During the 2015-16 school year, various educators from STC Newark schools created a monthly Writing Group. This open forum provided a collaborative and supportive environment for any school faculty or staff members to hone their own writing skills through sharing stories stemming from their time as an educator. The following is a piece written by Erin Sweeney, the Executive Director of STC Newark. This piece and others are included in STC Newark’s first publication “Advancing Our Schools”, which will be released in the coming months.
We share it here because the theme of learning by doing is a timely one as we focus our energies on helping schools provide their students with real-world learning for the 21st century.
In the decade after graduating from the University of Chicago, I returned a few times to the cold, snowy city in the dead of winter to participate in my alma mater’s career exploration day, Taking the Next Step. I always sat on the “Government” panel, which consisted of 5 alumni discussing our careers in local, state, or federal government. Inevitably, most questions during Q &A would be sent my way as I was representing what many saw as the sexiest of all government careers – the U.S. Foreign Service.
I understood the allure, of course. Only a few years earlier, I sat in those chairs picturing my future life as a diplomat as I already knew I would be joining the Foreign Service as a Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellow. I spent most of college thinking about where I might live and what adventures awaited me. I also spent inordinate amounts of time stressing over which classes I should take with which professors and what knowledge I needed to know because, despite having the job already lined up, I was still a UChicago student with a singular focus of intellectual preparedness for everything. But, it took only a few days in my first State Department internship a week after college graduation for me to realize that, even with top scores in rigorous, theory-based courses on foreign policy or diplomacy, pretty much none of that mattered and I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.
Thus, every year at this panel, I was quickly reminded of that UChicago belief in intellectual preparedness when the first question in Q&A would without fail be, “What classes did you take that prepared you for being a diplomat?” My answer was always the same, “Other than learning a language, there were no courses in college or grad school that prepared me for this career. The best thing that prepared me was being in a sorority.” Now, you can imagine the pain and anguish in the faces of the students. A sorority??? The vast majority of UChicago students see Greek Life as the opposite of intellectualism. To say that a sorority prepared me for such a competitive and appealing career was blasphemy to the ears of most. Yet, I took joy saying it because it was the truth. You can’t learn diplomacy in books – you have to learn it by doing it. And nothing prepared me more for cocktail parties, networking, and dealing with difficult people than being in a sorority. That is learning by doing.
Many years later, after leaving the State Department, I found myself rejoining the nonprofit sector as a strategy director at St. Benedict’s Prep, an all-boys high school in Newark, NJ. This incredible 150-year-old school has spent the last few decades providing a prep school and leadership curriculum to mostly lower income, minority students from Newark and its neighboring cities. One of its many unique elements is the school year that begins with a 5-week Summer Phase during which older students take electives. I was invited to teach and I immediately knew what I wanted to teach – Intro to Diplomacy.
I knew there were many other classes I could teach – perhaps a literary course or one based more in scholarly writing. I could have taught African studies or public policy. But I knew that, though those classes might be better aligned with academic skills and assessments, what our students (like all young people) needed most was real life experience – learning by doing. And the best way I knew how to teach that was through something fun, interactive, and educational: diplomacy.
“Hello! Welcome! Please come in and grab yourself a refreshment. So happy to welcome you to my mansion. Welcome – come on in…” I started the first day of class at the classroom door, greeting each student like a flight attendant greeting passengers. But unlike entering a plane, students were instantly confused as they came into the classroom. Why was Ms. Sweeney being so weird? Why were there refreshments in the front? And why was she welcoming us to her mansion? The small third floor classroom in a 100-year-old building was a far cry from a mansion. But in they came, putting down their bags near the desks that had been pushed back along the wall, then racing to the food/drink table.
Once all had entered, I would turn down the jazz music playing on my laptop and formally welcome my guests, thank them for coming, and have us all then applaud the world-famous jazz band gracing us with their presence. I would then very clearly explain the instructions: “Please enjoy our mocktail party today and focus on meeting at least three new individuals. Find out their names, where they are from, what grade they are in, what sports they play or activities they are part of, and some interesting facts or information about them.” Then the music would start up again and the mingling would continue.
When there was about 15 minutes left in class, I would turn down the music, thank everyone for his attendance, give one final round of applause for our “band,” and have everyone grab a seat. At this point, we switched from mocktail party to classroom and I’d ask the boys what just happened. Some might still have felt confused, but by this point, most knew exactly what was happening – an activity designed around the art of networking. I would then have every student take out a piece of paper and write down what they learned about the three (or more) new individuals they met. This inevitably was met by mostly faces of panic. “But you never told us this was an assignment! What? We didn’t know we were supposed to do that!” And yet, a few students would have huge smiles on their faces and would say, “She said it at the beginning when we came in” and then get feverishly to work writing out everything they remembered.
I love this session. And, despite their discomfort during and fear afterwards when they realize they didn’t remember anything they learned, the boys love it too. Networking is one of the most vital skills a person must learn in order to be successful professionally and, perhaps, personally. Yet, we don’t teach it. My sorority taught me how to network – how to get in and out of difficult conversations, how to work a room, how to come to a cocktail party with a specific agenda. Those skills were necessary for being an effective diplomat. Yet, I never learned these skills in school.
When I arrived at UChicago, I found myself sorely unprepared – not academically (my public high school in rural NJ had done a decent job), but socially. I had no idea how to work a room, how to build social capital, or what that even meant. So I was already way behind all the others who were building networks. When I looked at my students in this urban, mostly low-income and minority community, I knew that they would have an even bigger jump to the world of social capital and building networks. Everyone knows that the best way to get ahead is to know someone, and many of these students will start with nearly no professional network. They may get perfect grades in college, but without a network, they will face some tough challenges in the job hunt, if they even make it through the stresses of college. So, this mocktail party was not just for fun; this mocktail party was for survival.
Not every day in our class was exciting and fun. Some days we did quizzes or had lectures. But I designed the course so that at least two to three days each week were based in what I called “skill-building” sessions, the biggest section of their grade. These sessions ranged from giving elevator pitches (students had a quarter length of the track to brief the “ambassador” on an emergency situation that they just read about from an article) to examining negotiation through the Prisoner’s Dilemma activity.
It wasn’t all physical activities either. Throughout the term, students were introduced to the policy memo and were taught how to develop arguments and write a short, concise, yet persuasive memo to the leader of a country. They had to do research about the topic, analyze pros and cons, and fit everything within two pages, something many learned was harder to do than they thought.
Still, by the end of the term, students had experienced five weeks of learning by doing and the lessons stay with them to this day. I frequently get messages from former students such as, “Ah! I am at a cocktail party and I am loving it! I am meeting so many people!” to “I just briefed my boss on something and he was so impressed with how to-the-point I was” to even “My internship at the Hill has me writing memos! When the Chief of Staff asked all the interns, ‘Who has written a memo before?’ I was the only one who raised a hand.” These are real, tangible skills and this is why learning by doing is so important.
My diplomacy class is just one example of how to integrate learning by doing in a classroom. I am convinced that nearly all skill sets, both academic and professional, can be taught through interactive activities, where students get a chance to try out skills instead of just reading about them. This same focus of learning by doing has been embraced by K-12 schools throughout the country who are building out program-based learning programs. Higher education has put a larger emphasis on internships, externships, job shadowing, and other skill building programs. Even nonprofit leadership organizations like the Girl Scouts have included “learning by doing” as one of their three main pillars of the Girl Scout Leadership Experience. I agree with this movement – if we want all of our students to be prepared for the future, we need to focus less on testing and more on creating opportunities for real life experiences and skill-building. We need to embrace learning by doing at all grade levels so that our students don’t start college and career even further behind their well-heeled peers.
At the end of the day, UChicago undergrads may never be able to fully shake their need to take the best classes or read the most theoretical of books. I expect that they will always ask me the same question as to which course to take to be “prepared” for the Foreign Service. And, to be honest, for the vast majority of students there who come from well-resourced upbringings with wider social networks, they might not need the sorority or the high school diplomacy class to teach them these skills. But if those of us who work in K-12 education with students from under-resourced areas, both urban and rural, want our students to have a chance at career success, we can’t leave it up to test prep, lectures, and books. We have to include real world learning so that our students too have the chance to truly thrive and be leaders in their future careers. It is all about learning by doing.
Schools That Can supports schools in offering more opportunities to “learn by doing” through our real-world learning partnerships and transition days.