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.

The last time student test scores were ranked on a global scale was in 2012, when the Program for International Student Assessment determined the U.S. had fallen in reading, math and science.

While PISA’s evaluation did surprise some – reading scores, in particular, fell by 10 spots – for many, it served as an underscore of what critics had been saying for years: the U.S. education system needs reform.

Reforms in the US have spanned from No Child Left Behind to the more recent Common Core standards. Regardless of the initiative, however, one thing has persisted: state and federal officials tasking educators with getting students more engaged in learning.

Putting this into practice, however, has not been easy. Since the 1980s, researchers have released slews of studies documenting a decline in student engagement despite its positive mental and social effects.

With at least three decades of student disinterest to combat, some educators are turning to alternative methods of instruction to increase engagement.

Aaron Maurer is one such educator. Maurer, who has worked in the education system for 11 years, serves as a directional coach at an Iowa middle school where he helps teachers improve classroom instruction.

Maurer is an advocate of project-based learning, sometimes called PBL. According to the Buck Institute of Education, a nonprofit provider of PBL materials, this teaching method involves students learning from long-term assignments that aim to answer a central question or challenge.

According to Maurer, his middle school adopted the PBL model three years ago in an effort “to create an authentic audience and these open-ended, deep learning opportunities for kids, as opposed to just going through worksheets and textbooks.”

The overarching point of model, Maurer added, is to have students see their learning as integrated, not only across subjects but in their out-of-school lives as well. Because of its inherent style, PBL often tackles nontraditional topics like identifying students’ passions or what breaks their hearts.

Lisa Barnes, a language arts teacher with more than 15 years of teaching experience, recently conducted her own PBL assignment after her class of eighth graders complained that a local convenient store made teenagers leave their backpacks outside while they shopped.

The project, dubbed A Few Bad Apples, had students examine the bias adults have towards children and teenagers, where that bias comes from and what young people can do to address it.

“They seemed much more interested in the topic itself, the fact that some of them had … experienced this bias themselves,” Barnes said.

Research on PBL, though limited, supports Barnes’ observations. A 2002 study published by the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics, for example, found students who were taught using the PBL model outperformed students learning under more traditional curricula.

Additionally, the study found student attitude towards classroom materials was better under the project-based system.

The PBL model does come with drawbacks, though.

Time is one, as students must spend a good portion of the academic year working on complex projects. A Few Bad Apples, a project originally slated to take about a month, took nearly 10 weeks to complete.

PBL is not a catchall either. The teaching method doesn’t click with every student, according to Barnes. Furthermore, students who enjoy the projects and show improved comprehension sometimes can’t relay that understanding to more formal exams.

In spite of the kinks, Barnes has noticed a difference in her class since incorporating PBL, especially among the middle-achieving students. Student motivation has increased, she said, as the projects have reaffirmed some students’ beliefs in the power of their own voices.

“I used to think that was like the end all be all; if we can get the student voice message in schools,” said Maurer, who now believes student voice is simply the first of many positive byproducts PBL has to offer.

“It will lead us to step two, which I think is student agency,” Maurer said. “But the first step is to help them develop that voice, and … not be afraid to use it.”

“Not enough kids believe that their voice matters,” he added, “but that’s what we [have] to get to matter.”

On November 19, 2014, President Obama launched the ConnectEd initiative to support digital learning, and I was part of the ceremony.

The ConnectEd initiative is a collaborative partnership between the White House, private businesses and schools across the country aiming to connect 99 percent of students to high speed wireless and broadband Internet over the next five years. The initiative stems entirely from student and educator demands, and the Obama Administration is working closely with both groups to ensure its optimal success.

“In a country where we expect free Wi-Fi with our coffee,” Obama said at the ceremony, “the least we can do is expect that our schools are properly wired.”

For part of the event, President Obama and Director of the Domestic Policy Council Cecilia Muñoz spoke to student journalists from around the country, including myself. One of the most interesting facts I gained from speaking with Muñoz was that that less than 40 percent of public schools in America have high-speed internet access in their classrooms, which was astonishing to hear. Coming from a district with broadband Internet, I assumed most other schools were the same, but I was wrong. Muñoz believes that providing students with access to technology will drive innovation and allow for individualization, leading to more effective learning.

Although our exchanges were brief, Muñoz seemed very interested in us, and asked many questions about our thoughts on ConnectEd and American education.

After meeting with Muñoz, the other students and I went to the Red Room to meet President Obama, but stumbled across the Assistant Secretary of Education, Deborah Delisle, along the way. Delisle personally interacted with each of us and asked about our experiences with technology in schools. Every conversation was unique and showed her interest in hearing from students directly.

Like Muñoz, the president was very excited to meet with us and said it was crucial for us to be at the ConnectEd event. In fact, everyone I met that day seemed genuinely interested in what students had to say about our educational experiences and stressed the importance of us being there.

At the event, I learned that the first step of the ConnectEd initiative is the Future Ready pledge, which was signed by superintendents from across the country that day. Obama says he is confident that his administration will be able to connect 99 percent of schools and students to high speed Internet, I am weary about the long term nature of the project and worry it will get lost in the shuffle due to the possible party shift in coming years. Nonetheless, however, I do look forward to watching ConnectEd unfold around the country and think it is important for the future of education.

One thing is for sure: “Every child deserves a shot at a world-class education,” Obama said. I think it’s time for students to play a role in shaping that world-class education, and Student Voice, ConnectEd and the Future Ready initiative are making that possible.