Friday, September 17, 2010

A Sense of Possibility

A while back, I heard an interview on the radio with Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard. The interviewer asked her what exactly makes Harvard Harvard - why is it worth it to work so hard to get in there?

She answered, the sense of possibiity. That bringing together talented students from all over the world creates a unique environment of possibility and potential, and encourages each and every student grow his or her sense of what is possible. And that this is where the greatest ideas and achievements come from.

Then I saw a talk by Joan Sullivan, founder of the Bronx Academy of Letters, a public school in the poorest congressional district in America, that is ranked among the top high schools in New York City.

She said the same thing... that what makes her school successful is fostering a sense of possibility. She sends students to see colleges and work sites and to participate in study programs out of state and, in short, shows them the world.

Then I thought about 826 Valencia, where I volunteer illustrating books for class field trips. The students develop a story together, write their own endings, and become published authors in the space of two hours.

Again, this exercise is about possibility. You can just see the kids' heads growing as they are there, as the idea of being a published author takes root. Many of them also have never hung out with a professional artist before, so this possibility opens up in their minds, too.

This, I think, is the core driver of achievement for young students: the sense of Possibility. In areas that are infested with gangs and where families stay in their houses, the world is a very small place. In areas where the parents found companies and go on trips abroad, the world is a very big place. And there are many things in between.

We place so much emphasis on academics, on "learning," in our schools these days. As if kids just need to be pushed harder to absorb the material in order to be "smarter" and achieve more and score higher. Regardless of what they see as possible for them in the larger world.

But kids with a sense of possibiity will absorb more material, not because they are smarter, but because they can see where it leads. They can see a world where the ability to speak well, or to make an argument, or to design a technology, has real application. There is a backdrop, or a destination, a world out there to participate in.

So maybe our job in educating our children is to open up the world to them, and then let the academics apply to the possibilities, rather than the other way around.

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