Recently, I sat in a workshop in Washington D.C. sponsored by the Justice Department’s National Forum on the Prevention of Youth Violence. With me were senior policy advisors from different federal agencies, city leaders from around the country and leaders of national programs and nonprofits. The person conducting this workshop was not a career politician or a seasoned expert in youth advocacy. The person conducting this workshop was a 15-year-old sophomore from Randolph School named Saahil Katyal.
Saahil, along with another student, described Legacy Huntsville, a workforce development plan created by students at Randolph School and Butler High School. He engaged the entire audience as he explained how Huntsville industries had been asked to challenge students with a problem that could be solved with their present technologies. He gave his audience an overview of Randolph’s integration into the wider community through the development of a partnership with the Village of Promise and the creation of a math program. He demonstrated how he is helping develop the program, by leading a team to create an interactive textbook and as an officer in Randolph’s Youth Leadership Council.
Saahil described the philosophical framework of society he learned through Randolph's Community Learning program. He explained the process for analyzing a city’s comparative advantage and governmental structure and how that analysis leads to the identification and solution of a problem. He led the participants through activities used in our Community Learning program to help individuals identify their talents; transform those talents into marketable skills; and take part in community-focused problem solving.
During the 75-minute workshop the audience was rapt, engaged and inspired by the passion, communication skills and knowledge of this young man. Saahil not only demonstrated his understanding of different strands of thought and complicated material, but also his ability to weave them together in a compelling way.
What impressed me the most as I watched Saahil engage some of our country’s leaders was all of the members of the Randolph community who had prepared him for this moment.
I thought of all the English teachers who had laid the foundation for his communication skills. I thought of the Social Studies teachers who had facilitated his ability to analyze civic structures and social phenomena. I thought of the math and science teachers who shaped his ability to engage in quantitative and qualitative analysis. I thought of his peers who, as iron sharpens iron, motivated him to discover the best within himself and share it with others. I thought of his parents who consistently encouraged him and exposed him to opportunities that would expand his thinking and fuel his learning. I thought of the sacrifice they made to invest in his education. The preparation of this young man was a community effort. However, I fear few of us see our collective contribution to this young man’s future success.
I do what I do because the greatest gift I can give a student is a glimpse of his or her potential to impact the world.
Imparting this gift can be difficult and it can be scary. It can be difficult because as an educator I have to see my students as individuals. I cannot create a pedagogical template that only fits one type of student. What I create must accommodate the visual, auditory and tactile learner. It must provide opportunities for the extrovert as well as the introvert. It must take into consideration multiple cultures, political and religious ideologies and skills. I have to take the time to discover the talents, learning style and intellectual abilities of each of my students so that I can create opportunities for all of my students. This effort takes time and patience. The process, connections and purpose will be different for every student. The community learning program being built here at Randolph helps students see how the skills and lessons they are learning in their academic classes intersect with the world around them. It helps them see how they can use their knowledge and skills to make things happen.
It is scary because potential is discovered through tasks and opportunities that stretch me and my students by putting us in unfamiliar and uncomfortable places.
This workshop was not Saahil’s first experience presenting at this level. At fourteen, he addressed his local city council, various corporate leaders and officials at NASA, the Department of Education, World Bank, Federal Reserve and the Department of Justice. Each time, I was nervous about his preparation and his performance. I was nervous about how his presentation would impact his self-esteem. I was nervous about how his performance would reflect on me as an educator and Randolph as a school. Each time, Saahil and the other Randolph students who participate in Community Learning activities rose to the occasion and surpassed expectations.
The glimpse I want to give those students I engage can only be given if I challenge them and I challenge myself to grow. For them, it is a constant discovery of self and the ability to meet and overcome intellectual and social obstacles. For me, it is constantly going beyond the status quo of doing just enough to cover a curricular standard and seeking to discover more effective and progressive ways to reach and teach the next leaders of our society. Yes, it is difficult. Yes, it is scary. However, as far as Saahil Katyal is concerned, the result of our collective effort was a sophomore at our school standing before influential leaders and catching a glimpse of his potential to shape the world. This is why I do what I do.
Photo by JiJi Plotka '17