Tom Tom Youth Conference Unleashes Student Ingenuity

Audrey Breen

The event featured Jaclyn Corin, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and cofounder of March For Our Lives, and local student leaders who offered ideas to address some of our nation’s greatest challenges. (Photo by Jack Looney.)

“There is a hero and changemaker in every young person.”

Jaclyn Corin, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and co-founder of March For Our Lives, spoke those words Tuesday to an audience of local middle and high school students at Charlottesville’s Paramount Theater. She gave the keynote address at the Tom Tom Festival’s Youth Innovation Conference, an event cosponsored by the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and Human Development.

The daylong event – also cosponsored by ReinventED Lab, a nonprofit founded by Curry School alumnus Keaton Wadzinski – was filled with speakers and presentations, all featuring young people and elevating their ideas and experiences.

During her address, Corin shared her experiences of Feb. 14, 2018, the day an infamous mass shooting took place at her school. She also shared how the events of that day reshaped her understanding of her role in civic engagement.

“I told myself I was a vessel for change,” Corin told the audience.

Corin and fellow classmates founded March For Our Lives, a nonprofit organization working to reduce gun violence in the United States. In addition to organizing the student-led demonstration on March 24, 2018, Corin and other leaders organized a national tour last summer to engage other youth across the country who were already working on gun violence prevention.

“March For Our Lives works to end gun violence and to inspire the untapped energy of young people across the country,” Corin said.

Following her keynote address, Curry School professor Catherine Bradshaw joined Corin onstage for a question-and-answer session. Bradshaw’s research focuses on the development of aggressive behavior in young people and how school-based efforts can prevent school violence.

Bradshaw acknowledged that some of the barriers facing students include the stigma associated with accessing mental health services and a fear they would be accused of “snitching” if they reported seeing something troubling.

“The stigma of mental health supports is being broken down slowly, but surely,” Corin said.

The high school senior also suggested school administrators play an important role in setting the tone and creating safe spaces where students feel more comfortable about sharing what they see.

“Teachers can be role models, too,” Corin said.

Bradshaw asked Corin how adults can support youth in their efforts to create change and improve their communities.

“They can buy us food,” Corin said jokingly, reflecting on the advice the leaders of March For Our Lives often give to other student organizations who ask about adult involvement.

“The most important part of the success of March For Our Lives is that it is youth-run,” Corin said, more seriously.

Other elements of the Youth Innovation Conference also were very much youth-run. In addition to Corin’s keynote address, groups of students participated in three innovation challenges, pitching their ideas for new products or ideas for positive change.

During both the business and social innovation pitch challenges, students offered innovative solutions for very specific issues, including ways to reduce the environmental impact of dairy cows, ideas for how to transfer pockets of food waste into ready-made meals for families in need, and an app that allows youth to immediately contact friends or family if they find themselves in an unsafe situation.

Corin; Zyahna Bryant, an activist, community organizer and senior at Charlottesville High School; and Aditya Narayan, a team member at ReinventED Lab, served on a panel offering feedback to the student presenters.

The Challenge of Middle School

The daylong youth conference was launched as part of the Tom Tom Founders Festival in 2016. This year, a third challenge was introduced as part of the conference: The Reinventing Middle School Challenge.

In February, the Curry School launched a multi-year initiative to wholly remake middle school. In case there was any doubt as to whether or not an overhaul was necessary, the students in the audience at the Youth Innovation Summit put it to rest.

“Raise your hand if ‘middle school’ are positive words,” said Nancy Deutsch, a professor and director of the Youth-Nex Center, who is leading the initiative.

A few hands were raised around the auditorium.

“Raise your hand if they’re negative words,” Deutsch said.

A flood of hands shot up.

According to Deutsch, it is important that student voices be heard as this initiative takes shape.

“We are working with people from around the country to come up with, and test, new innovations in middle school,” Deutsch told the student audience. “But we want to start with your voices. What do you want in a new middle school?”

Three groups of students presented their ideas to remake middle school. All of them focused on a way to personalize curriculum.

The first group began their presentation with two images of classrooms, both of which looked remarkably similar, although they were taken nearly 150 years apart. In each, students sat behind desks situated in rows, with a teacher standing at the front. The point: It is time to innovate in education.

This group pitched a new interactive software and app called “Cognitio.” The software would use data from a series of personality, emotional intelligence and IQ tests to generate a curriculum customized to individual students.

The second group shared their idea for a “Student Project Council,” where teachers would provide learning standards and goals and students would generate learning projects to reach those goals. The final group suggested that for each learning standard, teachers provide a menu of learning opportunities from which students could choose.

Choice plus personalization equals engaged learning, the students said.

The entire conference illustrated students’ high levels of ingenuity and capacity, as well as their desire to share their ideas.

“We are surrounded by young people with energy and talent, a willingness to take risks, a desire to be engaged and involved, and droves of creativity,” Bob Pianta said earlier this year. The dean of the Curry School went on. “These students have the eagerness and the capacity to take on some of our nation’s greatest challenges.”

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