New Tech High 2015 Commencement Speech

June 30, 2015

Paul CurtisPaul Curtis, Director of Curriculum, provided the commencement speech for New Technology High School in Napa, California. 

Thank you for that introduction.  It’s especially important because most of you have no idea who this guy is.  The truth is that I owe all of you a big thank you.  You see, I’m one of the people who keep bringing visitors into your school that ask all those questions.  The same questions … over and over.  “What do you do on your computers?” Do you have homework?” “How do you like learning through projects?”  I’m sorry to put you through that.  You have been wonderful ambassadors for your school and your generation.  We are very grateful of your willingness to open your school to help others learn from your experience.  So thank you for being such great hosts.

But, we are here to celebrate a special day … a right of passage.  Graduation.  I’d like to personally congratulate each of you on a significant achievement.  You are about to receive a high school diploma that represents years of persistent work.  Not everything you did in school was interesting or engaging, sometimes it was downright boring, but you stuck it out.  Nationwide, almost a third of young people could not to put forth the effort and dropped out.  The challenges they faced were too great and they gave up.  Each of you deserves to be recognized for this significant achievement.

I think there is something even more special about this graduation ceremony in particular and the students we are honoring here tonight.  After all, they aren’t graduating from a regular school.  They are New Tech students.  They made a choice.  A little over four years ago, when these young men and women before me were still just boys and girls, they decided to take a risk.  It takes courage to do something different … to swim across the current … to walk your own path.  You could have gone to the school assigned to you by the district.  Maybe some of your closest friends didn’t come to New Tech with you.  It took courage to break from the pack and that makes this more than a graduation ceremony.  It’s a celebration of your willingness to take a risk.

Almost 20 years ago, I was part of a focus groups that asked a group of us to imagine what kind of school we would create if we could start with a blank slate.  In those focus groups, we envisioned a very different kind of school.  One that valued trust, respect and responsibility over authority and control.  One that recognized engaging and empowering students was the key to student achievement.  One that didn’t shy away from technology, but leveraged it to put students more in charge of their own learning.  One that believed learning to collaborate, to think critically, to use technology productively, and give public presentations was just as important to your future as answering the questions correctly on a multiple-choice test.

New Tech High was a bold idea and represented huge risk for the community (remember, the internet was just getting started, there were no such things as smart phones or Google docs).  New Tech was one of the first schools in the nation to give every student an e-mail account.  It was a crazy vision … project based learning, combined courses, block schedules, no hall passes, a computer for every kid.  There were a lot of people who said it couldn’t be done, said that kids weren’t mature or responsible enough for such a school.  I think you all have just proved them wrong.

About a year after those focus groups, I was presented with the opportunity to teach at New Tech.  It was a risk.  I had a pretty good thing where I was.  I felt successful and supported.  Leaving where I was meant giving up what I knew for something I didn’t know.  And just like you, I chose to give up what was comfortable for the uncomfortable unknown.  Looking back, it was one of the most important and influential decisions of my professional career.

One of the first things I learned when coming to New Tech was getting comfortable with the phrases, “I don’t know” and “I need help”.  Every staff member on this stage has at one time asked a student to help them with a technology problem.  “How do I print to the south printer again?”  You see, in traditional schools, the teacher is the expert … the know-it-all.  And at New Tech, both the students and the teachers are learning together.  The problems you were asked to solve through the 100 or more projects you have completed over the last 4 years didn’t have a single “right answer”.  They were complex with lots of possible solutions.  They were, in short, like the problems of life.  Messy.  Sometimes frustrating.  Forcing you to make compromises and work with others.

All of this is by design.  Now that you are graduating, I’ll let you in on a little secret your teachers might not want you to know.  New Tech was designed to help you fail. Not the big “F” fail.  The little “f” fail.  New Tech is designed to teach you that learning comes through experimentation and failure.  It was designed to make it hard for you to succeed because a person’s spirit grows only when we are challenged and succeed at something meaningful.  Leaders are not created through worksheets and scantron tests.  New Tech is designed to give you the freedom to experiment, figure out what works and what doesn’t, and asks you often, “what could I do better the next time”.  New Tech understands that failure isn’t the worst thing in the world, giving up is.

So now you are at a great transition.  A time to celebrate what you have done and think about what you are going to do.  It’s actually a bit stressful.  “What are you going to do with you life?”.   I hope if nothing else, New Tech has taught you that you don’t need to have a plan for your entire life, but you do need to have a next step.  Steve Jobs once said during a graduation ceremony at Stanford that he looks into the mirror each morning and asks himself, “Am I excited about what I am going to do today?” and if the answer was “no” too many days in a row, he did something different.  Life isn’t one big choice, it a series of small choices.  And sometimes that choice means taking a risk and doing something that makes you uncomfortable.

As you walk across this stage tonight, I hope that you take the skills and life lessons you have learned and leverage them to create your own success.  I hope that when one of your college professors or maybe your drill sergeant announces with pride that “half of you will fail,” that you look to your left and right, find the people who are sitting in the front row or working just a bit harder than the rest and create your own team because you have learned that teams are stronger than individuals. I hope when you have to work with someone you find difficult to work with … that you remember almost everyone has something to contribute if you just spend a little time figuring it out. I hope that you are an agent for your own success and ask for help when you need it, and give it when someone else asks. I hope when you have an option to do the bare minimum, you take a look at the advanced column of the rubric of life and aspire to do more.

Lastly I want to encourage you to continue to take a risk.  We have the highest expectations for you.  There are many messy and complex problems facing your generation and we can’t solve them staying on our comfortable couch.   As our 39th President, Jimmy Carter said, “Go out on a limb.  That’s were the fruit is”.

Congratulations New Tech Class of 2015!

Paul Curtis