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  • Writer's pictureConvening Storytelling Team

Focusing on the "WHY"

In this week’s AFL Stories from Aurora, there is a focus on WHY–why educators do the work they do, why the Assessment for Learning Community is one driven by empathy, and concepts of belonging and liberation. In Charlie Thompson’s, “On a Quest for Purpose/Searching for the WHY,” she reflects on the many purposes and why’s that emerged during the Aurora convening. She closes by asking us to make sure we are clear in our why, so that we have something to keep going when we face challenges in interest and motivation, so that we are able to model what keeps us going to the young people in our paths. Thompson’s exploration of why and purpose, is followed by a reflection from Jenn Stephens, who was a hosting teacher from New Legacy Charter School.  She takes some some of the observations and words from New Legacy students collected by visitors during the learning excursion, and connects them to her own purpose as an educator. In bringing these two pieces together, we invite you to think about the ways that community can help us understand our purpose, and continue moving towards systems that create a sense of belonging and liberation for young people.


On a quest for purpose/searching for that WHY

They emerged slowly at first, a note sketched at the margins of a page. Soon, they inserted themselves everywhere. “*WHY”s tattooed the edges of my notes with increasing insistence. They served so many purposes, sometimes needing clarified purpose, other times shouted full-throated with their chests puffed out. In two days in that hotel conference room in Aurora, Colorado something began to take shape: we were hungry for meaning, and we were not alone. 

The first why (lower-case, tentative) appeared in my margins while Ronnie Qi Harvey shared his experience returning to prison in 2010, after nearly a year of avoiding violating parole while attending college. While he valued those accomplishments, they felt surface-level and untethered. Like a thing he knew he should do. It wasn’t until later that he taught himself to meditate and practice yoga and Tai Chi, choosing to become an Apprentice of Peace for himself, not for others. Like Ronnie, this why emerged organically as part of my notes, calmly making its mark. 

The second *WHY showed up as a shout. “How do you get teachers prepared to teach like this??” it asked me. A teacher from New Legacy Charter School answered: “it’s not just about ‘they told us to,’ it’s deeper than that.” Educators at New Legacy and William Smith felt purposeful in the assessments they created, the way they shared power, and how they showed up as their full selves to meet students. Checking in, reassessing goals, continuously improving takes a level of patience that very few are born with. Luckily, patience is a muscle. And intention bolsters that muscle. These educators, like the others in the room, had deeply held beliefs in the type of learning experiences students deserve that strengthened their resolve when issues emerged. This sense of purpose served as a driver, supporting intentional and decisive actions. 

The third WHY popped her head up as my tablemates discussed their advisory program. This one received the double-underline treatment. “Advisory is currently something ‘extra,’” a teacher from Cheney High School observed, “not something [students] look forward to.” The lack of clear purpose, an anchoring ‘why’ made it confusing for adults and students alike. What were they meant to do with this time? Centering advisory in a sense of purpose could add structure, but more than that–it could help this space feel integrated with other activities, rather than an add-on program. “We can either say, ‘it’s too hard because our school is too big,’” This teacher continued, “Or we can ask ‘what can we do to change things?’ I say we ask the question.” This “WHY” was a motivator. 

Another one burst from Rita Harvey as she explained the Empathy Interviews protocol. These interviews, she shared, were designed to do something. Meaningful impact requires empathy, thoughtfulness, and a clarity of purpose. Honor those who have given the gift of their time and insight with the intention to tell their story with grace, integrity, and humanity. Trade why for why. 

Over the course of two days, I annotated sixteen whys in the margins of my notes. This is, in part, because I am an obsessive note-taker. I fear small, beautiful moments getting squashed under the weight of the rest of my life, hidden just beyond my reach. In larger part, this is due to the importance of purpose in how human beings move through the world. People learn by connecting to prior knowledge and building on existing schema. Having a clear narrative for why you need to know something and how that fits into a broader context is, therefore, essential to developing meaningful and lasting learning experiences. Some students can manufacture this motivation from grades, accolades, and accomplishments. But when those markers of success go away, how do we expect students to be able to sustain interest and motivation? Equipping ourselves with a clear why (capitalized, underlined, asterisked, or not) can provide a model for the young people in our lives to search for their own motivation and use that to drive them to maintain energy, focus, and curiosity about the world. Our two days in Aurora reminded me of just how important that purpose can be.




Charlie Thompson

Research and Policy Associate

Charlie Thompson is a Research and Policy Associate at a non-profit that conducts and communicates independent, high-quality research to improve education policy and practice. She spent the first part of her career as a teacher, working in both public and private schools in New York City and California. These experiences led her to investigate how to design learning environments that cultivate student belonging, activate student curiosity, and support sustainable growth through meaningful feedback. She attended the AfL convening in Aurora to learn more about these topics and to experience community with other educators and practitioners who are committed to this work.

Jenn Stephens


Jenn Stephens is a Parenting Educator and Advisor at New Legacy Charter School.  She has taught Parenting and Child Development classes since the school's opening in 2015 and has more recently become an Advisor.  She is a parent of 2 young adults who have given her lots of examples to draw from in her class.   She is from the East Coast, but has lived in Denver for the last 18 years.  She loves the mountains and the outdoors, identifying wildflowers, hiking with her husband and checking out new coffee shops with her friends.

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