Q&A: Redefining Life One Goal at a Time

Targeted News Service

WASHINGTON, June 8 -- If storytelling is one of the most powerful ways to teach, the Legacy Project at www.legacyproject.org – a nationwide initiative connecting the past, present, and future for all ages – is truly a schoolhouse. Susan Bosak, Legacy Project Chair, is an educator, researcher, and author.

Her most recent book Dream is in a children's picture book format with 15 illustrators from five countries. The Legacy Project is a big picture learning project, targeting multiple generations and working to improve lifelong education.

The following is an interview with Bosak:

TNS: What inspired you to create the Legacy Project?

Bosak: The Legacy Project is a big-picture learning project using the concept of LegacyCubed to empower all ages. It's about your life in the context of the people and world around you. It was conceived because the "McMoment" just isn't working.

The Legacy Project is a millennium baby, born in 2000 in direct response to the challenges of the 21st century from personal levels of dissatisfaction and alienation to global levels of monetary meltdowns and environmental pressures. It's also very relevant today in light of the focus on education reform.

I brought my background as an educator to help found the Legacy Project, and our team includes an engineer and an economics grad. Our goal was to help people develop a practical mental paradigm, a metaperspective, to catch up with the amazing technological advances of the past 100 years.

The concept of legacy is fundamentally the most powerful concept we have for addressing the challenges of the 21st century. Legacy is the coming together of what you have been given, what you can create, and what you give back – which brings in the concept of time.

We need to expand beyond the McMoment, beyond the narrow present. The sense of responsibility to a broader span of time was much more prevalent among the ancients than it is today. For example, the Babylonian tradition, later adapted by the Greeks and by medieval Christendom, included the concept of the Great Year, generally used to refer to a 36,000-year cycle, after which history was thought to repeat itself.

Grasping time is important, and needs to start with young children. Temporal awareness is an important part of socialization. Helping children understand time and their place in it is to teach them an important life lesson. Children need to learn how to tell time, the rules of time, how to be on time, and to manage time to (hopefully) get their homework finished up on time.

They need a sense of daily time, but also a sense of their LIFEtime. They have to think about the life ahead of them because they have to make choices that will have long-term consequences. Time is also a great factor in life success. Athletes, writers, leaders must put in time to be successful. And children need to think about time across generations – everything that comes before and after them. Our dreams and goals are built on what has been achieved, created, written, discovered before us, and we can profoundly affect what happens after us.

Our legacy evolves through childhood to adolescence, then into young adulthood and older adulthood. The Legacy Project has three banner programs, reflecting 
the three levels at which our legacy evolves. LifeDreams explores individual potential and creating your life. Across Generations explores our connections with others and encourages closer relationships between generations. Our Worldexplores the world around us and our role in it, looking at how each of us can change the world to deal with challenges like the environment.

The whole idea is to help children and adults make the 30,000 or so days count that each of us may have walking this planet – your life in the context of the people and world around you.

TNS: Is Begin and End With a Dream the modern-day equivalent of the age-old question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"

Bosak: It's not an equivalent to the question; it's an answer to the question – with a 21st century approach.

We live in a world that is in many ways more complicated and challenging than any other time in history. Young people must make more decisions earlier, and often more difficult decisions. They're also often called upon to carry more responsibility. The current generation is aware they have to make money, but they're also more socially and globally aware, and more concerned with personal meaning and fulfillment.

Begin and End With a Dream is an activity set that's part of our LifeDreamsbanner program. As one of the Legacy Project's three banner programs – each reflecting a level at which we evolve our legacy – LifeDreams explores individual potential and creating your life. Particularly useful to teachers and parents, Begin and End With a Dream is a collection of activity ideas developed to help build goal-setting skills by encouraging children to set goals at the beginning of the school year and then review those goals at the end of the school year.

Teachers, principals, and parents play a critical role in helping young people discover who they are and encouraging their dreams and goals. Dreams and goals help shape children's lives and motivate them to learn. They give your life purpose, direction, and meaning. They shape your life choices, help you build toward the future, and give you a sense of control and hope. They're an expression of your potential and give voice to your talents. They're a source of pleasure and help develop the self. And they can change the world – just think of those famous words from Martin Luther King, Jr., "I have a dream!"

Dreamers are the ones who have the courage and creativity to see beyond "what is" to "what can be" to make a difference in their own life and the lives of others.

TNS: Does the established timeline of school assist in student goal creation?

Bosak: Because things change so quickly today and there are multiple layers to most issues, the 21st century really has to be about lifelong learning. That's why the Legacy Project speaks to both children and adults.

The rigid structure of school can reinforce a rigid understanding of time and progress. Sometimes you get more caught up in the structure and its momentum rather than personal development and skill building.

One of the reasons we have such an awareness of chronological age is because it's very much a structural feature of the way we've organized our society, including the education system. But a person's activities throughout their life are, to a significant degree, ordered according to a series of cultural norms, patterns, expectations, and rules.

There are actually four dimensions of time that influence the flow of individuals through the life course: life time (chronological age); family time (events and roles within the family); social time (cultural expectations); and historical time (socio-cultural era).

A life course perspective takes into consideration all four dimensions of time and highlights the ways that events and decisions that occur early in life can have persistent effects on the structure and quality of our life at later points in time. There is an intersection of social and historical factors with personal biography. A life course perspective also emphasizes the lifelong nature of development and asserts that our understanding of any point in the life course is enhanced by taking into account your past history and future expectations.

Going back to the example of school, what if something happens in a student's life that they have to take time off during the school year? Are they really then "behind?" And what if a student is at a grade 8 level in math but only grade 6 in reading? Are they "less than?" What "grade" are they really in?

Finally, does school truly take into account the widely-accepted idea of multiple intelligences? Education reform has to consider all of these issues. The development of lifelong goal-setting skills depends on developing the discipline to constantly challenge the self, and not be completely dependent on arbitrary external measures.

So, the standard timeline of school can sometimes be more of a hindrance than a help to encouraging ongoing learning as a normal part of living in the 21st century. We need more flexible approaches to education and more personalized curriculums. That being said, the existing structure does provide a nice opportunity to "bookend" accomplishments.

There is a defined beginning, middle, and end to the school year, and teachers can use that to their advantage as they help students build goal-setting skills. The Begin and End With a Dream activity set gives teachers a tool they can use now, within the school structure, with an eye toward expanding perspectives over the long term.

TNS: Why is the end of the school year more crucial than the beginning?

Bosak: It's not. Our activity set is called Begin and End With a Dream because I believe both the beginning and end are equally important. The Begin and End With a Dream activity set was developed because any good sandwich needs two slices of fresh, hearty bread. Then you put in a delectable filling; the other literacy and goal-setting LifeDreams activities enable teachers to pick and choose to customize their filling.

The end of the school year is a milestone that deserves to be recognized, whether a student is graduating from college or grade school. Milestones are those moments in our life when our personal star shines a little more brightly. They mark the passage of time and our progress in the journey of life. It's important to help children develop a sense of time and where they are in their life, as well as celebrate their accomplishments. As a life milestone, graduationis an appropriate time to do that.

On the other hand, just as spring is a time for new growth in nature, Fall is a time for new growth in education. The beginning of the school year is a fresh start – a time to build on what you've already learned, and get past any challenges you faced during the last school year. To set a positive tone for the school year and help young people develop important skills, it's valuable to encourage students to think about their future, set goals that will help them start to realize that future, and establish a step-by-step plan they can execute during the school year.

TNS: Do you consider the current state of high school drop-out rates to be primarily a result of poor goal making?

Bosak: Drop-out rates have many contributing factors. One of the biggest is that students find school irrelevant to who they are and their future. They see no meaning in what they're doing – which is in part related to goal setting.

Meaning is a notoriously vague concept. But human beings are fundamentally meaning-making creatures. Our mind is wired to make meaning, it craves meaning, whether we want it to or not. Meaning is what you make it, and meaning takes shape in the stories you create about life, yours in particular.

Meaning also involves a paradox: at one and the same time it involves living and thinking about living. Children need to be supported in their natural need to make meaning, and in building the skills they need to develop a meaningful life story for themselves.

A recent Michigan Education Association research paper, Survey on Dropout Crisis, looked at how to reduce the drop-out rate. The study "confirms what educators and parents know – too many young adults are rudderless and don't know what to do in the future. They're going through life without direction. And when they lack clear goals and focus, they're more likely to struggle."

The education system is failing in helping young people start to create a meaningful life story for themselves. A sense of purpose develops in students when they can see beyond what is to what can be. When they can see their future, they internalize the value of education and graduating.

Part of our work addresses this issue. For example, Charles E. Bennett Elementary School in Jacksonville, Florida is using our material, including the LifeDreams activities. Throughout the school year, students at the school read, wrote, illustrated, and discussed their goals and aspirations as part of a school-wide dream theme introduced by Principal Monica Boccieri.

With 30 years experience as a principal, Boccieri said she noticed that some students had trouble articulating their own dreams after she shared my bookDream with them. That's not uncommon. Kids get inspired and excited by the book, but they don't know where to take that excitement.

At Bennett Elementary, where most students are on free or reduced lunch programs, goal-setting isn't stressed at home much. Teachers said the dream theme made school more relevant and fun. And students are learning that good grades can help them reach their goals.

"The book was very inspiring. It shows you can do anything if you set your mind to it," said sixth-grader Jacob Brantley, who hopes to become a chef. "My dad makes really good barbecue. He was my inspiration. I want to follow in his footsteps."

Demarco Vaughn dreams of being a football player. Sean Chillingworth dreams about working at McDonald's. Lily Crosby dreams of having a pet alligator. These students are starting to think about what their future might look like. Everyone needs to set a goal and reach for it, an idea of where they want to go.

Teacher Mindy Mark commented that, "Some kids just needed a push to get them thinking and exploring possibilities, any possibilities."

So, we want schools across the country to do what Bennett Elementary did.

TNS: How important are concrete measures of success, such as certificates, to children?

Bosak: Particularly as children are learning the skills of goal-setting, there should be some way for them to gauge the progress they're making. I like a Rising Star concept in which students see their own progress and challenge themselves, and are then measured against others – because that's the reality of the world they'll face. That can take the form of certificates, or it can take the form of praise and feedback from an adult like a teacher.

The classroom also has to be a safe place to fail for children. If you're going to fail anywhere, it should be at school where you can be encouraged to learn from those failures and move forward.

At a higher level, we need more recognition of milestones for children and teens so that they can feel their accomplishments and be empowered.

When, exactly, do young people "come of age" in our society? When they can drive? Drink? Vote? When they graduate from high school? College? Move out of the house? Get married? Have children? In a diverse society, transitions and rituals are not as clearly prescribed as they once were and there is no single way to identify or mark a transition.

We can lose the opportunity for a sense of completion, accomplishment, and a smooth transition. All too often, even when coming-of-age rituals are enacted, they proceed by rote and leave young people unmoved and unchanged. Without appropriate rites of passage, teens and young adults feel a void in their lives.

Young people have a particularly strong need to find their way and their niche, and without adult or societal direction, they can be left feeling unconnected and unfocussed. If teachers and parents don't help guide their children into adulthood, they shouldn't be surprised if their kids never get there. It's so easy to get lost in the arduous journey, and if you don't have a compass and a clear idea of the terrain, you'll be more easily led down less-desirable paths or wander around aimlessly.

TNS: Is goal-making in children something that can be left independent or does it require a "curriculum?"

Bosak: The skills of goal setting are like any other – they must be learned. And many adults haven't even mastered them!

Our goal in the Legacy Project isn't to develop rigid curriculums, but to offer resources and opportunities that teachers, principals, and parents can adapt to any grade level and use within any curriculum. This is about maximizing learning now, and looking toward children's future. And there needs to be more emphasis in the classroom on meaningful goal setting – seeing motivation as an ongoing process, recognizing individual achievements/progress, and showing relevance to the students' future.

TNS: How did you determine the Dreamer Profiles and how can they help students, teachers, and parents? 

Bosak: The Dreamer Profile is one of many LifeDreams activities that are free to access on the Legacy Project website. It evolved from my work on my bestsellerDream: A Tale of Wonder, Wisdom & Wishes.

The book was a five-year project. I wrote it as a way for teachers and parents to start a discussion with children about their dreams and goals. It combines artwork from 15 top illustrators, inspirational quotations, and a poetic story about hopes and dreams across a lifetime.

The story is accessible for children, but has layers of meaning that relate to social science research. At one point in the book, there's a reference to using "Believe, Do, Think" to achieve a goal. Those three simple words summarize the core of social science research that has looked at how human beings achieve their potential and reach goals.

Believe, Do, Think isn't a strict sequence. When you reach for a goal, you move from one to the other as you work through the process.

Each of us tends to lean more toward one of the three parts of the process. Some people tend to be strong in believing and having confidence, but weaker in taking action and coming up with a plan. After looking at much of the research, I termed these Creative Dreamers.

For others, action is their strong suit, but they run out of steam quickly and don't give their actions enough thought. These are Dynamic Dreamers.

And for others, they may think and analyze too much, without putting their ideas in action and really being passionate about what they're doing. These are Practical Dreamers.

One of the illustrations in Dream, called the Club of Dreamers, shows a variety of famous people through history, including Albert Einstein, Anne Frank, Gandhi, Leonardo da Vinci. I started to look at their biographies and classified them into one of the three types of Dreamers. The Dreamer Profile emerged from that.

It's a simple tool designed to engage teens and adults in the text, illustrations, and themes in Dream while at the same time prompting them to start evaluating their own goal-setting strengths and weaknesses.

TNS: Is this another way that children might grow up "too fast," or is this an innovative way to approach parent/teacher roles in modern education?

Bosak: Children may well be growing up too fast. Our goal through the Legacy Project is to help teachers and parents equip children for a modern world that does move fast. Young people must make more decisions earlier, and often more difficult decisions. At the same time, we want to help children do what children should do – use their imagination, think of all the things ahead of them that are possible, explore and develop who they are.

It's also important to help children make the connections to all the levels at which they will evolve their legacy – the development and expression of the self, their connections to others (particularly across generations), and the ways in which they choose to affect and change their world. It goes back to making those 30,000 or so days matter.

TNS: What research was cited and how did that assist in the creation of your resources? 

Bosak: I work with schools and families across the US and Canada, and the Legacy Project has participants from around the world. Many ideas have come directly from those experiences. As a big-picture education project, we also survey current social science research; our goal is to summarize and synthesize ideas, and make them practical and useable in the community.

The development of the Dream book was a five-year process during which I looked at a lot of life course research. Dream is about the journey of life as it has unfolded for thousands and thousands of years, generation after generation, and it's about the present reader living their particular life at this moment in time. We're all similar – the first line of the story is "I started out just like you"– and yet our personal journey within the greater story of humanity is very individual – the last line in the story is "dream a dream… your very own dream."

Each two-page spread in Dream shows a different stage of life, from the time you're born to the time you're older, and reflects the psychological and social tasks of that life stage. The multilayered text references, for example, the life stage model of psychologist Erik Erikson and the hierarchy of human needs developed by psychologist Abraham Maslow. Again, the text is very accessible to children at a basic level, but it has depth that teachers and parents can explore with older students.

Recent research that has supported our LifeDreams work includes a study done at Florida State University in which they examined data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, a national random sampling of 12,686 individuals who were 14 to 22 years of age in 1979.

These individuals were interviewed annually until 1994, and then every two years. The FSU research found that, "'planful competence' is a powerful predictor of an adolescent's plans and their adult achievement in schooling and work. Adolescents with a purposeful orientation towards life, combined with general and practical knowledge, have more ambitious career plans, more stable plans in young adulthood, and greater educational and occupational achievements by midlife."

There's also been some interesting work done by Doug Manning, an educator with 30 years of experience, who is helping students manage the transition from high school to life beyond. He wrote a thought-provoking white paper, Connected Students: The Key to School-Initiated Graduation Rate Improvement, that brings together current research on reducing dropout rates.

He says that the "greatest and quickest gains in graduation rate improvement will come from initiatives focused on engaging the internal motivations of students… A sense of purpose develops for an individual when 'something they are' connects with 'something they could be'… Every student must have a clearly defined and meaningful future plan. That plan must be an extension of the person the student wants to become."

I often start my workshops with teachers and parents by asking, "How can you make yourself matter?" I don't believe we automatically "matter." We all have fundamental human rights, but that's different than making your life matter. We evolve our legacy and make ourselves matter over the course of our lives.

We then talk about when we were students and how much we would have liked someone to help us start figuring it all out. Helping children figure out who they are and where they can go – that's the greatest gift a teacher or parent can give.

The Legacy Project can be found at http://www.legacyproject.org/. 


Zaher Karp is a freelance writer based in Madison, Wis.