Powerful Learning With Public Purpose

by Barbara Cervone, President, WKCD

PROVIDENCE, RI—When WKCD made its online debut in 2002, we had one goal: to champion what we called “powerful learning with public purpose” by this nation’s adolescents.

In the years since, we have spread our wings. Our work with young people now covers four continents. We have started our own nonprofit book publishing company, producing two or three new titles each year with youth as collaborators.  We are also a grantmaker, supporting action research and media creation by young people aged 10 to 22.

While our portfolio has grown, our mission remains the same. Day in and out, WKCD presses before the broadest audience possible the power of what young people can accomplish when given the opportunities and supports they need and what they can contribute when we take their voices and ideas seriously. The youth who concern WKCD continue to be those most marginalized by poverty, race, and language.

The WKCD website (this website!) now includes thousands of pages. We have produced close to 200 feature stories that present young people's lives, learning, and work, and their partnerships with adults both in and out of school. We have created special collections that range from gathering the voices of middle-schoolers to honoring mentors that matter in the lives to teens. We have supported, financially and technically, over 75 projects that nurture youth as knowledge creators, from the Bronx to Beijing. Some say WKCD.org has the largest online collection of high quality, diverse student work in the world.

We continue to believe that a good story well told crosses geographies, generations, class and race, and position. Our community of readers stretches from youth organizers in some of this country's toughest urban areas to educators at the national level. We have a growing international audience, too.

All of the stories and work featured on WKCD.org garner from young people both deep engagement and high achievements, helping them find pleasure in the right things. All build upon fundamental needs of adolescent life: to register positive impact upon the world around them, to feel respected and connected, to construct one’s own narrative. All help youth become persistent and confident learners. Importantly, each does so in its own way.

Why do these WKCD examples of powerful learning seem like diamonds in the rough? Don’t we have a good idea of what young people need and respond to, what especially helps teens facing poverty, family problems, or worse develop promising storylines?   

We do. We know that young people—from the least to most advantaged—need opportunities to stand tall. We know teens thrive in settings, in and outside school, where they encounter:

  1. caring relationships that help them build an attachment to the learning environment and persist through obstacles
  2. cognitive challenges that engage them intellectually, tap interests, and hone essential skills
  3. a culture of peer support that pushes them to do their best work
  4. community membership and voice in a group worth belonging to
  5. connections to an expanding network of adults who help them access additional learning and career opportunities. 

Not only do we understand how much these five “C’s” matter, we also know a great deal about putting them into practice. The research on what works and the bank of exemplary program designs have grown enormously.

So it is not a lack of know how that keeps such supportive learning environments on the margins—despite their large pay offs for youth who themselves are marginalized.  The obstacles, mostly familiar, lie elsewhere:  insufficient resources, an exclusive reliance on standardized testing, the pull of the familiar, inertia.

Perhaps in shortest supply, though, is the political will to enact policies that place the needs of young people before those of the institutions that serve them. More than 25 years ago the National Commission on Resources for Youth, in a paper on engaging adolescents, concluded:

There is much that youth can do to contribute actively and responsively to their own development and to the life of their communities.  What they cannot do on their own is create the climate and conditions that will permit them to take these participatory roles in society on a widespread scale.  That is the challenge and the task of the adult world.

Creating the climate and conditions for youth success remains our challenge.

Below we offer a baker’s dozen of stories, from our WKCD archives, which exemplify powerful learning with public purpose—and what kids can do.

Lights, Camera . . . Leadership! Vermont Youth Document Their Communities
Vermont farmer Charles Russell remembers when he told his dad he wanted to be a farmer. His father quipped, “What you gonna grow, rocks?” Russell is one several scrappy organic farmers featured in “Farmers Have a Say,” a film produced by students at Cabot Middle School. For the past several years, students in various towns across Vermont have used video to tell community stories that make neighbors sit up and applaud. (June 2008)

We Are the Titans: A Profile of Diversity at One American High School
T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia is best known as the setting for the 2000 film Remember the Titans (with Denzel Washington) about a tough coach who unites a football team—and a community—divided along racial lines. In 2007, a group of T.C. Williams seniors in teacher Taki Sidley’s Photography and Documentary Studies class set out to illustrate that same diversity in a 112-page, duotone book of photography. The result is stunning. (May 2008)

The Immigrant’s Song: Monologues of Loss and Hope
At San Francisco’s City Arts and Tech High School, project-based learning and exhibitions are the norm. For two nights last November, eleventh-graders presented a stunning collection of monologues, created from interviews with immigrants they met or knew intimately (sometimes, a parent). Woven together, they form an “Immigrant’s Song.” (February 2008)

Hometown History: Local Historic Preservation Turns Students Into Historians
For ten years, a team of teachers at Skowhegan Middle School in Skowhegan, Maine (population 10,000) has inspired their students to become local historians. The students have published in-depth research and historic photos, they have produced videos and essays, and they have created a website to display their huge body of work. They are now putting the finishing touches on a historic walking tour of Skowhegan. Having lost the shoe shops and spinning mills that once filled Skowhegan, the town hopes to become a tourist stop for travelers to and from Canada. (November 2007)

Zuni teens build an edible schoolyard
For students at Twins Butte High School in Zuni, NM, school lunch—sometimes their only hot meal of the day—not only tastes bad, but also defies Zuni customs. Vegetables and fruit fill the traditional Zuni diet. Spurred on by their science teacher, the students are building an organic greenhouse that promises to change more than just school lunch. “Your plant is like your baby. We say to the plants, grow, grow, grow” explains Elaine, 16. (June 2007)

A Beautiful Brotherhood
Within a baseball’s throw of Boston’s Fenway Park, an ensemble of young men of color stares downs their demons. They discuss sex, racism, fathers, anger, guns, and drug addiction. This is Soul Element, a theater project created by thirteen high school students to address the violence and fatalism that besiege their communities and their peers. They do so by laying themselves bare onstage. (September 2006)

Our Stories, Told by Us: New Orleans Teens Write Books About Lively Neighborhoods Now Lost
Just weeks before levee breaches flooded New Orleans in 2005, six African-American teenagers organized three block parties. The music, speeches, and dancing in the streets celebrated a victory few in their neighborhoods had claimed before: book publication. The young authors documented the people and places that had raised them, through thick and thin, in New Orleans' poorest neighborhoods; the books became best sellers in the city overnight. (April 2006)

Making a Guide to Their Bay, San Diego Students Explore Deeper Perspectives
"If you wanted to do a similar biodiversity study in the real scientific community, this is how you would do it," says one High Tech High student researcher. In expeditions to sites around the nearby bay, the team of students made close observations—scientific, cartographic, etymological, even poetic and political—that they brought together as a striking and useful field guide called Perspectives of the San Diego Bay (September 2005)

Restoring Hope Where It's All but Gone
Students enrolled in Indianapolis public high schools face hard truths everyday. Indianapolis has the fifth worst graduation rate in the country; only 25 percent of black males earn a high school diploma. Student research teams at all five of the city's high schools have studied the problems and made recommendations, adding their voice to the district's school redesign effort. It has not been easy. (September 2005)

Baltimore's Urban Debaters Prove the Word is Mightier than the Sword
At 8 a.m. on a cold Saturday morning, most of Chris and Dayvon's friends are at home asleep. But these seniors from Baltimore's struggling Forest Park High School have set up shop in the cafeteria of a rival high school and are hunched over stacks of newspapers and outlines of arguments. They are meticulously planning their strategy for the day's debate. (February 2005)

Outside is Our School: Youth Embrace Subsistence Education and Renew Survival for a Yupik Eskimo Community
"Cutting fish, building cabins, cutting wood, checking nets, shooting guns, ice fishing, eel fishing, trapping beaver with a snare, making a snow shelter, skinning moose, skiing, canoeing, gathering berries, starting fires....I think we are learning everything," says 15-year-old Bupsie Kazevnikoff. (September 2004)

Change Your Mind, Not Your Body: Teens Help Teens Prevent Eating Disorders
It's a familiar scene at any high school: before the 8 a.m. bell rings, a group of girls crowds into the bathroom. They put on mascara, peer into the mirror, adjust their outfits, and talk about how they wish they were skinnier. But at Sehome High School in Bellingham, Washington, a different conversation is taking place (September 2004)

The Color of Learning: Youth Researchers Tackle the Legacy of Brown
For three years, one hundred inner city and suburban youth researchers and their adult partners at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York have studied how race influences learning in schools across America. Here we present some of the fruits of their extraordinary work. (May 2004)


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“There’s a radical—and wonderful—new idea here… that all children could and should be inventors of their own theories, critics of other people’s ideas, analyzers of evidence, and makers of their own personal marks on the world.”

– Deborah Meier, educator