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When I was kid, my mother often asked, “What did you learn in school today?”
The first time she asked was after my first day in kindergarten, when I told her Mrs. Haley taught us to “never ask a woman her age or her weight.” As I grew older, my responses to this question turned into mono-syllabic grunts. Now, almost thirty years after graduating high school that question has a whole new meaning thanks to a recent “Learning401 Story Slam” at Central Falls High School on May 20th.
Learning401 is a statewide educational initiative to give voice to the Rhode Island public (parents, teachers, students, administrators, community members) that represents public school. It does this by convening forums for rich, safe, nonpartisan dialogue on what powerful learning is and can be - something everyone can agree we want more of, no matter where you stand on the education debate. The Learning401 “story slam” forum, inspired by Sam Chaltain's Faces of Learning campaign, operates much like a poetry slam, but in place of poems participants share – on open mic, in 4 minutes or less – a personal story of powerful learning.
The Central Falls story slam drew approximately 100 students and adults to the CFHS cafeteria last Tuesday, including Central Falls Mayor, James Diossa, several members of the Central Falls City Council, and a handful of law enforcement officers.
So what did I learn in school that day?
1. STUDENTS ARE CAPABLE OF BEING VULNERABLE IN FRONT OF THEIR PEERS. These Central Falls High School students did something seemingly impossible at Learning401. They not only allowed but encouraged their peers to be vulnerable, talking about their insecurities, family troubles, and fears. Several students cried nervously as their stories of powerful learning from struggle and hardship unfolded, and instead of being met with jeers and laughter the storytellers were met with hugs, high fives, and thunderous applause. The mix of students was diverse, from student leaders, star athletes, underclassmen, and graduating seniors, a modern day cast for “The Breakfast Club”. The more courageous one was in being vulnerable, the more inspired others were in sharing their stories, and the more connected the group became. Contrary to popular belief, high school students can be warm, compassionate, and caring individuals. “School is belonging,” said one student, affirming his need to stay in school not just for himself, but for each other.
2. MANY TEACHERS WERE THEMSELVES INFLUENCED BY TEACHERS EARLIER IN THEIR LIVES, LEADING THEM DOWN THAT CAREER PATH. A number of teachers participating in this event shared stories about teachers who helped them in some way or another when they were younger. They spoke of teachers seeing their potential when they themselves did not, and about unexpected acts of kindness, above and beyond the task of classroom instruction. One teacher shared the story of his teacher delivering a Thanksgiving holiday food basket to his home so his family would have something to eat (beyond the cafeteria food scraps the then 5th grader sneaked into his backpack). CFHS Vice Principal, Troy Silva, revealed his mischievous, prank-playing ways as a teen that were met by his teacher’s invitation for a day of sailing. Teachers have the power to influence students in the classroom and out, and that influence goes a long way in shaping student character – how kids see themselves (as promise, not problems) and how they see their ability to pay it forward, to include a teacher-inspired career path in education.
3. KIDS FROM ECONOMICALLY CHALLENGED NEIGHBORHOODS NEED SUPPORT SYSTEMS TO HELP THEM LEARN. One fact I wasn’t aware of prior to this event was that 81.9% of CFHS students receive free or discounted lunches. Many of the students participating at the slam spoke openly about the poverty they and their families face, and several teachers spoke to similar circumstances when they were students. Poverty challenges students’ ability to concentrate, and academic performance can suffer with it. State and federal policymakers need understand and appreciate the hurdles students face just getting to school each day, and design policy that doesn’t penalize but supports, creating the best possible ecosystem for powerful learning. Consider what a hungry child is likely to concentrate more on: the class lecture or how soon until lunch?
For more information about hunger in U.S. schools, please visit No Kid Hungry.
4. STUDENTS WANT TO BE POWERFUL LEARNING SUPPORTS FOR EACH OTHER. One student self-identified herself as a former bully: “I was THAT girl that used to give out the mean stares just because it made me all powerful inside.” Having decided power comes from choosing not to be mean, such students make fantastic resources to schools in developing meaningful, relevant anti-bullying/pro-empathy programs. Simply put: the solutions are in the room. Such a program wouldn’t require significant funding, if any; but it does require a culture of empowerment where students are given ample voice in discovering and owning up to the solutions needed to improve their school community – safe forums where they can freely share, open up, and generate the inspired authority to lead and follow-through, being the change they most want to see.
Suffice it to say, our Learning401 team is extremely appreciative to the students and educators of Central Falls High School for teaching (and reminding) us of so many important lessons in life and learning. Education activist and philosopher, John Dewey, said it best: “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”
Thank you to all the Central Falls "Warriors,” los Guerreros, who shared their stories; I’m forever changed, for the better, having been a witness to such powerful learning.