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Nation & World

Making hay while sun shines

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HGSE students building education start-ups this summer

Summer is typically a cherished quiet time for educators. Classrooms are dark, there are no papers to grade, and there are few, if any, meetings to sit through.

But students from Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) have been anything but idle these last few months. Many are hard at work building new companies they hope will someday transform learning and young lives.

Chosen by a panel of faculty and administrators, five teams composed of recent graduates or doctoral students have spent this summer developing start-ups as part of HGSE’s Education Entrepreneurship Fellowship Program. Now in its second year, the program provides a stipend and residency at the Harvard Innovation Lab (i-lab) so students and recent alumni can concentrate full-time on getting their fledgling ventures off the ground.

“Our aim was to pick not just individual teams of students with superb plans and excellent ideas, but to select a cohort that was diverse in the segment of the sector their ventures address and with diverse approaches to complex problems,” said Professor Monica Higgins, who teaches leadership and entrepreneurship.

Keith Collar, associate dean for planning and outreach at HGSE, said advancing the idea of entrepreneurship as a catalyst for influencing the field of education is a logical outgrowth of the work by faculty during the academic year.

“We just have these exceptional students and more and more, they were coming to the Ed School and working on a wide range of good ideas that could really do good things for kids,” said Collar of the fellowship. “And it got us thinking about what can we as a school do to complement what the faculty are teaching, to capitalize on the i-lab and to support our students?”

After seeing how disjointed and inefficient nonprofits often can be, Elizabeth Texeira, ’09, Ed.M. ’14, and Cass Walker, Ed.M. ’14, are developing Girls Thinking Global, a network connecting organizations around the world that focus on the education, health, life-skills training, and civic engagement of adolescent girls. Their goal is to provide a platform for idea-sharing and streamline delivery of useful information and resources.

“Cass and I both had turned down jobs in order to do this full-time, and it wouldn’t have been possible if we hadn’t been given the runway that came about because of the fellowship,” said Texeira.

“And not just the financial resources,” added Walker. “I would say being at the i-lab this summer as well, the connections we’ve made. It really has been a transformational experience and we’ve had a lot of traction in the last six weeks.”

So far, the pair has hired a developer to build a database they’ll test early this month, and got the green light to write a case study and film a short documentary in Ecuador this fall about an obstetrics/gynecological health program for indigenous women called “Jungle Mamas.” They’re also planning a summit in Washington, D.C., next March to bring together groups for workshops and awards. Later this month, they’ll launch a smaller, pilot version of the network with several Boston-area girls’ organizations to try out the various components and garner some critical feedback before the full site gets up and running.

Texeira and Walker credit their experiences in entrepreneurship courses taught by Higgins and Professor Fernando Reimers for prompting them to think about ways to educate besides teaching.

“It was kind of presented to us as a viable option for changing the world ― that you can actually start your own thing and you can actually make a direct impact in the world by doing something yourself: ‘If not you, who; if not now, when?’” said Texeira. “And I really appreciated that call to action and that urgency that I think the Ed School really gave me this year.”

Given the new demands levied by the Common Core standards, teammates and ’14 master’s degree graduates Taylor Percival, Michelle Skinner, and Jessica Yarmosky are busy with CommonLit, a free online library for middle school teachers to help them easily find news articles, poetry, and other short texts aligned with the Common Core curriculum that help build reading skills across a wide array of abilities. Passages are organized by themes and existential questions, drawing on a variety of topics geared to interest children.

As former middle school teachers, the trio found that despite the many challenges students face as they transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn,” few programs focus on this age group, offer help to the seven different reading levels found in middle school classrooms, or assist skilled readers.

“All too often, when you create a reading resource or reading intervention, it’s usually targeted for low-level readers,” said Percival. “What we’re trying to provide is a one-stop shop where teachers can find texts on any range of that spectrum.”

After a stint in the Mississippi Delta with Teach for America, April Wang ’09, is spending the summer developing This Land Speaks. It’s an effort to bring young college journalists to rural high schools to teach students how to find, collect, and produce news stories about pressing local issues, and by their work bring these issues to the attention of local, regional, and state media.

Wang, a former Fulbright Fellow and now a second-year doctoral student at HGSE, saw firsthand as an 11th-grade English teacher that the needs of rural, low-income communities often aren’t represented in state policy, but are overlooked in favor of efforts that target urban areas because there’s little awareness of the rural problems and few advocates are calling for change.

“One thing that I struggled with was the idea of the balance between working on the mechanics of language and the actual purpose of language. I was trying to get my kids to write well-constructed sentences. And at the same time, I was seeing this dilemma: You can focus on that type of stuff, but if students haven’t practiced generating their own ideas and … they don’t know what to say, then that’s actually a bigger problem,” she said.

The idea for the project came from Wang’s own experience as a student who had trouble finding her voice. In junior high school, for reasons she’s still not clear about, Wang stopped talking in class for a couple of years. “It wasn’t until I joined the high school newspaper that I began to talk and participate in school again,” she said.

This summer, Wang has been writing for The Atlantic, developing her website, and trying to raise money to fund a two-week pilot program that would send two teams of Harvard College juniors from The Crimson and the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School to schools in Mississippi during the January break. If all goes well, she hopes to expand the operation to a one-year offering, perhaps enlisting college students from the Delta, starting next June.

Her goal is to use writing as a tool to exercise efficacy and create an educated and engaged citizenry. “By having to practice generating their own stories, we hope that they’ll grow up to become people who are used to advocating for themselves using language, and in the short term we have these journalists who are advocating for these communities and problems within them.”