goals. But even though we’re a mission-driven organization, you can also think of Wishbone as an experiment in compassion. Some of our students have never had the opportunity to travel outside of their hometowns. What will happen when a student attends a program in a new part of the country, maybe even on the campus of her dream college? Some of our students have had to face incredible hardship with very little support. How will their outlooks on life change when complete strangers help send them to a new community that shares their passions? How much positive change can grow from the small seed of a single donation?
Our students have called their wishes “a dream come true,” “the experience of a lifetime” and “essential for finding the right college and the right job.” For these students, their program experiences go far beyond summer fun. They recognize that this is their chance to learn the skills that they crave, meet a new community of peers and mentors, and take major steps toward college and their dream jobs.
It’s our passion to connect motivated students to the opportunities that will keep them engaged in learning, launch them toward college, and bring them closer to their dream careers.
We’re betting that when the authentic passions of students are fueled by the compassion of donors in the public, education will take on a whole new dimension.
See some of our success stories already.
Video day in Oakland
My colleague Rachel and I are here filming students’ application videos in Oakland, blown away by the power, grit and beauty of our students.
Their stories are truly inspiring.