Fires in the Mind

Learning on a different wavelength

You can hear the beats sounding loud from the open windows of passing cars on a balmy afternoon in downtown Oakland, and you may catch snatches of a radio host interviewing the guest of the hour, or a commentary you wish you could hear more of.

But you might never know, walking past the sleek four-story downtown Youth Radio building at 1701 Broadway, that just inside it young people from 15 to 21 are working at newsroom desks and in soundproof studios to send those voices and that music into their community and the larger world.

Since Youth Radio began in 1990, it has introduced some of the freshest voices in broadcast journalism to listeners who tune into local stations, National Public Radio, and, most recently, streaming Internet sites. It trains 1,300 youth each year to develop core competencies in audio, video, web and print and to produce the highest quality original media for the widest possible audience. An estimated 27 million people hear and read the often-overlooked perspectives of young people through Youth Radio’s work each year.

However, Youth Radio also provides a compelling example of collaborative learning through peer apprenticeships, whose effects reach far into the lives and futures of Bay Area youth.

From the moment they come in off the street to fill out an application, these young broadcasters start building and sharing their skills—not just in research, writing, speaking, and media production but in workplace interactions, personal relationships, and life management.

This video presents the powerful 4-part strategy through which Youth Radio strengthens those skills through deliberate practice. It’s worth studying closely, through the voices of two young participants, Denise Tejada and Shaw Killip, whose lives it changed. Send it on to a teacher who needs a lift this week!

A road trip to motivation and mastery

“I’d feel so much better about the world we live in if being ‘passionate’ or ‘inspired’ was a national standard instead of so much of the academic trivia that is mandated,” a high school teacher in Oakland, California recently wrote me.

Working with 11th graders in his capacity as college advisor and internship coordinator, he was helping them explore how their own interests or passions could lead to further study and possible career choices. In the process, he introduced some video excerpts from the public television series “Roadtrip Nation,” whose motto is “Define your own road in life.”

Roadtrip Nation began in 2001 when four friends just out of college set out across the country in a green RV to interview people who loved what they did. Ten years later, it’s a movement—including a nonprofit arm that creates curriculum to help middle and high school students expand their vision and explore their futures.

The basic idea: Young people find what they love, contact people that live a life that inspires them, gather a team to interview those people in order to learn from their stories, and share these experiences with others.

They start by browsing through a vast video archive of interviews other youth have conducted with people that inspire them. They build the skills of interviewing and producing digital media. And they carry out their own local Roadtrips, planning and conducting interviews with leaders in their communities.

At-risk students who completed the curriculum at a youth opportunities center in Long Beach, California spoke about it with enthusiasm in this interview by local TV. And an independent evaluation of the curriculum highlighted positive changes in students’ attitudes toward learning after they completed the “Roadtrip Nation Experience”:

  • 15 percent more students reported feeling interested in their class work most of the time
  • 20 percent more students felt very certain that the things that they are learning in school will be relevant for their futures
  • 18 percent more students reported that they had very often talked with someone outside of school about their futures

To lift our country out of the mess we’re in, the rising generation is going to need all the inspiration and support it can find. For anyone who believes that motivation and mastery are closely linked, Roadtrip Nation is a great place to start the sparks flying and the minds meeting.

Cultivating, and expanding, student ‘interests’

I received a reflective note about “student interests” from a student teacher named Douglas Hampton, who left an industry job in mid-career, to get a masters degree in teaching. As he gets to know his students this fall, he notices that many have only a limited idea of what the world of work might hold–and that it comes mostly from their environment or the media. “How do you expose students in a meaningful way to all the possible alternatives?” he asked.

For example, I am teaching math and economics and most of the curriculum feels distant to my students. The breadth of the subject is so extensive that teachers are limited in their ability to develop relevant connections to the real world. In geometry, there are a number of professional careers that extensively use this field of knowledge but my students do not appreciate it. Geometry is used by civil engineers, physicists, architects, surveyors, software engineers and graphic artists, but the students do not see the connections. . . . High school should be the place to investigate areas of interest, explore possibilities and develop good work habits. How do I allow my students to have the freedom to generate that spark that will ignite their interests? Math and economics by themselves do not capture the interest of most students.

I like that Douglas is talking about investigation and exploration in the same breath as he mentions “developing good work habits.” In the Practice Project that led to the book Fires in the Mind, students sometimes invited various highly accomplished adults into the classroom, interviewing them about “what it takes to get really good” in their fields. They might not have all wanted to be a top surgeon or auto mechanic, but the answers gave them material that we could then analyze, to think together about what are the common “habits of experts” and how they come about.

On Dan Meyer’s blog, he has another approach: get kids to speculate about the whys and hows of the world around them, using the language of math. He’s always suggesting ways to get kids themselves to puzzle through questions they generate when you bring in interesting photos, video clips, and the like to the classroom. Taking that tack is another fantastic way to get kids thinking about possible future careers. Whether it’s video game design, an election, or a construction project, once you get interested in the math and economics of how something works, you can start to talk about your own future place in that work, and what you might have to know and be able to do in order to take that place some day.

Finally, schools where students go out to do internships in the community are offering one of the most effective ways to broaden and create new learning from their interests. Watching, asking questions, and playing even a tiny role in the “real world” helps kids see first hand the work that goes on there, and how they might fit in. The best internship programs in schools bring students together once or twice weekly in a seminar where they reflect on what they’re seeing in the workplace, relate it to their academic learning, and think through the habits of mind and work that they require.

Do you have any examples to offer of how you cultivate student interests, or expand upon them? I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the best comments that come in.