Yesterday we convened a group of students from around the city of Philadelphia in a Student Voice Convention to launch our national tour.  We didn’t choose the city by accident—Philadelphia was the birthplace of our nation.  It was here, 227 years ago that another convention created an American government for the people and by the people and it is here in 2016 that students discussed how to make an education system for the students and by the students.

We began the day with Philadelphia’s superintendent, Dr. William Hite.  He spoke about the importance of having your voice heard, especially in the conversations about the current problems facing the city.

The problems are many. The city is facing massive budget cuts that are threatening to shut schools down; students are acutely aware and ready to fight for their schools.  And many of those schools are decrepit and falling apart.  We heard from Philadelphia Councilwoman Helen Gym about an exploding school boiler which lit an employee on fire.

In conversation with students, we heard about a “game” played in an African-American History class:


In an attempt to teach slavery, one Philadelphia teacher created an activity where he designated certain students in the class as slaves and certain students as slave owners.  The goal: catch the slaves.

Philadelphia’s school system may need many improvements, but one thing was made absolutely clear: the students have a passion and dedication to their schools and communities that is inspiring. It didn’t take long for students to determine that there was something more than a little bit wrong with “slave-tag,” and they spoke out.

In Philadelphia high schools, protests are a common occurrence.  Students from all walks of life are aware of how policies at the state and district level affect their ability to learn.

Students are supportive.  One student explained how her school had their student council taken away. The other students in the room were shocked such a thing could happen. During the rest of the summit, other students helped the girl brainstorm how to make the case to adults in her school to get the student council back.

Young people help started this country in Philadelphia; young people here today are active change agents in their communities.

Throughout the tour I will write these little posts.  They will be done on the fly, whenever I can catch a minute to breathe.  Don’t expect prolific manuscripts, but do look for student stories. Don’t expect complicated prose, but do look for a perspective that maybe you hadn’t considered before.

This tour is about confronting norms. It’s normal for students to sit in a classroom taking direction from a teacher; today they designed their own conversations by voting on the Student Bill of Rights.  It’s normal for students to be passive consumers of their education; today they were active co-designers. It is normal for students to be voiceless; today we ran out of time because the conversations were too rich.

Today, we helped raise the consciousness of Philadelphia teenagers from over a half dozen schools about the role they can play in improving education. This weekend we head to Iowa where presidential candidates are gearing up to make the case as to why their vision for America is the right one.  Let’s see how many of them talk about education.

Be on the look-out for more stories from Philadelphia students as part of our Students of America campaign on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. And follow us on Snapchat and Periscope, @Stuvoice, to get a look at each stop.

The movement is live. #StuVoice

Students as change agents is not a new concept. At critical moments throughout our country’s history, young people have taken up the charge to play critical roles in shaping America’s future.

In 1776, it was a 32 year-old Thomas Jefferson who penned the phrase, “all men are created equal,” at a pivotal time in the development of the American story. In 1957, the Little Rock Nine took action to force the issue of school integration at a time when segregation was the status quo. And now in 2016, we are presented with another set of crossroads.

As our world and economy continue to change in rapid and unpredictable ways, it is more important than ever that our education system keeps up. The century-old, factory-based model of education does not efficiently engage and inspire students in a way necessary for guaranteeing their success. And, so again, the charge falls to young people to step up as advocates, activists, watch dogs, and change agents in pushing our education system to be the best that it can be.

Over the past decade students have taken up that charge. In Houston students have submitted an amicus brief to their state’s supreme court arguing as to why the state’s current funding formula is riddled with inequity. Students in LA unified school district, after years of advocacy have successfully added a student to their board of education overseeing over 1000 schools. And students in Kentucky are challenging their state legislature to be a national leader in investing in increasing college access for low-income students.

These examples are only a small taste of what is possible when students are engaged as more than just passive consumers of their schools but instead, as active agents in designing and improving education policy.

Over the next year, Student Voice will be going on a national tour. The goal is to connect, support, and highlight actions being taken by students all across the country to improve their education. Over the course of this tour, we will shadow the 2016 presidential campaigns, engage 10,000 students through our Student Bill of Rights platform, and elevate and amplify the voices of students from across the country on what is working–and not–in their schools.

Young people have a track record of gaining traction on historically intractable issues. In 2016, we will apply that unique ability to transforming our education system. We will do it through both physical and digital engagement, and we will unleash the energy of thousands of young people across America.

The movement is live. #StuVoice

Last Saturday, October 24th, I had the opportunity to attend the Emotion Revolution summit at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. The event was sponsored by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and the Born This Way Foundation, which was founded by award-winning artist Lady Gaga and her mother, Cynthia Germanotta. There were more than 200 passionate students in attendance along with school administrators, policy makers, and well known academics. The purpose of this event was to recognize and create awareness around social and emotional issues which can affect a student’s well being and academic success.

The day began with a candid speech from Cynthia Germanotta, Lady Gaga’s mother, who stated that she “ignored [her] child’s feelings at a time when she was in pain. She was a good student but her behavior was kind of ‘All over the place.’” Germanotta explained that she “grew up in a time when our parents simply told us to ‘suck it up’ and we were taught to solve our own problems. But clearly, the times have changed and that is not always the best solution.”
Following, Dr. Mark Brackett, Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, unveiled the results of a sizable online survey which aimed to understand how young people currently feel and how they want to feel in school. When students were asked how they currently feel in school, out of all the words respondents listed, approximately 75% were negative while just 23% were positive. The most common words these students used to describe their current emotions at school are “tired,” “stressed,” and “bored.” When asked how they want to feel in school, the top three emotions that students want to experience more are “happy,” “energized,” and “excited.” Dr. Brackett used the summit as a platform to call for action and stated that “We need to close the gap between what students are currently feeling and how they want to be feeling.” Brackett continued on to say that “we need to give young people and the adults who are teaching and raising them the tools and resources they need to creates schools and families where emotions matter!”

One of the largest sponsors of the event was Facebook. Online social media platforms are often a place where many people express themselves and their feelings openly. Unfortunately, there are too many noted cases of young people expressing negative emotions and using those emotions in the wrong way. Because of this, Antigone Davis, Facebook’s president of global safety, unveiled the work being done by Facebook and the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence to develop InspirED, a set of online tools for schools and students to use and create a safe, positive school environment. InspirED is now live online.

As a student, I wanted to learn more about how my fellow students have worked to use their voice to make a change in their schools. Specifically around Dr. Brackett’s idea of making school a place where students want to be. Gabby Frost, a senior in high school from Philadelphia created Buddy Project, an online platform for people to meet based on the criteria of their age and general interests. She travelled to Connecticut to learn ways to “start a club at [her] school that advocates for mental health and physical well being.” When asked how the event would help change school environments as a whole, she explained how “people don’t realize that there are so many things in which their fellow peers may be going through. Creating a safe space which revolves around some of the sensitive topics that we are discussing here today at the Emotion Revolution Summit, will be important to bring overall awareness to these issues which should put us on the path to changing schools around the country.”

I also had the opportunity to speak with Louis Marinari, a senior in a large suburban New Jersey high school, who has struggled with bullying since the early years of elementary school. I asked Louis what brought him to the event and he responded that he is “all about emotions. I suffered from all types of emotions because [he] was bullied throughout [his] childhood.” Louis has been involved with the Born This Way Foundation since it started in 2011. He describes how the foundation “has molded me into a better person. Being bullied all my life really took away from who I am….but then the foundation really helped me rebuild my ‘foundation.’” When asked how he wanted to make a change in his school or society as a whole, his response was was empowering. “My number one goal in my life is to make people more open-minded. We’re really not open-minded though. People can refuse it but at the end of the day, we are not. It’s my number one goal and I don’t care if I die doing it.”

Hearing Louis’s story truly inspired me. In today’s society, we often hear about the negative effects of bullying, which I understand often outweigh the positive effects. But to hear how someone has been a victim and has experienced things that he is still uncomfortable sharing to this day, is why I am so appreciative for the fact that he can own those experiences. He can recognize that those experiences are apart of his identity. Louis can take those experiences and use them to create a positive change.

The true highlight of the day, however, was the fact that I had the opportunity to sit down with Lady Gaga and have a personal discussion with her about her experience with emotions and the Born This Way Foundation. Gaga started the interview by explaining how taking care of a young person’s mental physical, and emotional wellbeing “is not a small, niche issue. It’s a federal issue that we all need to think about.” When asked to look back at her experiences and the emotions she was feeling in high school, Gaga said that she “felt overwhelmed, stressed, anxious, afraid, lonely, misunderstood, stupid. These are things that stayed with me and the more I got bullied, these feelings became more apparent.” Lady Gaga believes that “kids need to be the ones to take charge of their emotions.” and she hopes that this will become more of a possibility as a result of the partnership between the Born This Way Foundation and the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.

To conclude our discussion, I asked Lady Gaga a simple question. When asked what she believes all students have the right to, Gaga stated that “they have the right to just say no. No I don’t want to learn that, no I don’t want to read that book. Students are the curators of their own educations. And they need to know that.”

Andreessen Horowitz, a well-known venture firm on Sand Hill Road in the heart of the Silicon Valley has a motto: “Software Is Eating the World.”

The train of thought behind the motto is that as long as an organization can implement software in a way that reduces costs, it can provide solutions that were once only available only to the wealthy, to the whole world.

While providing quality, low-cost services to the globe may be a daunting task, many Silicon Valley companies have been able to do just that. For most of the Valley’s education-based tech startups, however, achieving this business model hasn’t been very successful.

Take Massive Online Open Courses, or MOOCs, for example. MOOCs are classes put on a platform that aims to increase access and personalize classes to learners. The best professor in the world can teach thousands of people anywhere in the world and software can customize the learning process for each student so that they are able to do their best.
Many people gathered around the model of MOOCs and heralded it as the education of the future. The New York Times declared 2012 the year of the MOOC, and many schools began running pilot programs attempting to integrate these courses into their curricula.

In practice, however, MOOCs do little more than put lectures, homework, and tests online. Personally, I’ve found MOOCs too frustrating and rigid for my liking. In fact, the current model of MOOCs reminds me of the traditional brick and mortar institutions that have, in their own way, interfered with my learning.

As a millennial who grew up learning on the Internet, I’ve found its power lies with allowing me access to things I never would have been taught in school as well as the ability to make unlimited connections to other people. On the web, I learn things in an order based on my own interests, and can spend hours clicking links that catch my attention or learning from countless Wikipedia pages.

There is so much potential in what a tech startup can do to the face of education, however most of the current models that explicitly attempt to “educate” are completely missing the mark.

However, even though many of the models that explicitly attempt to revolutionize education are not doing terribly well, there are a handful of companies that are approaching learning from a new perspective and deserve a closer look.

Quora, for instance, is a fresh new take on asking and answering questions, and has an extremely community driven approach. Quora implements a credit system that makes the platform function like a game. Quora doesn’t present itself as a learning platform, but its ability to help people ask and answer questions has an incredible side effect of deep understanding, learning, and community building.

Another example of online learning is CreativeLIVE. CreativeLIVE is an innovative livestreaming education platform geared mainly toward creatives. They bring in industry leaders to teach classes that are often multiple days long, diving deep into the topics.

Another one of my favorite examples is Duolingo. Duolingo is a language learning platform that also employs your language learning efforts to translate old books. Much like Quora, Duolingo succeeds by providing a game-style product that serves as a very fun, lighthearted approach to learning a new language.

What all of these programs have in common is that they are very personalized, self-directed and interactive. All of these programs leverage a combination of the social power of the Internet along with rich and dynamic content to create experiences that are deeply engaging to the learner.

Revolutionizing learning takes much more thought than simply transferring our content from paper to silicon, as evidenced by how easy it was to move on from the year of the MOOC. It takes maximizing technology, developing innovations that truly support learning, and operating under a model that seeks to build and shape the future.
And as the amount children growing up in a digital society increases, so will the pressure on Silicon Valley to achieve this revolution.