What I have come to understand, after years of working in public and alternative education, is that knowledge alone is not enough. It is the application of knowledge in the real world that truly allows individuals to overcome obstacles in their path and lead independent and empowered lives.
With skyrocketing student loan debt, a shortage of jobs for college graduates and a changing economy and job market, what matters is that students graduate with the ability to apply their knowledge creatively, and innovatively, in order to successfully navigate their way through the world.
That means adapting to the real world as it is: students have to be able to use technology effectively; they have to be able to relate what they are learning in school to the world around them; they have to be able to think critically, communicate effectively, and collaborate with others.
“Civic Leadership,” is the framework we use at Chavez Schools to deliver those skills to our students. Teaching “civic leadership” begins with instilling in our students the belief that they can make a positive difference in the world. One of the ways we do this is by exposing our students to the resources and opportunities that are available in the nation’s capital to make an impact on public policy, and by showing them how to use them.
In addition to our rigorous academic curriculum, we teach our students the skills they need to become civic leaders, and engaged citizens: the ability to communicate clearly; the vision that civic leaders must have; the relationships that leaders build; and the critical thinking skills they need for problem solving.
We do this primarily in two distinct ways – we engage students with technology from the time they enter the schools and encourage students to apply their learning in the world.
Our one-to-one laptop program ensures that every student is connected: to the school, to their assignments, to their teachers, and to each other, throughout the school day. Students’ use of technology is not discouraged at our schools, but it is channeled in directions that will lead to the most productive outcomes – classroom activities, independent lessons, classroom list serves, and message groups. In our Thesis Course, each senior has a Thesis Advisor. Through the use of technology we are able to have adults from all over the county are able participate via Google Docs and Google Hangouts.
We expose our students to the world outside of their neighborhoods and communities, through our community action, fellowships, and public policy thesis programs. We make sure our students have opportunities to follow their interests to their limits, even if it takes them out of their comfort zones, and introduces them to whole new worlds of possibilities. Recently our students testified in front of the DC Council on the importance of charter schools in the city and how they have personally grown from their experiences at Chavez Schools.
We use these resources and embed these programs and community opportunities on a foundation of solid academic support that emphasizes mastery of academic content as a step toward mastery over one’s own life. Empowering students to master their own lives, in turn, empowers them to make a positive difference in the lives of others around them.
The problem solving and critical thinking skills that are at the heart of our civic leadership curriculum shape our students to be the creative and innovative problem solvers that employers desire in a dynamic, technology driven economy.
In the years since I was a classroom teacher, I’ve learned that knowledge alone will not get our students to where they want to be in life. We must teach our students to believe in themselves, and in their personal ability to make a positive difference in their own lives and in the lives of others. The namesake of our school, Cesar Chavez, showed us that it takes a movement to lift everyone up. We teach our students to be part of that movement by applying themselves fully to their work, and to creating a more just, free, and equal world.
Beyond “knowledge is power”, it’s the “application of knowledge” that is the creative difference required to develop future civic leaders who will lead successful and fulfilling lives, while making the world a better place.