Unleashing Your Innovative Genius: A Conversation with Deborah Olatunji
Q&A 03 March 2020
By Deborah Olatunji
[Educators] get too many books written for them. It’s time for the students to feel empowered. So, the entire book is written from the perspective of a high school student speaking to other high school students.
Deborah Olatunji, a young learner from Delaware, recently authored a new book, Unleashing Your Innovative Genius: High School Redesigned, with the goal of igniting young people across the country to realize they have the power to transform education. We had the pleasure of meeting Deborah at an event in 2019 and knew we had to learn more about her story.
Q: What has your journey through the education system looked like?
Deborah: My journey has taken me through three very different settings. From preschool through fourth grade, I attended a private school that had classes as small as 10 students. Our curriculum was mainly biblically-based, and everyone I knew had the same beliefs and participated in the same clubs. Needless to say, I was very sheltered. Afterward, I switched into a public middle school, which felt like total culture shock—I had so many different clubs I could now join, I was exposed to different kinds of music, and I didn’t know anyone’s life story.
More significantly, the student body at my middle school was majority Black and Latino. Middle school became a place of personal growth for me—learning about different stereotypes and cultural norms pertaining to the Black community and larger social agendas that weren’t in our favor. I took my evolving identity with me into my charter high school, which has become the place where my learning and education have grown. However, I was still confused about what education was really all about.
In this high school space, everybody was seen as the top of their class—the cream of the crop from their eighth-grade class. Being smart was no longer something that made anyone unique because everyone at the high school was. And so, we all thought, “If everyone’s smart, what qualities make me unique?” For me, what does it mean to be Deborah? Now I wasn’t just wondering what the purpose of education was, I was also wondering what it meant to be myself. What qualities define me?
Q: What did you discover?
Deborah: Freshman year was an entire year of exploration, which is exactly what high school should be about. Some of my friends who attended other schools were already fretting about college and testing, and while those things are important, I don’t think they should be a major focus during freshman year.
I was focused on exploring as much as I possibly could and understanding what my interests were. So, I did activities like marching band, key club, and chemistry club. When I became a sophomore, I stopped doing all three activities because I realized that they didn’t fit the kind of person that I wanted to become and the kind of impact that I wanted to make. But, that’s the whole point—try and see if it’s a fit for you.
Sophomore year is the year my twin sister and I call our year of transformation. It was the year I found out about GripTape, which is a nonprofit organization that gives students $500 to learn whatever they want. Students get to design learning as they please. As a 15-year-old, this was the peak of what I think education should look like—I got to design everything. I thought, “This is so cool. Why can’t I do this in school?”
Q: What project did you design through GripTape’s program?
Deborah: I decided to do my learning journey on photography and graphic design. It’s something that a lot of my classmates wouldn’t consider intellectually stimulating. I attend a math and science school where the arts are often looked down on—they’re seen as a joke. Photography is something I’ve been interested in and fascinated by ever since I was nine years old. With my $500 grant, I bought a camera and captured the marvelous world around me.
I went on a journey to not only capture different moments in my life but different moments in my friends’ lives. I also dug into the world of digital media and how the orientation of certain images and words impact us. I was learning so many things in the art field that my science education didn’t care to teach me. Even in writing my book, I’ve realized many of the skills I learned from my GripTape learning challenge are all key things, essential in crafting a brand. When I look back on my exploration and growth—coming up with my definition of me as a person—that’s what personal branding is. That’s what my interest in the arts made me embrace.
The next year, I applied to join GripTape’s youth leadership board and was officially selected in June 2018. It’s awesome reading new applications now for potential board members, accepting them, including them in our work culture, and making them feel like this is a community where they can learn and grow and experience life in a way that their conventional school would not allow them. As a board member, I get to make decisions that impact the non-profit’s image at-large and make sure our youth engagement strategies are truly effective.
Q: What else did GripTape expose you to that was missing from your past educational experiences?
Deborah: I realized that whenever we’re talking about history in our conventional classrooms, we never talk about activists—changemakers. Through my experience with GripTape and all the vocabulary I’ve learned within the education activism space, I now see myself as a changemaker. I’m able to connect with other changemakers, and ultimately, see how I might be able to make an impact on education in my state (Delaware), the nation, and, eventually, the world.
I’ve met and networked with a couple of legislators, including conducting an interview with Senator Elizabeth Lockman for my book. Senator Lockman is very passionate about education, advocacy, and reform. When I heard her story about advocating for change in Delaware’s education system, I found myself wondering, “Why am I not learning about her in my history classroom? Why aren’t we talking about events that are affecting us now?”
From that experience, I realized conventional education was about being really smart about things that you could find online. To me, it meant that high school was only about becoming the best Google. It felt like conventional education was wasting time trying to force content, instead of context—which would make our educational experiences more relevant to each of us as individuals. And, that’s where my journey for this book really began taking off.
Q: How did you decide writing a book would be the best way for you to present your ideas about education?
Deborah: This was yet another journey of experimental learning. It didn’t actually start out as a book. In 2017, I came up with the idea of DEB Consulting—DEB standing for Dynamic Education Builder. My dream for DEB, even though it never launched, was that I was going to go into classrooms all over the state of Delaware, and I was going to sit in the back almost like a spy and just observe different classrooms.
Similar to how teachers have teacher evaluations from other teachers. But instead, I would observe the student-teacher relationship and talk to students, teachers, and school principals about what could be done to create a better experience. Then, I realized that this wasn’t a feasible idea due to time and travel constraints.
That’s the kind of messaging that I think entices people to think about their educational experience—noting the stress, constant worry about grades, always striving for perfection, and believing if you don’t have your college major figured out already, your life is over—and that this isn’t how it has to be.
Nevertheless, I persisted. In 2018, I founded a social venture called the Student Leadership Initiative Program (SLIP). It’s a place where my peers and I encourage underclassmen to not only be free with their education experience but also to convey that it is okay for them to make mistakes.
I created this after realizing my high school was not a hub for this kind of growth and discovery due to an extremely cutthroat environment that didn’t encourage innovative thinking. If you get too caught up in the pursuit of perfection, then you will find yourself shutting down and feeling like you aren’t really contributing to this community in the way that you’re supposed to.
When we get away from that idea of “supposed to” and get into what we’re truly interested in, then people feel less pressure to be perfect and ultimately dive into their interests—whether it’s the same interest they had last week or a brand new one.
I took that initiative and ran with it. But it just felt like we weren’t reaching enough kids. That was when I shifted to writing a book.
I submitted my book proposal in June 2018 to Creator Institute—their “programs help you learn-by-doing—enabling you to discover your passion, develop your expertise and establish your credibility through the creation and launch of your very own book.” My publisher and the founder of the organization, Eric Koester, reached out to me after I submitted my proposal and let me know the price of the program.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t cost-efficient for me at the time. A few months passed by and he reached out again in October and told me they were launching a new program specifically for high school-aged authors, and that he wanted me to be a part of it.
I was like, “Okay, so I’m really doing this.”
I started with the idea of wanting to change perspectives on education. So, I thought, “I am going to target my book toward teachers.” During my first go, I thought it was reading way too much like a textbook and that what I had to say really wasn’t for them. They get too many books written for them. It’s time for the students to feel empowered. So, the entire book is written from the perspective of a high school student speaking to other students.
The really powerful thing I realized in writing this book—particularly using a lot of second-person directed at high schoolers—was that my book was an anomaly. So many education books are authored by older men and women who aren’t even in the education system anymore.
They talk about new innovative strategies we should all try, but they aren’t even in the system. How can you propose these ideas and say it’s going to work without even asking the students—who are in the system—for what they know will work? Until you start talking to students about what’s going on and what we can fix, then we can never claim “this is the year for education reform.”
With this book, I can now say that 2020 is the decade for education reform led by students. I’m really, really happy to see the direction this book has taken.
Q: Knowing education isn’t necessarily the number one topic on a high schooler’s mind, what do you hope will attract young people to read your book?
Deborah: I had the unique opportunity to begin speaking about my book before it was published. I was reached out to in September 2019 by a woman at a school in Pennsylvania. She had read an article about my plans for publishing this book and wanted me to come to speak to her students—just her class. But, after telling her principal about the idea, he said, “No, she needs to talk to the entire student body.” So, I went from creating peer mentorships for 15 students in the Student Leadership Initiative Program to speaking in front of 1,200 students in Pennsylvania.
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What I gained from that experience was seeing the buzz of conversations taking place after I spoke. Many students had similar experiences of realizing there seemed to be something not quite right about education and after hearing me speak, they were intrigued about finding a solution. I was actually just speaking with someone who asked, “What makes you think that everybody isn’t fine with their high school experience?” I normally lead to the fact that so many students are experiencing unsafe levels of stress. But, I sometimes open things up further by asking the same question I asked myself back as a freshman, “What does school mean to you? What does it mean to be educated in the 21st-century?”
If you have an answer that is “just to get to college,” then that’s the red flag. That’s the kind of messaging that I think entices people to think about their educational experience—noting the stress, constantly worrying about grades, always striving for perfection, and believing if you don’t have your college major figured out already, then your life is over—and that this isn’t how it has to be.
Q: If a teacher were to read your book, what would you hope the took away from it?
Deborah: I would love for educators, policymakers, guidance counselors, and teachers to read it because it’s coming from the student perspective. As an educator reads this book, I would hope they see that education is changing. And, in order to fully incorporate and equip your students with what they need to succeed, stop prioritizing perfect grades. Stop telling them that it’s not okay to fail. And, stop making it seem like college is the end-all-be-all for being a successful person.
Everyone has their own path and you should be a resource for them to know that if they want to do something different, it’s okay. If they are still figuring themselves out, let them focus on that, rather than instilling the fear that comes from mentioning the SAT or ACT, or how they performed on your last assessment. Understand that your students don’t expect you to be perfect. And, challenge yourself to reflect that same energy towards your students—providing them the space to be imperfectly curious.
I feel like when educators transform their titles from “teacher” or “principal” to “listener” or “friend” or “mentor” (someone who genuinely wants their students to succeed and find their purpose), then students will feel more willing to communicate their needs and desires. And, because students won’t be afraid to make mistakes or ask for help, the entire student body will be so much stronger and happier.
Isn’t that something we should all want for education?
Correction (3/10/2020): Edits have been made to better clarify Deborah’s journey to writing her book and her message for educators.
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