Why They Love to Learn

What does it take for today’s students to succeed? What is it exactly that makes some learners so self-directed, while others lack motivation? Pittsburgh students let us in on what keeps them engaged, and why it’s not all about grades.

There’s no secret formula for igniting passion in today’s students. No perfect mix of teaching technique or technology can suddenly transform each and every student in the room. Every student is motivated differently, and students’ interests and experiences are as diverse as a classroom full of adults’ would be.

As progressive schools around the country reimagine education, we’re taking a closer look at why some students soak up learning like sponges. Our new occasional series will highlight exceptional students who’ve fallen in love with learning and the unique opportunities in and around Pittsburgh that have triggered their new passions.

Caroline Combemale: Learning Beyond Cyber School

[dropcap]O[/dropcap]n a Saturday afternoon in August, Caroline Combemale was eagerly waiting for a box to arrive at her front door. It was her favorite day of the year, the day when her set of school supplies from Agora Cyber Charter School would be in her hands at long last.

To Combemale, 14, tearing apart the boxes full of books and chemistry supplies is a glimpse into what the school year will hold. And when you love learning as much as Combemale, there’s nothing more exhilarating.

However, for Combemale, a high school sophomore, learning extends far beyond the box that gets delivered to her door and the classes she takes at Agora. Combemale has immersed herself in a range of outside passions— from competitive debate to creating YouTube channels to teaching Scratch classes.

“I missed the library a lot, it’s a fun place,” she says of her time spent last summer taking French immersion classes at Pomona College in California. “I mean, they have books … for free. You can check them out and not have to pay. It’s pretty awesome.”

Born in Belgium, Combemale moved to the United States seven years ago. But the schools she attended weren’t a good fit for her. At her first school, she felt unchallenged and her interest level waned. She went to a private school for a bit, but she struggled with being bullied for her eagerness to answer questions in class. Plus, Combemale was dealing with health issues that put her in and out of the hospital. Combemale went to five schools before finally deciding to try Agora in 6th grade. She instantly felt fresh motivation.

“I was very excited to learn because I actually felt like I was learning something instead of just reviewing things in my class I read a year ago,” she says. “I actually got to take a lot of courses ahead, and got to go into part of 7th grade.”

Agora Cyber Charter School is a public Pennsylvania K-12 school where students take classes online and interact with teachers on the phone and through email. But as much as Combemale loved the challenge and individualized pace, not having kids her own age around was a tricky adjustment.

To combat feeling isolated, Combemale started getting involved in more activities, which she had time for thanks to Agora’s flexible schedule. It was around that time, in 2010, that she met Nina Barbuto at a Girls Math and Science Partnership event.

Barbuto, the founder of Assemble, a community arts and technology space, had recently finished her graduate degree, which focused on the future of media and media theory, when she met Combemale.

“I meet Caroline and she had like 10 YouTube channels. She was what I was reading about, about how we’re going to be consuming media and producing media,” says Barbuto. “She didn’t know, but she was just doing it.”

The two stayed in touch. When Assemble opened in 2011, Combemale became an intern, attending events and teaching classes. She says teaching and collaborating on hands-on projects has taught her how to express herself.

“I think I kind of grew up a little bit working at Assemble because I became more mature, and really learned how to act around adults,” Combemale says. “Whereas before I was kind of just this hyper child who just loved to do everything but didn’t know how to communicate with anybody.”

Her communication skills are never more useful than when she’s teaching Scratch, a new programming language created at MIT designed to teach coding to kids age 8 to 13. She says her proudest moment is the first time she taught Scratch to a group from Gwen’s Girls. She taught her students to make interactive Mother’s Day cards in just over two hours.

Combemale is also an award-winning chess player. She started playing with her dad on his wooden chess set before she knew how the pieces moved. Her parents encouraged her to keep learning, and she soon started lugging home chess theory books. Combemale credits her parents with instilling in her such a strong desire to learn by prioritizing her education, even over the summer.

“Learning never stops in my house,” she says.

Combemale thinks she might pursue a business degree in college, but that’s a a few years away. This year, she’s looking forward to expanding the Gay Straight Alliance she founded at Agora, and competing with Allegheny North’s debate team. She also plans to start her own radio show for teens, by teens.

Published September 26, 2013