Author Manat Kaur with her teacher.
By Manat Kaur
Taking the first step to address an issue can seem like an insurmountable challenge. Having started Object—a nonprofit organization working to promote confidence in young girls—as a seventh-grader, I know this. Looking back, I can see how from as early as kindergarten, my teachers helped me develop into a changemaker and supported me on my journey.
There are four aspects of my education that I think helped me become a changemaker: exposure, project-based inquiry, trust and independence.
Through videos, books and speakers, my teachers broadened my horizons. In elementary school, we watched CNN 10, a 10-minute news segment, in history class, and then discussed the issues we learned about. These videos helped me understand, and develop empathy for, other communities and cultures, enabling me to step outside the Silicon Valley bubble where I had grown up.
We were tasked to brainstorm ideas about small actions people could take to address the issues in the news. During our brainstorming, I saw that change does not have to start with a big idea. It begins with small actions. Understanding this, I felt empowered to make a change.
Further, throughout my education, I was able to see myself as someone capable of making a change through community engagement projects. For example, my fourth-grade service-learning project gave me the opportunity to learn about and work to solve one of the problems in my community. As a class, we selected a problem we wanted to address together. Now that I was aware of the problems in my community, I was motivated to make a change.
“We are not going to solve our world problems unless we think of our communities,” says Esther Wojcicki, renowned journalism teacher and author of How to Raise Successful People.
Our class chose to address youth homelessness. We brainstormed how we could make a change. As optimistic and enthusiastic fourth-graders, practicality was not a concern! Our ideas ranged from providing free meals on weekends to pooling our allowances to buy a house for homeless children.
We decided to work with a local nonprofit, My New Red Shoes, to distribute clothing to low-income children. We visited the organization’s headquarters and helped them make distribution packages and cards. When I saw the impact my class of 17 fourth-graders had, I realized I wasn’t too young to make a change.
"I believe that trust is shown in the smallest actions. Having my teachers trust me motivates me to do better and has boosted my accountability, which is critical for any changemaker."
Having this self-confidence about my ability to make a change really helped me as I started Object. As a 13-year-old then, I was often outside my comfort zone, recruiting speakers and attendees for workshops, cold-emailing people and collaborating with adults. But my teachers believed in me, and so did I.
I’ve found that trust and independence are two of the most important qualities to foster a change-making environment in the classroom.
Wojcicki says her teaching philosophy includes Trust, Respect, Independence, Collaboration and Kindness, or TRICK. By treating her students with these values, she believes they will grow to become “people who feel they can achieve their dreams.”
I believe that trust is shown in the smallest actions. My English teacher has us take exams at home, trusting that we will not cheat. My history teacher trusts that we are keeping up with our assigned reading, never doing any assessments or annotation checks. Having my teachers trust me motivates me to do better and has boosted my accountability, which is critical for any changemaker. I choose to do things because I want to, not because I have to.
Wojcicki believes that independence is crucial in the classroom: “We keep underestimating the power of kids. They don’t need to be bossed around. They rise to the occasion.”
Being granted independence has allowed me to flourish as a learner and problem-solver; my experience in Freshman geometry illustrates this. Our teacher rarely gave us direct instruction. Instead, she told us to “play” with the math problems and experiment with different strategies to reach the solution. Initially, I found this independence to be frustrating and wished for more guidance. But, over time I noticed my math skills improve exponentially.
These problem-solving skills have helped me beyond math. I see that now when I’m confronted with a problem, I am comfortable experimenting with different potential solutions. I feel confident that even if I don’t immediately have a solution, I will be able to apply my various skills to reach a good outcome. Running Object, I am faced with various types of issues. The problem-solving skills are critical to ensuring that I am always moving forward.
As youth, we spend most of our time in school. It is important that our education system enables us to become productive contributors to society.
“We want students who are innovators and changemakers because we are faced with problems we have never had,” says Wojcicki.
About the Author
Manat Kaur, is currently taking a gap year and will be attending Stanford in the fall. She is an Ashoka Young Changemaker and the founder of Object, a nonprofit empowering young girls to discover their self-esteem, confidence and self-image.