Real transformation begins on the ground level

150 preview copy for the article: This school leader in an innovative rural high school in Tennessee is empowering students to be change-makers and agents of their own change.

By Dustin Hensley

As most great stories do, this one begins with a deep hatred for my carpet – well, the school library’s carpet. Being a librarian in a small Appalachian community, I turned to the internet to find a grant to replace it. In my research, I discovered something called the XQ Super School Project. The winner of said competition would receive $10 million to rethink high school. My first thought? Just imagine the fancy flooring I could buy! My second thought? Share!

Allowing Young People to be Experts in Learning

I sent the proposal to a couple teacher friends – Alex Campbell and Daniel Proffitt-and we were in. Rather than doing it ourselves, we thought it would be best to invite Alex’s Sociology class to help design our super school with us. After all, who knows more about school than the learners? School is their lives. If we claim to be experts in teaching, we need to allow young people to be experts in learning.

Leading Change from the Ground Level

This is the beauty of the Super School Project – it encourages and empowers people on the ground level to lead the change when most of the “big ideas” have traditionally come from the top-down. When we talk about rethinking high school, students and teachers and the community have to be a part of the conversation. Otherwise, it’s just another program with a catchy acronym and tagline that’s doomed to fail. When change starts at the ground level, the cultural shift that’s required to make it succeed happens simultaneously. The people who are critical to the success of the effort are motivated because their voices are heard and they’re truly driving the progress.

This is how the Bartleby program began – as a semester of student research into education around the world, cognitive science, and student perspectives.

As students conducted the research for the Super School application, we discovered there were many aspects of traditional schooling – teaching to the test, hours of menial worksheets and homework – that students found uninspiring and even demeaning. Students expressed that school should make learners feel like better humans, not better robots. They sounded very much like Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, who spent his days performing menial tasks until he finally decided to exert will over his own life and object to these tasks. In honor of Bartleby, our program had a name.

Empowering Students to be Change-Makers

In creating the Bartleby Program at Elizabethton High School, we weren’t advocating for laziness or senseless rebellion. We were advocating for students to be challenged and evaluated in more meaningful ways. We wanted students to be empowered as the change-makers they wanted to be. And we have to listened to them at every step of the way.

Students want this as well. They want their ideas to be respected, challenged, and valued. They want to do work that has a real impact on themselves, their school, and the community. They want scheduling that is built around their learning and backed by neuroscience. We discovered that students truly do want to learn, they just want to have a voice in how they do it. After our first year of Bartleby, we’ve seen that this develops a huge amount of agency, responsibility, and ownership in their education. This is replacing apathy, truancy, and chronic discipline issues for many students.

Students Are Engaged? Now What?

Although we did not win the grand prize to build our new high school, we were given an even bigger challenge – to transform our traditional public school into an innovative, learner-centered model that could be emulated by other schools across the country. We began by adding two new classes the following school year, Community Improvement and Entrepreneurship. In these classes, we allowed students to work in our community and build relationships with government, non-profit, and business leaders and to start their own community project or business.

Seeking Equity Through Innovation

And though our original group of grant writers from our Sociology class has moved on, other students continue to pick up the mantle of seeking student voice and ownership of their education. As one student put it, “Day in and day out, constantly working for a better way to learn was a great goal to work towards, which further enhanced every single action of mine so that one day future generations could be inspired like I was, and further their education through those means.” As our students grew as learners and individuals they desired for more and more students to have those same opportunities. They sought equity through innovation.

Measuring Success by Many Different Metrics

The successes that we have seen through these classes can be measured with many different metrics. We’ve had students that did not achieve their final goal for the project, but made huge strides in their social-emotional development because of their struggles. They were allowed the space to fail and in doing so they completely changed many negative behaviors. What we’ve seen is that when we allow students to see that their success or failure depends on themselves, and our primary expectation is for them to learn and grow, they take it upon themselves to pursue their own comprehensive development. We don’t make them feel like a failure if they don’t reach their final goal, and we help them appreciate the growth and learn practical lessons through their projects.

One of our students, Sarrah, took on a project in a field that she knew almost nothing about – painting murals. She completed two during her senior year and now, as an alumna, is still leading the project and transforming our downtown. Another student, Colton, learned that through networking skills and talking to the right people, art can become a viable business endeavor while providing a public service. McKenna has been allowed to speak across our community and the country about how to end the stigmas around emotional distress and mental illness, which you can read about here.

Big Change Can Come From Simple Ideas

Now why did we start all of this talking about the carpet? Because it is important for students and educators not to ignore the things they don’t like. We have to abandon apathy and be a part of the solution. We have to be change makers motivated to find solutions to our problems and to our world’s problems – even if it’s just some old carpet.

A little motivation from one person to change something he didn’t like ultimately involved us in the greatest experiment in the history of high school education. And we are only beginning to see the potential for our school, community, and the role of education in American society. No matter what restraints and difficulties your school may have, transformation can happen by aligning your vision alongside students, teachers, administrators, parents, and your community.

Learn more about XQ school Elizabethton High School here.