Rebecca, Strategy Associate, CO

I think the hopeful explanation is that schooling actually exists as a human right, as something that empowers you to participate meaningfully as a citizen in our society and contributes to the civic health of our communities, both locally and globally. And through that process, people find personal meaning and fulfillment, and ways to contribute that are validating of who they are and that make them feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves.
Rebecca is the Strategy Associate for ReSchool Colorado, a multi-year initiative of the Donnell-Kay Foundation to design a new education system. A New Englander at heart, Becca grew up in New Hampshire and Rhode Island and studied social work and Spanish at the University of Vermont before moving to Denver in 2012. She was interviewed by her Mentor Catalyst and friend, Nicole.

Rebecca is the Strategy Associate for ReSchool Colorado, a multi-year initiative of the Donnell-Kay Foundation to design a new education system. A New Englander at heart, Becca grew up in New Hampshire and Rhode Island and studied social work and Spanish at the University of Vermont before moving to Denver in 2012. She was interviewed by her Mentor Catalyst and friend, Nicole.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about this phrase we hear often in the education world - ‘Education is preparing kids for life.’ And I take a lot of pause at that expression, because kids are living right now! And learning is a part of everyone’s life, and it never really stops. I think it’s problematic to send kids the message that learning is separate from their lives, and only happens in specific places at specific times, and anything that happens beyond the walls and hours of what they know as school is not ‘learning.’

Think about a child in your life that you care deeply about. Who is this child and what makes him or her special?

I am thinking about a girl in my life named Ydidia. She was a student at the school where I used to work and I became very close with her family over time. She’s seven years old and I met her when she was four. It’s just amazing to watch her grow and to see the world though her eyes. She's super sharp and observant and perceptive beyond her years. Her maturity blows me away, but she's also very silly. She asks these questions all the time--sometimes Jamila [her mom] and I will be talking, and we won’t even know she’s been listening to the conversation, and she’ll chime in out of nowhere and ask a really logical question. It’ll make me pause and think about how confusing our world must be at that age, but also how blissful it must be. I just love being around her, she makes my heart happy. I would spend every day with her if I could. She was born into this big Ethiopian family here in Denver and has gone to really diverse schools, so not only does she bring her own multicultural perspective to her classroom but she also interacts with lots of kids from different backgrounds in her everyday life.

I feel like I have such a good picture of her. I love that. So, when you think about Ydidia all grown up, into her adult life, what is it that you want for her in her life? What would make it a good life?

Yeah. More than anything else, I would want her to be empowered and fulfilled and happy, and be living the life that she imagined for herself. And to know her voice is powerful and that she has a seat at any single table she wants to be a part of. I hope she has a chance to do something she's passionate about, that she thinks is meaningful. So professionally, not only a career that's financially sustainable but also fulfilling on the emotional level - where she sees herself as having an impact on the world around her. On a personal level, I hope she has long relationships that are supportive, loving, and affirming of her. Being a part of a community that knows her, sees her, cares for her—and having relationships where she feels like she can be wholly herself. I know that might feel abstract, but it’s hard for me to name what she’ll be doing—because honestly she can do anything! I think less about what I hope she does and more about how I hope she feels. And I want her to feel belonging, empowerment, and purpose.

"More than anything else, I would want her to be empowered and fulfilled and happy, and be living the life that she imagined for herself. And to know her voice is powerful and that she has a seat at any single table she wants to be a part of."

"More than anything else, I would want her to be empowered and fulfilled and happy, and be living the life that she imagined for herself. And to know her voice is powerful and that she has a seat at any single table she wants to be a part of."

When you think about this good life you want for Ydidia in the future--what do you think the role of schools should be in achieving it? So not what are schools doing now, but what should they do ideally?

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about this phrase we hear often in the education world - “Education is preparing kids for life.” And I take a lot of pause at that expression, because kids are living right now! And learning is a part of everyone’s life, and it never really stops. I think it's problematic to send kids the message that learning is separate from their lives, and only happens in specific places at specific times, and anything that happens beyond the walls and hours of what they know as school is not “learning.”

This is just a long way of saying I think school’s role in making this good life happen is for the experience of learning to actually resemble that “post-school” life people are referring to. We should be exposing kids to experiences that build their skills and mindsets to make sense and meaning of their lives. And we should consider relationships part of that learning, too, recognizing that social capital and a network of relationships leads to more access and opportunity. It’s about creating intentional spaces where learning is not just about “succeeding” within a narrow definition or measure of success, but is about broadening your worldview, asking questions, changing your mind, making mistakes, and trying out different ways to be. So when kids do “step into life,” or leave the schooling system, they have built an understanding of who they are and what they care about, and it's not the first time they’re being asked to articulate it.

We should be exposing kids to experiences that build their skills and mindsets to make sense and meaning of their lives. And we should consider relationships part of that learning, too, recognizing that social capital and a network of relationships leads to more access and opportunity.

I love what you’re saying--tell me more. If you could have a magic wand to change schools, what might they look like?

It’s going to be hard not to get into ReSchool here. And for me this goes way beyond our current notion of “school,” because I think we need to reimagine how our whole system of education is structured to support or not support the act of learning. But ever since I joined the ReSchool team, I spend most of my time thinking about this vision for what a new education system might look like if we could just design it with a magic wand, as you say. I think that scares some people who are attached to our current way of doing things - in most cases, that’s usually because school worked really well for them and problems you don’t experience don’t feel real to you - but it’s really inspiring to me. I also just read Todd Rose’s The End of Average, which feels exceedingly applicable to this conversation. Highly recommend!

I think we need an education system that more overtly values the individual.

I think we need an education system that more overtly values the individual. So rather than trying to fit lots of different kinds of kids into a standardized system that values conformity and efficiency, I’d like to see a system that started with that kid and actually honored all the things about them that make them unique, recognizing that today’s world asks us to be much more creative and entrepreneurial than ever before. And then based on who that learner is, what their circumstances and values are, the system should support them in being connected with the best learning experiences for them at that moment in time. And finding pathways that meet their needs and help them become self-managers, socially intelligent, solution seekers. This probably sounds abstract – we have actually been researching this for years and have governance and finance models to support it, and a learning framework deeply rooted in the science of the brain and how we learn – but getting into all that would make this interview even longer than it already is!

At the end of the day, I believe it all comes down to agency. At ReSchool we refer to this definition that says agency is the capacity and propensity to take purposeful initiative—or the opposite of helplessness. And if we look at the people in our own lives that by society's definition are really successful, they are all people that have a strong sense of agency. It doesn’t mean they haven’t faced hardship, but they are resilient and keep working to achieve the conditions they want in their lives and the lives of others. That’s the second part of the definition. I should probably cite that somehow.

Do you think schools are currently playing this role?

There’s such good work being done by well-intentioned people to level the playing field so the color of your skin or your zip code doesn’t determine your life outcomes. But it’s so scary when that comes up against the actual breakdowns in our society. Because no matter what has happened to ‘prepare kids for life,’ kids are not the problem. The problem is this unequal society that we are all, in a way, complicit in.

No. When I think about our current system of schooling, I think it’s structured so that some kids have the opportunity to develop agency over time and it’s encouraged and valued for them to do so, but other kids are delegated to these environments where they are expected to be more passive and compliant consumers, or they’re stuck in these really toxic power dynamics that more closely resemble our criminal justice system and the institution of school has been really dehumanizing for them. And that creates an unequal system, which represents our unequal society.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about our societal values dictating who gets and who deserves certain kinds of educations. Sometimes it’s more implicit than explicit, but you can see it throughout the history of school reform and with the simple fact that access to education is still linked to housing in our country. Like, that alone just blows my mind. But I've also been thinking about which world we’re preparing kids for—the world that we wish we had or the world that we actually have. Because so often our structures in schools are set up to reflect our structures in society. If we went back to that question of what we actually wanted for all kids, I think there would be a pretty clear answer about what all kids deserve. But it doesn’t reflect what we do in practice. I think you and I are a part of this community of people that recognizes everyone's worthiness of the best education they can possibly have. There's such good work being done by well-intentioned people to level the playing field so the color of your skin or your zip code doesn’t determine your life outcomes. But it's so scary when that comes up against the actual breakdowns in our society. Because no matter what has happened to “prepare kids for life,” kids are not the problem. The problem is this unequal society that we are all, in a way, complicit in.

I think I struggle with this like you. Do you try to fix the system, or do you teach kids how to simply survive in this world that we know is unjust? I don’t know how I feel about it. We have to keep digging into this…

I think our best chance is to focus on this idea of building agency, so kids can actually be the change agents and spread that better way of being to their peers and families and communities, so we can get there someday.

It’s so aligned with this conversation that you all are inspiring with RE-ENVISIONED. Our lack of common purpose around what schooling is for, but also who schooling is for. I don’t know where you start to address it, but my one hope is that every generation in the history of our country I think has been more open-minded and progressive than the generation before it. I hope that by broadening every child’s world-view and by nurturing their innate ability to show compassion towards each other, that we’re actually building a generation that's better than our own and that can relate to each other in ways that are healthy and affirming - better than the way we are doing now. I think our best chance is to focus on this idea of building agency, so kids can actually be the change agents and spread that better way of being to their peers and families and communities, so we can get there someday.

I’m getting a little emotional over here!

I mean I’m kind of clenching my fists over here while we’re talking about this because I get so fired up about it.

So, we’re going to step back here and get a little more “big picture.” Why do you think we have schools as a society? Why should the government provide schooling for everyone?

I have two thoughts - one is super cynical and one is more hopeful. I’ll go in that order.

With my social work lens it's hard not to see the world as “haves” and “have-nots.” It’s this very functionalist perspective. So, the cynical explanation of schooling, whether this was intentional or not, has been to perpetuate that sorting mechanism. I mean, if we actually had equal access to education and opportunity for all kids, we wouldn’t be seeing this massive income inequality between the rich and the poor in our country. That stems directly from an opportunity gap. So that’s the cynical explanation.

I think the hopeful explanation is that schooling actually exists as a human right, as something that empowers you to participate meaningfully as a citizen in our society and contributes to the civic health of our communities, both locally and globally. And through that process, people find personal meaning and fulfillment, and ways to contribute that are validating of who they are and that make them feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves. That’s the hopeful explanation.

Could you tell me more about what it means to you to participate meaningfully as a citizen?

I still think it comes back to the expression of your agency and having a voice: that you can create conditions for yourself rather than have them created for you or to you. But I’m already starting to question why I went to that word “citizen.” It’s a total tension, since our society seems to operate on the premise that some people are given more opportunity to do that, and if you’re lucky enough to be in that position, there’s this perverse incentive to hold onto it for yourself even at the expense of others. And people feel entitled to what they’ve “worked” for, even if their privilege was mostly responsible.

So in thinking about education as a human right, it almost feels more urgent to me to elevate the message around the individual. Maybe it’s that citizenry language that becomes dangerous in a way because it allows us to perpetuate this idea that everyone just needs to get along at a basic level to move society forward, and if you suffer as an individual that's not really our collective problem.

That’s really poignant. Man, we are getting into it!

I mean you can see that playing out right now. It’s the same basic tenet of white privilege: in order to dismantle it, it actually requires white people giving up that privilege and making space. I think we all know what it would take right now to make this world more humane and safer for disenfranchised and oppressed people. It’s a matter of the people in positions of privilege willing to do that right now.

Do you think people agree with you on your responses to these different layers of questions?

No. Well, I think some people probably do. But, definitely not everyone. It’s pretty clear at this moment in time in our country that people have drastically different beliefs on how they think we should treat people, and schooling is a big part of that. I think back to the things you and Erin have taught me and I know people don’t currently have a common definition of schooling and its purpose. I don’t think I did! Which is crazy, because I work in education. And I'm not just saying this because I love RE-ENVISIONED but I don't think the conversation is being had enough to allow people to discover that common definition. It’s easy to say we want great things for all kids, but it's a lot harder to facilitate that within existing societal structures that feel designed to prevent it. Some people are trying to make change, but others are really okay with the state of how things are. And even when you think you're making change happen, you never quite know if you're doing right by those kids. It requires constant reflection and introspection that is just not a natural part of the work or the way our society moves forward day to day.

"Yes. I'm thinking about my grandmother, who has gone on this incredible life journey of how to tell her story. She's a Holocaust survivor and spent her years from the age of 9 to 14 in hiding in Poland where she grew up. Literally stopped her formal schooling after the 2nd or 3rd grade and lived in secret inside the attic of a Christian woman. She had to spend the rest of her life trying to make meaning of that experience, and she always felt like she had to compensate for her lack of formal schooling."

"Yes. I'm thinking about my grandmother, who has gone on this incredible life journey of how to tell her story. She's a Holocaust survivor and spent her years from the age of 9 to 14 in hiding in Poland where she grew up. Literally stopped her formal schooling after the 2nd or 3rd grade and lived in secret inside the attic of a Christian woman. She had to spend the rest of her life trying to make meaning of that experience, and she always felt like she had to compensate for her lack of formal schooling."

Can you tell me about an empowering educational experience that you’ve had, either within formal schooling or outside of it? What made it empowering?

Yes. I'm thinking about my grandmother, who has gone on this incredible life journey of how to tell her story. She's a Holocaust survivor and spent her years from the age of 9 to 14 in hiding in Poland where she grew up. Literally stopped her formal schooling after the 2nd or 3rd grade and lived in secret inside the attic of a Christian woman. She had to spend the rest of her life trying to make meaning of that experience, and she always felt like she had to compensate for her lack of formal schooling. Even after immigrating to the US, she didn't talk about it for her whole adult life when she and my grandfather, who was in a concentration camp, were raising my dad and his sister.

I went to a public school in New Hampshire that had a pretty extensive Holocaust unit in 8th grade. I think back now on how much time we spent on that topic considering all the other constraints schools are under, and it makes me really proud to be from that community that places such a long-standing value on learning about really dark parts of our history. When my older sister was in 8th grade, she asked my grandmother if she would come speak to her class. This was before we’d ever heard her story directly, but after my grandfather passed away and still a time when my grandma wasn't talking about this part of her life. And miraculously she agreed.

Now she will tell you this is the ultimate way to make meaning out of her tragic experience, through education and teaching others with the hope that we learn from history and strive to be better.

So she came to my sister’s 8th grade class and shared her story, and over the next few years she spoke about it more and more and even started to write some of it down. So three years later when I was in 8th grade she came back, and I will never forget the feeling of being in that classroom with all of my peers, and being so nervous about how they would react. We were 14 - these are kids I grew up with. I knew they were smart and good, but I was worried about how they would respond. When the time came for my grandmother to share her story, I remember the bell going off for dismissal in the middle of it, and I looked around the room and not a single one of my classmates was standing up or moving from their seat to get ready to leave. They had their eyes fixed on her as she talked about being exactly our age and being liberated in Poland. It made me so proud of my peers and of our collective maturity and compassion and desire to learn and empathize. I can still visualize it to this day.

"She will tell you to this day that her biggest regret is that she was robbed of her education. But see, she’s learned to create her own. And because she’s made learning such a big part of her life, it became a really important part of my family’s life and of my own life. And here I am today!"

"She will tell you to this day that her biggest regret is that she was robbed of her education. But see, she’s learned to create her own. And because she’s made learning such a big part of her life, it became a really important part of my family’s life and of my own life. And here I am today!"

A few years ago I had the opportunity to go back to Poland with my grandma and visit these places of her other life. It was the only the second time she’d gone back to Poland since the war. That kind of relationship and kind of learning is something that most schools cannot give. But I think about who I am today and how I make meaning, and it’s largely because of those relationships and those experiences.


Now she goes all over Florida, where she lives now, speaking to kids in schools - it's crazy to think about how few Holocaust survivors are still alive. I think about the meaning that she’s made for her life by making herself a seat at the table and using her voice all over. It's a beautiful story that I’ve been able to be a part of. She will tell you to this day that her biggest regret is that she was robbed of her education. But see, she’s learned to create her own. And because she’s made learning such a big part of her life, it became a really important part of my family’s life and of my own life. And here I am today!

Nicole HenselComment