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What Kids Can Do

   /   Mar 30th, 2011Education, Interviews

In an era of increasing anxiety about America’s education systems and headlines that ring alarms about US students’ poor international ranking, Barbara Cervone and Kathleen Cushman are working on a different narrative of our students and youth. Using their experiences as educators, writers and journalists, they created What Kids Can Do (WKCD), a national multimedia organization. WKCD utilizes the Internet, print, documentary as well as broadcast media to show the world exactly what kids can do. Their stories are thought provoking and introspective, engaging with local community issues as well as political and social reforms that concern both kids and adults. With the proper tools and coaching, kids can have a voice, and a well-thought-out, published voice at that.

Dowser: How did WKCD come together? What’s your story?
Cervone: I had always been involved with education reform, since my high school days actually. But I guess the real journey started in 2001 right after I resigned a big job I had as the national coordinator for the Annenberg Challenge, which was at the time the largest private initiative to reform the education system in the country. I worked with the organization for seven years when the tide was turning around with what I had been most passionate about with school reform. It seemed as though we were heading into an era where high stakes testing was what counted and real education was beginning to diminish. Powerful learning appeared to be shrinking opposed to expanding. It was that series of events that made me realize I needed a new path and that path was to think about what I could contribute to the social conversation about school and society. WKCD was born out of that desire.

What role does journalism play in WKCD?
Kathleen Cushman, who is a cofounder of the site and had been working with me as a writing consultant for the Annenberg Challenge, was also a long time journalist. Our original idea when we started the organization was to act as the journalists using every skill we had as journalists and writers to bring forward what young people could accomplish and the website would be the place where we would share that. We didn’t come into this with web design or technical skills, we simply saw journalism as a tool for bringing forward the voices of young people. But a few years into our work, as much inspired by funders as well as our own ideas, we saw a larger vision.

The first part of that vision was to begin publishing a series of books with young people as authors. We wanted them to share their own experiences through journalism, writing workshops, which were kind of like editorial board meetings, and first-hand interviews. From that started to emerge the idea of creating books with young people as authors or coauthors, empowering young people as knowledge creators to talk about topics like school reform where their voices needed to be heard. Many students took on role of becoming citizen journalists in order to address issues in their community that they thought were important. Many documentary film projects even emerged from that process. Even though they weren’t experts at teaching, they were experts at observing. From there we started our own non-profit press, Next Generation Publishing.

How do you teach journalism to the kids?
It’s a learn-as-you-go process, we promote learning by doing. I find that kids only need five minutes of introduction and then we go out in groups and it’s amazing what they do. We teach them how to conduct interviews and transcribe them, which they all of course hate [laughs] and later how to turn them into first person accounts. We also work on their editing skills, always with a product in mind.

How do the kids come up with story ideas? Are there any topics that are off-limit?
Nothing is off-limits. A point we try to make is that we favor deep work by adolescents opposed to covering things like kids having a dance to raise money for something. We sometimes shy away from topics that involve the role of faith in student’s lives only because we haven’t quite figured out how to fully address that yet. We also shy away from things that are about an individual student’s accomplishments. We look for things that raise new knowledge, social justice themes, things that inform a community.

There are stories they have to tell that are special to their age, gender or background. They’re unique and breathtaking often in their own right and open a new world to us. We find that when young people go out to tell other peoples stories they are often able to make connections that I wouldn’t be able to make walking into those same situations.

Who is your audience?
We see ourselves as speaking to a broad audience, not just young people speaking to young people. A lot of people talk about youth voice and youth expression, but that’s not us, we want kids to speak powerfully to adults of power as well as their peers; we want them to reach all. We believe that a well-told story reaches all sorts of audiences. Our goal is to create something that can speak powerfully to students in south Bronx as well as to state school officers; we encompass a variety of audiences.

How do you get such high quality work out of the youth?
Some people say working with us is both a blessing and a curse; we demand high standards. We believe in coaching kids and letting them decide what they want to write about, self-determination seems to be the key. We mentor and work with them, using the techniques that we know work like writers’ circles, workshops, reading out loud and making it clear that they need several drafts to make something really good. I remember once while working in Providence, Rhode Island, I made a kid go back and take this persons picture three times. I said, that’s fine if you were just sharing with the class, but this is being published.

I also think that another key to producing strong work is making it public and sharing it in a format that is professional. If the work is going to be in Barnes and Noble or screened at a particular place, a certain standard is set. So often young people’s work doesn’t leave the classroom, but what inspires them to work hard is that others will see it—public recognition. The idea that people might learn or be inspired or effected by their work means a lot to kids. They would rather have that than a trophy or a sash.

What are your insights from working with the youth? What is unique about working with this population?
It’s invigorating, it’s challenging and I feel like I’m always amazed with what I come across. Ill come across a 15-year-old kid who looks as though he’s had every strike against him and then he goes on to produce something incredible. I think, it must be divine intervention; it makes you feel inspired. There’s a freshness, a vibrancy, a directness, a truthfulness, a generosity of spirit when working with the youth. We give young people such a bad rap in this country. If we treat them poorly, they will act poorly, but I see a great hope in this generation.

How do you measure your success?
The easiest way is to count what we can count, like the number of visitors to the site, how many books we sold or how many people came to a particular workshop. We also look at the quality of work student’s produce. At the end of the day, it’s more informal than formal. It’s the feedback we get, or seeing what students who we have worked closely with on projects go on to do with their lives.

I see change in kids who have opportunity to spread their wings and be involved in respectful learning constantly. The best learning happens when students are engaged in the learning. Then they feel that it’s relevant or rigorous, that there is accountability, shared and meaningful accountability.

How are you financed?
We are mostly financed by large funders and a handful of major foundations who have supported us on and off over the years. We also get money from our published book sales, which probably accounts for about 25% of our income. We’ve never asked for individual donations and you won’t find a donate button on our website.

What are some of obstacles that WKCD has had to face?
There have been several big obstacles that we’ve had to deal with over the years. The first one being how to gain financial support and this continues to be a struggle. As much as people claim that youth is the future, the funding doesn’t reflect that. They might say, kids first, but I think that they should really say, kids last, because that’s what the funding reflects. Another major problem that we face is that people may talk about the importance of student voices, but in practice their voices still don’t carry the weight or get the attention that they deserve. We’ve seen an improvement and I think that this organization has aided that progression, but the voices of young people continue to be very far from the center of where decisions, especially decisions that affect them, are made.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

3 Responses

  1. [...] Children are vastly more capable than most schools give them credit for. When schools don’t get the kind of results that schools like Baker get, maybe it is because the whole program underestimates children. Educators from Tony Wagner at Harvard to Linda Darling-Hammond at Stanford have identified the kinds of skills the world will require of our graduates: focusing, making connections, changing perspective, creating, making judgments, finding meaning, working with others, managing conflict, planning, taking on challenges, persevering, etc. [...]

  2. Natalie says:

    “We’ve seen an improvement and I think that this organization has aided that progression, but the voices of young people continue to be very far from the center of where decisions, especially decisions that affect them, are made.”

    I think there is much to be said about this statement because it traverses into many social reforms, not just education, even though I aspire to focus on education as a social entrepreneur. Why this statement resonates with me is that I strongly agree that most of those who will have to face the consequences of decisions made are not being addressed. I especially understood this after travelling India for this social initiative and the concept was similar. It was focused on documenting stories around what issues they felt are affecting or have affected their lives. This was more focused on poverty, however it was about bringing awareness and providing a channel for these voices to be heard. That is why I admire what WKCD is doing and that it has brought that important issue to light. Sometimes those making the decision overlook it.