2014 Bezos Scholar Christopher Kim and I started to brainstorm ideas for his Local Ideas Festival (LIF) on the plane ride home from Aspen. I specifically remember that flight for two reasons;
Overwhelmed is not a strong enough word to describe what I had just experienced during my week at the Aspen Ideas Festival. All I could think was “What just happened?” The entire week in Aspen was a blur. I was exhausted yet inspired. I could tell Chris felt similarly when I told him we should revisit our LIF brainstorm session after a couple weeks back on Maui, just so we could catch our breath.
We touched down in Maui several hours later. Symbolically, I was grounded—back to reality. No more lunching with Arianna Huffington, taking pictures with John Lewis, or shaking hands with David Brooks. After the week in Aspen, I was changed. It wasn’t the altitude or the lack of sleep; instead I found myself dreaming, and dreaming big.
I truly believed, probably for the first time in my 26-year teaching career, the old adage of “anything is possible.” Just a month prior, I was sitting in IEP’s, filling out forms, and looking at an impossible amount of emails in my inbox. After my week in Aspen all the DOE ‘busywork’ didn’t seem that important. The vision for my classroom and ‘what’s possible’ had changed. The bigger question was, “How could an experience like Aspen Ideas Festival and the Bezos Scholars Program not change you?”
After a week of coming back to sea level, I met with Chris again. We didn’t begin with ‘What’s possible?’ because we both knew - without any words exchanged – that anything was possible. Instead, I asked him, ‘What do you think is the biggest problem on Maui?’ Chris focused on Maui’s sustainable future.
Living on an island, most of our food and daily necessities are shipped over on barges. Growing our own food and relying less on imports has become more and more critical. Chris wanted to target younger students to educate them about the importance of recycling, reusing, and self-reliance. He decided to have a conference for 4th grader students and to bring in community organizations and professionals to run breakout sessions to educate them about how and why they should be thinking about sustainability. The goal was to help these students become empowered to start a LIF at their school as 5th graders.
The Maui Economic and Development Board quickly agreed to help us by providing a venue in coordination with their annual Hawai’i STEM conference. Maui Electric provided speakers and exhibits. Other professionals like the Hawaii Ant Lab, Maui Invasive species committee, Island Energy Inquiry, and the Maui Nui Botanical gardens, all jumped to be a part of the LIF. Chris even had a local solar company sponsor tee-shirts for all the attending students and healthy snacks were provided by Whole Foods. That first year we had over 200 elementary school students attend the Green Kidz Mini-Conference all-day sustainability festival.
The experience of trusting students to work with the community and plan large events has had the biggest impact on my classroom. Chris was a top student while coordinating his LIF and needed little help from me with contacting people, organizing the event, and pulling it all together. I was merely the adult signing letters, filling out purchase orders, and sending emails.
But about that same time, our school started to implement senior project as a graduation requirement for all students. The LIF experience, allowed me to trust our senior students with working on real world, purposeful, and important projects. We currently have students working with local hotels on their marketing, Maui Economic and Development Board internships around the community, and creating products for the Maui Food Bank. Senior projects are building a culture where seniors know and understand the value of being professional, take pride in their work, and have persistence in getting the job done. Thanks to senior projects, our reputation around the community has grown. We’re now at the point where companies are contacting us about our seniors for jobs and help with projects.
My week in Aspen and the years following have not only impacted my career, but is now spreading throughout our department of five other teachers. We’re thinking big! No longer do we allow students to settle for ‘good enough.’ We push, they pull, and when it’s all over, they thank us. I mean, isn’t that why we all became teachers in the first place?