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Getting started with Public Achievement: self-interest

At InterDistrict Downtown School in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Public Achievement is part of the ninth-grade civics curriculum. Danielle Peterson, Minnesota organizer for Public Achievement and an experienced PA coach, is working with social studies teacher Molly Keenan to co-coach two ninth-grade teams as they develop skills to be powerful, active citizens.

In an interview, Danielle described an exercise she uses to help students articulate their self-interest and understand the role of self-interest in doing effective public work with others.

Danielle, you’re going to be working with these students over the course of the school year. What were some of the first things you did with the teams?

At our very first meeting, I gave them an orientation to Public Achievement. At our second meeting, we did an exercise to help them discover their self-interest and understand who else was in the room. By understanding our own self-interest, we can move into understanding our community. This is part of the issue development process of Public Achievement.

How did you help them discover their self-interest?

I used a stick figure exercise – it’s creative, and it gets people to think critically about themselves. The young people all got a large piece of paper and markers. I set it up by drawing what I choose to represent myself, with questions I wanted them to answer written around the sides. For example: who’s in your family? what are your talents? what is your religion and culture? what are your hobbies? what books have you read? I also asked them to describe a time when they felt powerless.

Some students said “I don’t want to draw a picture of myself,? and that’s fine. One of the kids drew a basketball for a head, because he’s really into playing basketball. A young woman wrote her favorite quote.

They spent a good 40 minutes working on their stick figures. After they wrote their answers, they put their posters up on the wall and shared their story with the rest of the class.

Raven at IDDS.JPG

Did anything surprise you?

There were people who got emotional talking about themselves and their life journey. The other students were pretty supportive.

This was only your second meeting with the students, and you were asking them to do something that would require them to take a risk. Were any students reluctant to participate?

Truthfully, I think people like being asked about themselves. We aren’t normally asked to talk about what we like or what’s important to us or what we’re good at.

I also told the students the reasons we were doing the exercise, that the goal was to build trust and raise the concept of a free space. Through acknowledging their own story and others’ – and there’s no wrong story – we could take inventory of the talents in the room. It’s something we’ll continue to work on as we come together as a team, along with how understanding self-interest helps us relate to others.

You said that teachers like this exercise?

Teachers like this exercise because the students are writing and practicing public speaking. They also see that the kids are engaged – this exercise is creative and different from what they do during the rest of the day – and that they’re building respect for each other.

(Read about a New Hampshire school that also makes Public Achievement part of the school day.)

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs