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What a Start-Up Camp for Urban Youths Taught Me


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Tutorpedia educator Vivy Chao started her own camp for urban youths to launch start-up projects. Here’s what she learned in the process:

It’s 1999, and I’m sitting in an Advanced Placement history class.  I think to myself, “All this memorization and testing will make sense when I grow up. There’s a reason for all this that I don’t understand yet.”

I hated history class. I hated it with a deep passion. Class time involved the teacher – all 5 foot 3 inches of him – standing in front of the classroom, talking and talking and talking. Oh, there was a slide here and there, but the slides were usually filled with more words that were the same as the ones that were coming out of the teacher’s mouth.  It was excruciating sitting in this class because there was no rhyme or reason to why I had to memorize all the dates involving the French Revolution. FYI – I’ve yet to use the info I learned. Sorry, I never entered Jeopardy.  

When I became a teacher, I thought it was only going to be a brief stint—at least until I found a “real” job. I started out teaching SAT prep; then it was reading comprehension, writing, and grammar.  The more I taught, the more connected I felt to the students. I began listening to their stories.  All the kids had dreams of going to top colleges and had set intense goals of acing their SATs. Watching them reminded me of myself. Several years had passed since I had been sitting in the AP history class feeling completely disconnected from the subject and hating everything about school, but listening to my students made me realize that nothing had changed in the classroom.  During this period of time I grew more disillusioned about traditional learning environments and began questioning why students even went to school. The kids looked tired, anxious, and unhappy. When I began teaching at a California State University campus, I ran into the same problem—miserable students who didn’t see the value of their education.

Last year, I decided to build my own learning environment and started a nonprofit called Yang Camp. The purpose is to help urban youths learn how to launch startup projects of their own in low cost formats.  Much of this was taught with technology using the Lean Startup methodology.  I spent a summer building relationships around the city and once I had put together a curriculum that reflected my vision, I reached out to my contacts and asked if I could produce my program at their organizations and schools.  My pilot program introduced me to a subset of students that I previously had limited exposure–middle school students.  

The first day of class I walked onto an old high school campus that had been turned into the location for three different schools.  When I entered the classroom, I was welcomed by a lovely seventh grade boy:

   Boy: “Hi, who are you?”

   Me: “Ms. Vivy. I’m here for your entrepreneurship class. What is your name?”

   Boy: “I’m Bob.”

   Me: “Hi, Bob.”  <Bob proceeds to run off screaming and laughing.>

Once the class settled in I went through roll call and discovered I had over thirty students. Whoa! That was a lot at once. After I finished taking attendance, which took more than the three minutes that I had allotted in my head, I proceeded to go through my presentation with the students. Within thirty seconds I had to ask two students to stop talking. A few seconds later I looked up to see yet another student flicking hand-made paper balls at a classmate. I stared at the paper ball flicker, who noticed and quickly stopped. Approximately four minutes into my presentation I realized over half the class was not paying attention–many were fidgeting with their tablets or laptops, doing the I’m just taking notes and not playing on a computer game move. Shh! Is she looking at me?

Through this first program, I learned the art of setting boundaries. It’s an art form that involves understanding group dynamics, human psychology, and child development. I learned how to mold the most difficult students in class to some of the top ones by approaching them differently. I learned sending students to the principal’s office meant possibly breaking their trust. I also learned that if I spoke to the students like adults and laid down the facts and the consequences they were more open to accepting responsibility.  

In light of the physical altercation that happened between the South Carolina sheriff deputy and a student at a high school recently, schools should have their campus discipline plan at the top of their to-redo list. Schools are not prisons. In fact, for many students, schools are the one final bastion where they can be safe. At the same time, schools are also not a place where kids should be allowed to show disrespect without a teaching moment.  As Maya Angelou said, “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”