The educational system teaches kids to add and subtract, to compose essays and dissect frogs. K-12 curriculums do everything from teach students the significance of pi to the value of Shakespeare, and tests students rigorously on what they've maintained (enter the controversial WASL). But rarely does this system put the same amount of focus on self-discovery and empowerment. Students surely aren't held back a grade if they lack skills in personal reflection or social skills, despite the fact that educational experts agree emotional intelligence is as important, if not more so, than book smarts.
Yet for Bob Hager, self-understanding is the key to success. He has devoted his life to giving youth across the country - and eventually throughout the world -- an education in self-reflection. Hager -- an aerospace engineer turned inventor turned Peace Corps activist -- is the founder of Wholeschool.org, a Spokane-based nonprofit that utilizes technology to teach young children about the joy of self-discovery. Beginning in May, Wholeschool.Org is offering free classes for children of ages 6-11. The program, called YETI (Youth Education To Inspire), will be held at the Spokane Valley Barnes & amp; Noble Bookstore, in addition to seven other locations across Washington and Idaho, using a live Webcast to engage kids in projects that introduce them to the basic concepts of self-reflection.
"I tried to continue [engineering] when I came back from the Peace Corps in Tanzania," Hager says, explaining how something like Wholeschool.org ever emerged from his background in aerospace engineering. "But it became clear to me that I needed to do something else and possibly make the future look better for my grandchildren. So I rented a cabin on the Pend Oreille River and pondered the future."
Hager says being in East Africa when the two U.S. embassies were bombed there (in Kenya and Tanzania on Aug. 7, 1998) was a transformative experience. "I think if we can get children to see each other and communicate from the very beginning, perhaps when they're adults they'll make better decisions than we have," he says.
Now living in Spokane, Hager worked with his daughter, Kristin Cook, to create Wholeschool.org.
"We gathered literature about children's education, and it became clear that some one of the areas that is really missing is self-understanding," he says. "I've always been interested in who we are and why we're here, but didn't start that exploration until I was older. I realize children come into the world open." In other words, children represent a clean slate. Hager says if educators can begin to nourish children's curiosity regarding the 'big' questions of who they are and why they're on the earth -- not by supplying definitive answers, but by encouraging a critical dialogue -- then children can begin the lifelong process of self-discovery at a younger age, perhaps going further than most of us do.
The YETI program uses material Hager and his daughter developed after reading from the likes of German philosopher Echart Tolle and neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux. Indeed, Wholeschool.org's methodologies have roots in the teachings of renowned spiritual leaders as well as mainstream educational experts. It may sound abstract, but Hager says his programs don't confuse young children; instead, the courses are designed to engage kids in comfortable conversations, activities, and interactions with instructors that teach them over live Web feeds on the Internet.
"We had to develop these philosophies in a way that was acceptable to children, and we've done that," Hager says.
Brad Linsday, a fifth-grade teacher at Broadway Elementary, hosted a group of second- through fifth-graders for one of the YETI pilot programs. "The thing I was most impressed with was how the kids responded to the lessons," Linsday says. "They were totally engaged, and I thought the way it was set up was very valuable to kids." Shaun Parrish, the education and technology director with the Boys and Girls Club of Spokane, agrees. Parrish says since many of the children he works with don't have regular access to a computer or the Internet, YETI is especially fun for them: "You can broadcast live video feed through a connection that's seen by everyone."
Kids learn about their physical bodies, such as what their kidneys are for and why their heart beats. "We relate the kidneys to the water treatment plant and the large intestine to the solid waste disposal plant," Hager says. "We take [students] to the plant so they can see how their body is like it. And they also learn about the environment in that way."
Kids discuss feelings and reactions and begin to dissect their emotions about things. "We explore beliefs and opinions because we want children early on to recognize they are born into a world of beliefs -- from their family, culture and where they pop up in the world. We show them all the different ways children live," Hager explains.
Hager's goal is for Wholeschool.org to go international, reaching children in English-speaking countries throughout the world and connecting kids from different cultures. Hager's pilot programs in the Inland Northwest will serve as templates for new groups.
May's program, which Hager hopes will garner about 100 to 150 participants at Barnes & amp; Noble, will be a final pilot for the organization's October 2005 course, the first one to include children from across the United States via the Internet.
"We have a lot of interest in Canada," Hager says, already speaking of opening the courses internationally. "We plan on expanding to Mexico and South America, where we share the same time zones for the Internet."
The enrollment fee is $30 per child, including materials. Children need the use of a high-speed Internet connection and a Web-cam; most of this equipment is available at the schools, day cares and community centers where children take YETI courses. Throughout May, when customers at the Spokane Valley Barnes & amp; Noble purchase books with a Wholeschool.org coupon, 15 percent of their purchase will go toward the organization. The coupons are available at the bookstore and include detailed information on Wholeschool.org and how to sign your child up for the YETI course.
"We just want educators and parents to be aware of this program," Hager says. "We want children to have more understanding for other children and to see their peers and their parents and teachers in a way they can relate to."
To learn more, visit www.wholeschool.org or contact Bob Hager at RNHager@Wholeschool.org or 747-1480.