Our alumni are working in ways small and large to make an impact in their communities. This “Alumni Profiles” blog series will feature some of our over 7,000 changemakers in 27 countries around the world who are working to transform conflict.
As an educator, Molly believes young people need to be taken more seriously.
Several years into her career, the 2018 GATHER Fellow began to realize that kids were too often underestimated, and that their sparks of creativity were easily dampened by one-size-fits-all school systems.
After spending two formative summers at Camp as a Delegation Leader (2011 and 2018), she started to wonder what would happen if school felt more like a camp—a place that prioritizes good human development, building meaningful relationships, and that believes young people are capable of doing big things while they are still young.
For the last three years, she’s been working to bring some of her most meaningful Camp experiences into the classroom. For Molly, that means building positive relationships between adults and young people, and giving students the freedom to learn by doing projects that matter to them—be it making a documentary about the management of a water system, or building an urban farm to study humans’ relationships with food production.
“There’s an idea that kids are empty vessels, and they’re taught to be consumers of information instead of expressive, creative people who can leverage their own tastes and interests to do work they care about,” she said. “That’s in part because we’re often so busy thinking about content transmission that we miss many of kids’ beautiful ideas that would lead to great work if we had more time or resources.”
Molly began her GATHER Fellowship while helping to create a new type of public high school, a projects-based school called Powderhouse Studios, in Massachusetts. And in August, she moved to San Diego to work with a more established projects-based school, High Tech High, where she is documenting students’ projects and co-designing a new program for 2019.
We recently caught up with Molly to discuss her inspirations, her work, and what can be done to improve young people’s educational experiences.
Seeds of Peace: You’ve been a Delegation Leader twice, and now you’re a GATHER Fellow. How have your Seeds of Peace experiences helped you in your work?
Molly: For one, it made me a much better listener. Also, having a community that I feel is like a second family is priceless. It’s lonely to try and do work where the systems that exist make that work hard to do. But the things that have had the most impact on me are the informal relationships, and being in dialogue and having a better understanding of how it’s facilitated. In the classroom, that dialogue can be used to help students talk about issues around gender, race, or class, but it can also just be about who’s going to use the camera next. And now, I feel like I’m much more intentional when I think about these things when they come up.
Seeds of Peace: What do you think is the most impactful thing that could be done to improve the educational system?
Molly: Too often, young people are just processed. They show up at school at too early of a time for their bodies, go from one class to another where the content often feels disjointed from their lives, then they go home. That often doesn’t work for so many people. There’s no silver bullet, or one-size-fits all, but the most important thing is structurally creating context that fosters real relationships between young people and adults, and situations where young people can really find themselves and be of service to something. That very rarely happens in our society.
Seeds of Peace: What does a situation like that look like?
Molly: Working on individual and shared projects to do different kinds of work—real work out in the world, not just simulations. I’m creating short films about Semester Upstream, a program at High Tech High in which young people made a documentary exploring the mismanagement of the Colorado River. Those kids not only learned about making a film and about where their water comes from, but now they are also really invested in the future of that river. It’s about creating situations where the goal is not content transmission, but supporting young people in doing the work they care about.
Seeds of Peace: But don’t you need the basic reading, writing, and arithmetic?
Molly: Yes, but those things in traditional academic settings are pretty disjointed, and it’s hard to learn something that’s not meaningful to you. For many kids, doing math problems on a worksheet is not the same as doing math or making a budget for a business that a kid wants to create. If it’s for your business, learning and doing math makes a lot more sense. It’s a combination of taking kids seriously, thinking they can do cool work, and connecting deep stuff to what they’re doing.
Seeds of Peace: You mentioned the importance of real relationships between young people and adults. Did you have any teachers or mentors who had an effect on you?
Molly: Definitely. I happened to have great relationships with my teachers, especially the ones who weren’t afraid to be their full selves around their students: They were passionate and enthusiastic about the content they were teaching, and I never felt condescended to. That’s something Seeds of Peace also does very well—building relationships and taking young people seriously. That is at the root of what I believe to be important in education, and I know that seems kind of obvious, but for some reason it’s hard for it to exist in traditional schools.
Seeds of Peace: What do you think teachers can do to form better relationships with their students?
Molly: One great way is to get out of the classroom with small groups. And let me say, the system can be really hard and I realize I’m in a luxurious position to be at school that’s flexible and that allows those opportunities. It’s almost impossible in most schools, but informal time through clubs, or informal conversations where the teachers can learn more about the students than they’re learning from you, or even just conversations in class asking them what they think about things going on in the world and how it makes them feel, can be really powerful.