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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Tomorrow's Leaders Can't Wait to Take Action

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
President Bill Clinton addresses the crowd at the 2013 Clinton Global Initiative.

For more than 1,300 youth gathered at Washington University in St. Louis last weekend for the Clinton Global Initiative University (#CGIU), the focus was squarely on the future. Delegates from around the globe arrived with commitments to tackle projects with world-changing potential, from ending human trafficking to increasing the number of girls pursuing engineering. (Read more about the event at www.cgiu.org.)

President Bill Clinton, comedian Stephen Colbert, Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey (@Jack) were among the star-studded roster of speakers who showered college students with encouragement and advice. What's more, nearly $500,000 was awarded to start turning what Chelsea Clinton called "your crazy, catalytic ideas" into tomorrow's solutions. As President Clinton told the cheering crowd, "It's an exciting time to be alive."

Rear-View Reflections

I asked delegates to pause just long enough on their quests to reflect on the K-12 experiences that led them to this heady occasion. Could they identify specific classes, activities, teachers or other influences in the recent past that have inspired their thinking and fueled their passions? What helps students develop the courage and confidence -- while still in their teens -- to take the lead on global problem solving? Their backstories are worth considering by educators who hope to inspire the next generation of leaders. Here are a few highlights.

Pay It Forward

JJ Echaniz and David Chi, both currently freshmen at Yale, were high school friends when they came up with the idea for Forward Tutoring (@forwardtutoring). For Chi, the motivation to take action came from watching his younger brother struggle to understand the math that came readily to him. "I've seen the need deeply. More importantly, I saw how hopeless my brother felt," Chi says.

They envisioned an online platform to match students who need help in math and science with academically accomplished peer tutors who can offer personalized instruction. Instead of charging a fee, Forward Tutoring asks students requesting help to "pay it forward" with community service. Volunteer tutors -- many of whom are recruited from Chi's alma mater, the Texas Academy of Math and Science -- earn internships and scholarships in return for their service.

To grow their nonprofit idea into a robust, scalable platform, the co-founders knew they needed resources. They struck pay dirt in the 2012 Dell Education Challenge, winning the grand prize of $10,000 along with advice from corporate executives. "We had to go to headquarters in Austin and pitch our idea," Echaniz says. He drew on what he learned in the business and marketing classes he took as part of the International Business Academy at Newman Smith High School in Carrollton, Texas. And he practiced "the pitch" with friends, family and anyone else willing to listen. "You're selling your idea and your passion," he says.

Their advice to other students? "Be willing to take that first step," says Echaniz, "and don't be afraid to ask for help." Adds Chi, "Tackle the hard problems, the biggest challenges. As a student, that's where you will find the most support." Finding help from mentors isn't hard, Chi adds. "Our youth is a huge asset. Take advantage of it. It's insane how much help you'll get." Since the website for ForwardTutoring.org launched in February, it has attracted more than 1,200 registered users.

Use Your Voice

Zak Malamed (@zakmal), founder of the #stuvoice Twitter chat and an outspoken advocate for bringing student voice into education reform, didn't always have the confidence he exudes as an 18-year-old freshman at University of Maryland. He credits a middle-school teacher with "changing my outlook and making me believe I could do anything." At the end of eighth grade, with this teacher's support, Malamed spearheaded a genocide awareness-raising campaign that engaged nearly the entire student body. He continued to pursue leadership opportunities at Great Neck South High School on Long Island, New York, where he rose through the ranks of student government. Still, something was missing. "Our voice was not being heard. Student voice didn't seem to matter."

Convinced that students needed to take a more active part in discussions about education reform, he got busy. First, Malamed organized a screening event for the documentary Race to Nowhere. Some 500 community members, including students, showed up to watch and discuss the issues. Then, at the Celebration of Teaching and Learning in New York City, he learned about #edchat. When he started participating in the weekly Twitter discussions, he felt welcomed by educators. But he wondered, "Why aren't students engaging more often in this conversation?" Emboldened, he emailed a contact he had made at the Celebration of Teaching and Learning and convinced Dell to use its platform to co-sponsor a student voice Twitter chat. Since it launched in May, the weekly #stuvoice chat has expanded to feature Google Hangouts, special guests, webinars, plus a blog and website. The #stuvoice hashtag gets wide use from influential voices in education.

The campaign to amplify student voice should gain more momentum this week. On Saturday, April 13, the first-ever StudentVoiceLive! Event will bring together students for face-to-face conversation and action planning around the world. Along with the headline event in New York City, where Malamed will be participating, there will be satellite events on every continent (except Antarctica). Conversations will be livestreamed so that students anywhere, of any age, can take part. Malamed hopes the day generates not only deep discussions but also concrete action steps. "I want people to feel like they have the tools and are inspired to take action," he says.

Malamed's advice to fellow students: "The biggest mistake you can make is not to pursue something you're passionate about."

Make the Ask

Nikila Kakarla, another organizer of StudentVoiceLive! and a sophomore at Barnard College, Columbia University, encourages students to seek out mentors. "It's like having a sponsor," she says. "These people can help you get a seat at the table." Asking adults for support may be intimidating, she admits, "but what's the worst that can happen? They might say no. But honestly? They never do."

Jon Phillips, director of global education for Dell, acknowledges that corporations have an incentive to support students "who will go on and make an impact on society." Dell's sponsorship of the StudentVoiceLive! event, for example, is a way of sharing expertise with the next generation. "How do we empower that student voice? We are coming behind and giving a platform for students to be heard," he says. Dell is also sharing with students the think tank model that drives corporate innovation. Phillips adds, "We want to let these voices come out. Then good things will happen."

Listen to Experts

Advice from experts flowed freely throughout the Clinton Global Initiative University weekend. Here are just a few insights that may inspire your students:

  • President Clinton: "Failure is OK, as long as it's not from laziness."
  • Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus: Pointing out that no other generation of young people has enjoyed access to the powerful technology tools of today, he encouraged students to think hard about the question: "What will you do with this power? If you can imagine a world where nobody is poor or sick or unemployed, it will take place."
  • Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter: Technology tools have leveled the field so that innovation "is not about who you are, but the merit of your idea. All you have to do is speak up."
  • Chelsea Clinton: "You're not the next generation of leaders. You're already leading."

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