I had the great honor of speaking at the William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia, Penn. this past Wednesday. The school, which spans K through 12th grade, is a very old prestigious private school founded in the late 1600’s by Quakers. Although the school is house in a series of buildings that would fit in well with Boston’s Old North Church or even Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, the school within is a modern and progressive one aimed at teaching students the skills they need to thrive in the 21st century. One might expect a student body decked out in blue blazers and pleated skirts but on this average Wednesday the students dressed in accordance with the latest fashion trends (and among high school students that means jeans and either a t-shirt from your favorite sports team or a shirt from one of the many American Eagle-esk stores).
My morning started off with a presentation to the middle school. The sleepy crowd who seemed unsure at first quickly livened up after I asked what class they were missing, which seemed to be overwhelmingly Spanish. They also seemed to like the below picture of me and Jane when I was their age. My presentation included everything from Dr. Jane’s work in Gombe to my work in sixth grade to our Youth Leadership Immersion Experience to Tanzania (which they seemed most interested in). I suppose they enjoyed it as they were full of questions afterwards.
Following that, I got to sit in on a fifth grade history class before meeting with the entire fifth grade. I do not recall my fifth grade history class very well but I hope it was like this one. The class exemplified the ideal teacher to student interaction. After doing a short assignment, the teacher led a discussion where he would ask a question and not just expect an answer but also a conclusion based on the answer. AND the students produced.
I then had lunch with both the fifth grade environmental club and the high school environmental club. I have never sat at a table with 20 fifth graders who were as motivated as this group. They were throwing out ideas of what they could do to make a difference. The way they would take a seemingly unattractive idea, such as raking leaves, and turn it into a project everyone was interested in, such as taking the leaves and composting them for a garden to grow food for the school’s cafeteria, was astonishing.
My day ended up with perhaps one of the scariest things in the world, speaking to a high school assembly. There is no tougher crowd in the world then a bunch of teenagers at the end of the day who would rather be doing just about anything then sitting in an uncomfortable assembly hall being told to listen by the teachers who just gave them hours of homework. And I should know, I was one of them less than six months ago. As an added bonus, I was a Pats fan in the city of the latest Patriots conquest, the Eagles.
Nonetheless, the crowed seemed willing to at least give me a chance and I think once they found out I was only a year older them they lightened up a bit. I knew going into this that a high school crowd is difficult to engage so I threw my standard presentation out the window and took a risk with an entirely new one. It started off with a few jokes about what the word green meant and with a few pictures of hippies and famous “green” celebs the crowd seemed to get into it. And although, few of them knew who Dr. Jane was, they were captivated by stories of the chimps from Gombe.
I decided to end with a history lesson. After talking a bit about the problems the world face as the result of human activity, I decided that rather then telling them they have the power to make a difference I would show them. I went back to the start of the American Revolution, to the Boston Tea party (where I accidentally let it slip I am a Pats fan and got a mix of boos and laughs). I went there because many of the men who dressed up like Indians and threw tea into Boston harbor were students from Harvard University, young people. Next I went to the civil rights movement, which was won on the campuses of colleges across the country. Finally, I wrapped up with a picture of young people protesting the Vietnam and I delivered the message that throughout history, young people have been on the forefront of change. Then I switched to the picture above and posed the question, in twenty years do you want to be one of the many who stood by while arguably the greatest in justice in history (climate change) took place, or do you want to be one of the few who stood up, said no and changed the course of history?
I look forward to seeing what comes out of Penn Charter’s two new Roots & Shoots groups as the school already knows how to educated the next generation. Well done Penn Charter, your staff, students and school gets all A’s in my book.