This is the question being put to all of Randolph's 8th graders through 8Lead. And it’s not a theoretical one. It’s an actual question each student is expected to answer individually over the course of the school year. How will they grapple with this question? What topics will speak to their hearts? How will they educate themselves about the topic they select? What will they, charged with this enormous-sounding task of being agents of change, decide to do? (No bake sales allowed.) How do you even know what your interests are at this age, let alone who you are and what you can offer the world?
What topics will speak to their hearts?
We are tracking the inaugural year of the 8Lead project and its eventual outcome by following several students as they progress through the four stages of the project from discovery to agency. We hope their journey will help our community understand the aims and purpose of the project, which is unique of its kind. How does a project like this impact the participants as students and as people? Maybe it will also prompt this year’s 7th graders to start thinking about what they want to do when they have this class next year. Maybe it will inspire others to look at the opportunities for learning and growth in their own communities.
By late September, the students heard from 13 people involved with different areas of community work. They wrote reflections and started to think about where they might want to learn more. At the end of October, they found a topic that spoke to them. The next phase of the course will involve conducting interviews with people in the community who can tell them more about their areas of interest.
Jackson likes helping people. “I love this project because that’s what it’s about,” he says. But he’s not sure yet where he wants to help. He enjoyed hearing about Merrimack Hall. Last summer his older sister helped out with a citywide special needs swim team based at his pool. He had no idea there were so many kids with disabilities in our community or that finding activities out of school was a problem. He might want to volunteer with the after-school classes at Merrimack Hall. He wondered what it would be like to figure out how to work with kids who think differently. He was also affected by hearing from HEALS that there are children in our area who can’t afford health care. “Lots of people in our community can’t have the same things or opportunities that we have,” he said, “and I realize how fortunate we are.” His favorite subject is history, and he loves music. He is a member of the Randolph swim and golf teams and plays acoustic and electric guitar outside of school. He also enjoys making fishing lures and plastic bait with friends. He thinks that interviewing people will be the most challenging part of the project. By October, he decided to concentrate on special needs and autism.
Abby does cheerleading at the Matrix and loves babies. She might like to be a pediatrician or a teacher. She was struck by the story they heard from one of the speakers about the downfall of the model who became homeless. “It was really interesting.” As for being one of the students selected for this narrative, she adds, “We’d better write good reflections!” A month in Abby decided to focus on babies in neonatal units and ways their parents can be supported. She has identified some people to speak to: a parent of a child who was premature and someone who volunteers in the NICU at Huntsville Hospital.
Major’s interests are animals and sports. Of the field trips the class took, his favorite was Hays Nature Preserve. All the speakers were inspirational and sparked ideas. He thought about volunteering with A New Leash on Life. But in spite of enjoying the speakers during the first quarter, he says now that wasn’t so sure about the project as a whole. “A month ago, I didn’t care for it,” he admits. What changed? “Facts!” he says, “and doing the ‘I wonder’ questions.” He shows me the figures on kill rates for a range of years. He wants to promote No Kill shelters. When he started gathering data on euthanasia of dogs in local animal shelters, Major found his topic, or his topic found him. He looks forward to conducting interviews.
Evelyn agrees about the speakers. “I hope I can help like they have.” She wants to work with children, and she loves dance. Hearing Debra Jenkins speak about the programs she has started at Merrimack Hall to provide arts and other activities for people with disabilities led her to volunteer as a helper in one of the dance classes. In terms of unearthing a specific interest or passion, she was initially unsure. “People go to college and don’t know what they will major in, and even if you do know, it can change by midday.” Evelyn has since narrowed her focus to single mothers, or more specifically, the problem that working single parents have in the summer when they can’t afford to pay for activities for their children. She would like to know what’s involved in offering a free weeklong camp.
“This is really intense,” says Nataly the first time we talk. “This is the first time anyone has done this project. The scope is really open. You’re always trying to figure yourself out. My father is a doctor,” she says, “and that was always his passion, but I’m not sure what mine is yet.” A month later, she decided to focus on art therapy and learning disabilities.
“Not having really defined rules can be stressful for some people,” Evelyn says, but she prefers it and, she adds, “It’s nice once you start doing research.”
Abby says that she is one of those people who like having the rules, “but I’m coping,” she laughs.
“I want to do it to make my community a better place and to be a better person.”
One rule they do have is that their project cannot be a fundraiser. That’s your first thought of how you can help, they say, but the fact that you have to find other ways makes you dig deeper. Evelyn says her first impulse was to make jewelry to sell to help, but she asks, “Do you pay someone’s utility bill or do you figure out a way for them to be able to go to work to earn the money instead?”
“As you think more about how you can help without just doing a bake sale, you get more involved in thinking about your community,” Nataly says.
“I want to do it to make my community a better place and to be a better person,” says Major.
Statistics, personal stories, getting more information, and meeting people who had conviction and dedication were all key factors in helping them to select their individual topics. By April they hope to be able to present their own projects in compelling fashion, too.
They agree that the open-ended nature of the class was initially daunting, but now that they have roughed out directions and are planning interviews they are more invested and less bothered by the lack of precedent. How might this help them deal with uncertainty or an initially negative reaction to something in other classes? “Try it and see how it goes before you make assumptions,” Major says.
In our next installment, we will hear about their interviews. You can follow news of the class on Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag #8lead.