When Mike Strong (05) was in college, he heard PLNU professor Mike McKinney, Ph.D., say something that would change the directory of his life.
“He called literature ‘our great conversation,’ and I fell in love with that idea,” Strong said. “When I heard that, I wanted to read and know what we’ve been talking about in these books for all these years. So I switched to becoming a literature major and fell in love learning from faculty members like Karl Martin, Bettina Pedersen, Carol Blessing, and Phil Bowles.”
It wasn’t long after he switched to literature that he started mentoring other students at PLNU’s Writers’ Studio.
“I worked at the Writers’ Studio, which was an innovative model at the time for peer mentoring,” Strong said. “High Tech High was interested in what we were doing and so they visited us to learn what we were doing.”
While Strong was still a PLNU student, High Tech High offered him a job at the high school to work as an instructor and run workshops with students, eventually becoming a full-time teacher. He has been there ever since.
As a teacher, Strong was continuing with the family business. His father, David Strong (78), had been an educator as well.
“My dad had been in education and my grandfather was a teacher after he came back from World War II,” Strong shared. “I hadn’t planned on being one but then I encountered these amazing teachers in PLNU’s literature department, reminding me of what my Dad used to tell me about teaching, that it’s just going on a long walk with a kid and coming back as equals.”
High Tech High is a K-12 public charter school that draws students from all over San Diego county (and beyond). Strong teaches at the first school of its kind right down the hill from PLNU in Point Loma (it’s now one of 15 schools in San Diego).
“High Tech High is a project-based learning school, integrating people from all different places in San Diego,” Strong said. “Since San Diego is one of the most segregated cities in America, we are trying to desegregate the region and have a student body that is representative of the area by drawing from every zip code. Integrating students’ hands and minds and hearts to do real work is our goal.”
The school, which is funded by both tax dollars and philanthropic aid (Bill Gates has donated millions of dollars, for example), is focused on promoting deeper learning in students around interconnectedness as well as interpersonal and intrapersonal learning in order to prepare students for productive and meaningful careers. This is especially the case for students who would otherwise have limited educational and career opportunities.
Strong’s innovative teaching and curriculum development at High Tech High have led to opportunities to collaborate with the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, or the “d.school,” as well as the design firm IDEO.
While Strong’s role has shifted from teaching to curriculum development (though he still regularly meets with and mentors students), his fundamental mission hasn’t.
“Very few kids from my high school graduating class went to college, being from a poorer area, and a lot of these kids were more capable than me. My work is all about helping the type of people I grew up with, and that hasn’t changed,” Strong shared. “I remember Karl Martin at my graduation speaking about how it’s been great up here on the hill at PLNU, but that now it’s time to go down the hill to do the work.”
That work “down the hill” has taken the shape of building teacher-student relationships that have the power to enact real and lasting change in the lives of students.
“Students want to be noticed. We all want to be valued. And in my life, with some of my professors at PLNU, we went through some difficult things together and they walked with me very closely. I learned so much from them and I think that the same thing needs to be done for students today.”
Strong reflects his willingness to walk alongside and learn with his students with a phrase that he shares often.
“I write this for my students over and over again, ‘I see you. I hear you. I love you. I’m with you. What do you want to build, bash, and beautify together?’ It’s about becoming levers for change. What do you believe needs to be created? Let’s create it. What needs to be broken, since some things need to be broken and demolition is an important part of construction? And what is wonderful that needs to be turned up and beautified?”
Strong is grateful for the opportunities he’s had to change students’ lives and develop meaningful relationships with them.
“I had one student named Nick and he was really sweet and nice, but just not ready for high school. We value independence and autonomy at our school, and he wasn’t ready to handle it. But we would go out and shoot hoops and hang out. He came from a family where no one had ever gone to college but, eventually, he started to turn the corner academically. And we got very close, and we went on this trip his junior year where we built our own rafts and floated on them for the bottom 50 miles of the Colorado River,” Strong explained. “And we were just out there for four or five days riding on the river and camping at night. We sat together, and told stories and laughed and found out about each other’s lives. We were breaking down hierarchies and generational gaps. And writing his letters of recommendation, already knowing that he was going to get into every school he applied to, was really special for me.”
For Strong, it’s been through a willingness to understand and serve his students — each as unique individuals — that has made the hard work of teaching so worthwhile.
“We are not in the business of making sure we have an understanding of standards that students need to regurgitate. Teaching is about so much more than the standard tests and textbooks, it’s about the world we live in and the way we are going to treat each other. Teachers actually create our society,” Strong shared. “The heart of our work at High Tech High is to offer students deep learning through authentic work. And doing real, authentic work with students is in service to equity.”
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