Teaching Purpose in School: Who Are You vs. What Are You?

Let’s empower kids to tell their own stories before others do it for them

There are 1.1 million American students that drop out of school every year. Personally, I don’t blame them. While we brag about the importance of education, we neglect the individual who must attain it. Based on society’s standards of success, we label the students for what they are, not who they are. This is directly related to where they came from and not the possibility of where they can go. Students easily become blinded, losing their core identity by becoming discouraged to express themselves—their hopes, dreams, and purpose in life.

I can’t help but to question, is it our students that are behind, or is it our education system? In middle schools across the country, two out of three eighth graders cannot read or write proficiently. I believe that the main problem is that they are given a story to analyze before they truly understand their own. No one ever takes the time to ask the question, “Who are you?” and more importantly, “Why are you valuable to society?”

This question hits home for many students who are never asked it in the first place. In San Diego’s Barrio Logan community sits the Nat & Flora Bosa Campus, which houses the Monarch School. A place to call home during the day, Monarch serves students K-12 impacted by homelessness. Despite their situation, many of the students are bright individuals who unfortunately become attached to their failures. They’ve been conditioned for so long to identify with the external labels of “what” they are, instead of “who” they are internally.

I know this first hand because I teach at Monarch through the Sonima Foundation, which provides health and wellness programs to partner schools across the nation. In my role, I have the privilege to combine my passion for spoken word poetry with mindfulness practices in the classroom. Through mindfulness, I teach students to discover their true self by challenging them to tell their story before someone else does.

Today’s lesson partners students up to ask this unanswered question of “Who are you?” Students have a minute where one partner must continue to ask the question, while the other must respond with a new answer every time. Students then write down their answers to help construct a spoken word poem for performance.

“I lived through hard days. I lived through good days. But I’ve never really felt like I belonged anywhere. I know that lonely people smile the brightest and the most hurt are the kindest. I feel like I have to try hard and work but most of all I’m trying to be myself.” – Antonio, 7th Grade

When I read Antonio’s poem I was amazed that a 12 year old in his situation could have so much insight. I came to realize, through the work of mindful education advocate Christine Sherretz, that the difference between intelligence and mindfulness is that intelligence is a linear process that moves from problem to resolution as quickly as possible in order to achieve a specific desired outcome. Antonio had dozens of errors and I could have surely marked his paper for every misspelled word. Yet I decided to acknowledge him for his courage of expressing himself to help us look at a perceived problem in a new and novel way. Being mindful, letting out who we are, is the first step to finding the courage and motivation to want to learn and grow intelligently.

Teaching this purposeful self-awareness allows us to build students into who they really are, and who they’ll become. It shows them how they can contribute new ideas to society. If we don’t teach purposeful self-awareness, we risk creating a lot of “smart” people who do some not-so-great things because they were never taught how to use their talents to better serve humanity.

Students across America need clarity of their motives, inspirations, and dreams. They need to tell their own story, before someone else does.

Wanderlust is proud to partner with the Sonima Foundation to bring mindful education to underserved students as part of our Wanderlust Giving campaign. Learn more about the cause and join the campaign here

Photo by Ali Kaukas 

NateHowardPhotoNate Howard is a motivational speaker and social entrepreneur who teaches mindfulness practices with spoken word poetry. He’s introduced his work with Deepak Chopra on behalf of the Sonima Foundation, and has worked to develop curriculum for the Monarch School, which serves students impacted by homelessness. More of his work can be found on his website at natehowardspeaks.com