“They’re going to be extremely nervous,” warned Carl Hobkirk, Assistant Principal, as he advised over 60 community members who were set to interview all 7th grade students at Lincoln Middle School.
On June 9 and 10, over 440 students met one-on-one with adult volunteers to discuss the thought-provoking question, What is a worthwhile life? and to review their “Who am I?” writing portfolios.
The students had learned to dress appropriately for an interview, to introduce themselves, shake hands, and establish eye contact.
Their interviews were actually extended conversations about their portfolios, which consist of eight essays and several graphics that the students have worked on, revised, and polished throughout the year. In addition, they were to describe their role models, opinions about contemporary problems, and goals for the future. Since an interview was a new experience for most students, they would understandably be “on pins and needles,” Hobkirk explained.
Prior to meeting the students, some adult volunteers worried that conversing with fidgety twelve or thirteen-year-olds might be a daunting experience. Several claimed to be as nervous as the students. One, Nicole Purcell, who recently graduated with honors from UCLA and will become a teacher next fall, could also empathize with the students. She had been through the process herself eleven years ago and told the volunteers that she fondly remembered the experience, adding, “I still have my Who am I? project.”
Veteran interviewers put the newcomers at ease, explaining that they have returned year after year to talk with the students because it is such an uplifting experience. Parent Tom Wright, an actor who has participated for four years, said afterwards, “Kids never cease to amaze me. I will always help out because they leave me feeling rejuvenated. And for twelve and thirteen-year-olds to share their views with complete strangers gives them a sense of confidence and competency. They know that being ’who they are’ is okay.”
Some interviewers have returned almost every year since they first volunteered in 1993. Nancy Strick, Gale Williams, Linda Gross, Chuck Hewitt, Jim Pitcher, Claudia Flanders, Mark Goldstein, and Lois Marks-Fliegel are among the original volunteers and founders.
One regular interviewer, Charleen Smith, made an often heard observation: “It is such a valuable experience for the kids to think about something beyond themselves and to focus on the future.” Ms. Smith, a grandmother, and the Director of Children’s and Youth Ministry at the neighboring Methodist church, has returned every year for seven years.
Other frequent returnees include local business people, UCLA professors, parents of former students, retired teachers, and husbands, wives, and even parents of current Lincoln teachers and administrators. Mr. Hobkirk’s mother took part in both days of interviews year after year, until her death two years ago.
This year, Principal Kathy Scott convinced her husband Mark Scott, a private consultant, to participate. “When we made our move from Texas, Mark noticed Lincoln and Santa Monica while searching the internet for schools and districts with both solid and innovative academic programs,” Mrs. Scott said.
When she first came to Lincoln, she served for one year as a mathematics teacher in the Emerald Core. She, along with the humanities and science teachers in her core, were all involved in the preparation of the students.
I am an Emerald Core humanities teacher and we have always shared the responsibility of preparing our students. It’s one of the benefits of our interdisciplinary cores.
I, Gold Core humanities teacher Sharon Hart and art teacher Kate Pomatti are the only remaining original organizers of the event.
Mr. Hobkirk and more recent additions to the faculty, science teacher Michele Sinclair, and humanities teachers Monique Kiehm and Alison Barker, have also had leadership roles in organizing the event.
“We have refined the process and adapted the curriculum to meet the new California State Standards. The Who am I? portfolio requirements for the students’ essays are more rigorous than they were thirteen years ago,” Ms. Hart said. California currently requires persuasive, response to literature, research, summary, and narrative writing of all seventh graders and tests them on one of these genres early in March.
Craig and Michelle Nadel, parents of 9th, 7th, and 6th graders, both spent their day at Lincoln. Ms. Nadel was impressed by the seriousness of the students’ answers to her questions.
The interview “provokes them to think thoughtfully about their futures. Normally, they wouldn’t begin to do that for years,” she reflected. She was also struck by the cultural diversity of the Lincoln student body. Among her seven interviewees were students who had come from Greenland, Mexico, and Poland.
This cultural diversity is often a source of pride for the students. One interviewer noted the enthusiasm with which a student spoke of his Greek roots. Another student, Faisal Merchant, who was born in India, wrote of his diverse background, “I speak Hindi and English and, while in India, we celebrated Diwali, which is a Hindu festival and Eid, which is a Muslim festival. I also celebrated Christmas and New Years, which I still celebrate today.” He added, “Respect, obedience to parents and elders, and prayer throughout one’s life are the main aspects of Indian culture. I would not change anything about my roots.”
Other interviewers and teachers noted how appreciative many students were of their families. Rebecca Steinberg wrote in her Who am I? project, “In my household we hold certain values to be of the utmost importance. The need to act decently toward one another is a top priority in order to make a better life in a better world. Also, we hold humor in high esteem. At any given time, our house is filled with laughing, jokes, good-natured teasing and sarcasm…there is rarely a dull moment. Through this gift of laughter, our family is able to bond more closely in a way that allows us to discuss all kinds of issues in life. In short, my mother, father, brother and I enjoy being together.”
Many interviewers were struck by the sense of altruism that many of the students had. Libby Pachares, a mother and homemaker, who formerly worked as a lawyer, stated that she “thoroughly enjoyed my morning. I was impressed with the thoughtfulness of many of the answers to the questions posed and was heartened to find that so many of these kids defined a worthwhile life in terms of helping others, living life to the fullest, and finding their own happiness.”
After her day as an interviewer, School Board member Maria Leon-Vasquez stated, “This is such a great learning experience, not only for the students, but also for the adults who take part. It validates my long nights at the School Board. The caliber of responses, the energy put forth, and the educational strategies I see here prove that learning is going on in our district, learning of a high caliber. It is wonderful to see this in action at these exit interviews.”Teachers also noted the passion and conviction with which many students write persuasive essays and speak about pressing problems facing their generation, a multitude of issues which range from drunk driving, animal rights and local homelessness, to ending child neglect, violence and war. Perhaps they have taken to heart the words of Albert Einstein: “Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.”