"Ms. Rachel"

A little note to begin: Happy anniversary to my parents! They're celebrating 40 years of marriage together - quite remarkable and an inspiration! All my love to you both :-)

We’ve finished our first program with advanced high school students, held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The students were fantastic, and I’m reminded again of why I do love teaching. It’s also inspiring to watch really smart youngsters experience a new way of learning for the first time. It’s similar to the way I remember performing with an outstanding orchestra for the first time at Eastman. We students brought such energy, enthusiasm, and passion to our performances not simply because of our love for music, but because of the newness and freshness we brought to exploring, learning and performing a great piece of music in a shared experience together. [Additionally, I hear and see this repeatedly with student performances at NEC; most memorable for me was the The Rite of Spring performance in April 2013, with the added energy and passion from the student’s need to share something good in the community following the Boston marathon bombings.]

Going into this week, the second full week of the fellowship, I decided to flip my approach to teaching leadership communications. Last week, I began with Aristotle’s rhetoric then followed into the overview of public narrative. The students had a quality learning experience last week and delivered excellent public narratives at the end, yet I wanted to explore if I might encourage deeper learning and understanding of the topic within the four workshop sessions. Another impetus for my change was realizing that one of my teaching fellow colleagues covered similar material in the speech competition (required of every participants). Instead of beginning both the speech competition and my workshop with these similar ideas, I instead started my session with the public narrative material and then concluded with a quick recap of the overlapping material - a great review for the students as they went into the speech competition only an hour after my session ended.  Starting with this material seemed to engage the students more immediately, as it put their minds into directly thinking about their own leadership actions, words, and potential development. 

For my sessions, I’m attempting to teach the public narrative theory I learned from HKS professor Marshall Ganz. This was a course taken during my first semester of grad school, and was truly transformational for me. The concepts of public narrative is that it requires the “leader” to find a way to communicate his or her values through stories, first by telling a story of him/her self, then finding a way to tell a story of “us” (to build common ground among a community), and concluding with a story of “now” (calling other to action to help the storyteller achieve the goals / work desired). One major difficulty lies in the inadequate amount of time for these concepts to be fully understood - but, such is the case when one tries to distill an entire semester’s worth of learning into four 80-minute sessions. While lacking in comparison to the actual course, I know each Fellow tries our individual best to still make the experience a thorough and meaningful as possible.

In teaching this public narrative concept, it’s critical to build an environment of trust among all participants so that students feel safe in crafting and sharing their stories. This was a critical component to my own class experience, and it’s something I try to replicate with each group of students in my classes this summer. After two weeks of teaching the public narrative theory, I’m understanding how differently each student interprets this material. While the basic concepts seem to be broadly understood, each student interprets the meaning in uniquely different ways based on his/her own life experience. Encouraging each student, especially in larger classrooms, requires a commitment to individual unlike I’ve experienced before …. yet I think I improved on how I achieved it this week.

Throughout the four sessions, one is spent on developing the story of self, a second on the story of us, and the third on the story of now. The last part of the third session and beginning of the final session is reserved for each participant to deliver his / her speech, then the remainder is spent on the public speaking overview. For fun, I’ve been keeping a journal each week of what the student presentations focus on. This week, the students’ (ages 14-19) speeches included:

  • being concerned about humanity, as told through the lens of how we take care (or not) other animals and pets
  • struggles with racial bullying
  • struggles with bullying that lead to dreams of violence, yet sharing the dreams of building empathy and providing hope for others
  • injustices with police brutality, and standing up for a just and equal society 
  • taking a stand for a friend who was bullied for being gay
  • the importance of building unity among teams, as told through the lens of a school basketball team who fought
  • taking a stand for a friend who was bullied after going bald during cancer treatments, and how he helped turn the bullying into an opportunity for learning among students and teachers alike
  • the struggles one had of self confidence when being demanded to have perfection in piano competitions, and inspiring others find / take internal pride in self achievements
  • struggles of feeling alone, without a sense of belonging, and asking others to have empathy
  • struggles with bullying and thoughts of suicide, asking society to be more empathetic and aware 
  • struggles with parental pressure, whether to pursue individual dreams or pursue the practical job for the “Asian middle class” that would ensure financial stability
  • the importance of family support, as told through a friend’s struggle of being an orphan, unable to go pursue college due to missing documentation and no one to be an advocate to help out 
  • through group collaboration experiences, calling on others to take self-initiative to do the right thing
  • struggles with bullying and suicide, encouraging others to be sensitive and believe they can make a difference for those in need
  • overcoming the idea of suicide from feeling totally alone, stressing the importance of compassion among everyone
  • the inability to understand why everyone does not have access to education, especially the poor, calling on others to help change the system and cost structure to provide equal opportunities 

Once all of the narratives were delivered, I asked students to raise their hand if they had publicly talked about their topic before. Not one single student raised his or her hand. For each, this was the first time they dug deep into what holds meaning and value, and tried to put this into words to inspire others. They each found the courage to tell his/her own story, some very personal and raw, and some borrowed from caring for a friend, yet each one tied their motivations into a tangible way to encourage and inspire others to take action. Each learner began to understand that leadership is not simply a title by virtue of a position of seeming authority, but instead began to understand that leadership can be enacted through the words and actions used to inspire others to make a difference. For many of the students, understanding that they each have a choice to use their own voice to make a difference was a transformational learning experience. 

There were so many other moments throughout that week that I hope I can always remember. For example, the excitement of students realizing that failure is a necessary part of education, after trying to interview people in the mall for Jaye’s design thinking class. Or hearing the passion resonate in all seven finalists in the speech competition, regardless of shaking hands or quivering voices. Or the bright eyes and eager minds who would pull each of us fellows aside for random conversations about our workshop topics or just to learn what life and school is like at Harvard (or Stanford, where two of this year's fellows come from). In our closing awards ceremony and dinner Friday evening, there was a wonderful open forum where Fellows, staff, students, and parents could get up and share their thoughts and memories about the week-long camp experience. The microphone was dominated by students for nearly an hour as they recounted the memories, learning, laughs, and changes they’ve experienced throughout the five days together. More than one student shared how they dreaded coming to the camp, yet publicly said his/her parents had the right to say “I told you so!” - meaning that the overall camp experience was well worth the student’s time and intellectual investment to attend. Another student recounted his experience, saying at the beginning of the week the fellows seemed completely unapproachable due to our labels / degrees from Harvard and Stanford. Yet within only a few days time, the student realized that we were just people, too, and the openness towards learning and engaging with us fellows was palpable. Instead of shying away or quietly waving from across the hall, we could see this change in approachability among all the students, hearing our names, “Ms. Rachel!”, called out in the cafeteria, classes and hallways. We tried to encourage students with ways to continue this learning, to hold on to their inspiration, and to keep their friendships and networks alive. Given the number of hugs, selfies, autographs, and follow-up emails, I truly hope these kids will keep their own dreams alive.

This teaching fellowship has been a wonderful way to reflect on my HGSE experiences from the past two years. I’ve been continually reviewing my own notes and learning, pulling in various elements from nearly every single one of my HGSE classes into the classes that I lead each week. The energy it takes to be “on” in the classroom, to spur thinking, connect ideas, and encourage individual learning and application, never ceases to amaze me. Perhaps this is due in part (at least this time) to the fact that this is the first time that I’m not in a music environment, the world that has been my comfort zone for my career to date. I’ve wanted to explore how these transferrable skills could be applied to areas outside of music, and this Fellowship has been a great opportunity to develop the capacity and language to think beyond my comfort zone. As I think back on this week and the genuinely warm reception the students gave us at the closing ceremony last night, I am again reminded of the story Professor Karen Brennan told at the HGSE commencement ceremonies only a few weeks ago.  While students feel they receive life-changing experiences through an intensive educational experience, often times it’s the instructor that gains just as much (if not more) from sharing the classroom with great students.