For Deborah Olatunji, a senior at Charter School of Wilmington, it was failure — literally, a failed quiz — that ultimately led her to ask herself the question: “What does education mean to me?”
The question led her on a path to her first book, “Unleashing Your Innovative Genius: High School Redesigned,” officially released last week, and a high school speaking tour, where she engages with students in her own age group and, often, gets them to ask themselves the same questions and set their own goals.
“Find a problem you want to solve,” Olatunji told Technical.ly. “For me, education reform is near and dear to my heart. Once you find that problem, it will become the thing that you wake up thinking about. So I ask, what wakes you up?”
When you find that problem you want to solve, she said, the purpose behind what you learn in school becomes more clear. Want to make an impact with an environmental awareness campaign, for example? The things you learn in school — science, math, how to write — are all things you need to do that.
Contrast that to the common high school mindset of “What is they purpose of learning this and how is it going to benefit me in my real life?” — which, for many teens, makes school seem pointless beyond something required to go to college.
Olatunji’s first “book tour” event was a standalone engagement at Penncrest High School, a public school in Media, Pennsylvania, last November.
Tracy Somani, the student relations facilitator at Penncrest, learned about Olatunji and “Unleashing Your Innovative Genius” when her husband read an article about her plans to release the book on Technical.ly last August. Initially, Olatunji said, Somani planned to have her come to her classroom for a talk. When she went to the school’s principal, Ralph Harrison, to discuss it, he decided that, instead, she should come speak to the entire school.
The students were impressed.
“A lot of students came up to me and said it was the only thing that kids were talking about — they were really surprised that [I was] allowed to go up there and talk about how education isn’t working and how we need to fix it,” she said. “They were asking, ‘How did you have the mindset?’ after not doing well in one thing, to spin it and turn it around. They were really really fascinated by that — and also the fact that I spoke for a whole half an hour.”
The Penncrest gig also helped the book publication become a reality. Previously, Olatunji had been raising the funds for publication via crowdfunding: “Penncrest bought the book, and that helped out with reaching the goal,” she said. Another school bought 15 books.
Now, the book is available from retailers, including Barnes and Noble, Wal-Mart and Amazon (where it is currently on Kindle Unlimited).
Olatunji plans to continue touring high schools, as well as orgs and businesses, on the East Coast, speaking on topics from the book such as “Activation to Access,” “Vital Tools School Never Taught You” and “Failure to Fortitude,” the topic she presented at Penncrest. She’s accepting booking requests online.
Next up is a talk that is both free and accessible to the public: She will be speaking at a TEDXBerwyn event on March 28 at Conestoga High School in Berwyn, Pennsylvania. See the website for a full list of speakers (including Newark Charter student Megan Chen) and registration info.
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