Dont hide your light under a basket

As a school superintendent, Jay Haugen is used to selling people on ideas. But when it comes to discussing the latest initiative in his West St. Paul School District, he feels more like a rock star than an educator.

“I’ll speak at the Chamber, or Rotary, and it’s like you can’t get people away at the end. They want to talk about it,” Haugen says, referring to the district’s Sparks partnership with the Minneapolis-based Search Institute. “It really resonates with people. It’s something everyone wants for their child, and wants for themselves. I don’t have to convince everyone that it’s a good idea.”

A spark, according to Search Institute Founder Peter Benson, is something that gives your life meaning and purpose; it’s an interest, a passion, a gift. It could be anything from camping to playing the piano to helping the elderly. In his 2008 book about Sparks, Benson explains the strong connection between identifying and nurturing teenagers’ sparks and their success in school and in life.

Last summer, the Search Institute began working with the West St. Paul District (I.S.D. 197), which includes Mendota Heights and Eagan, to test the Sparks curriculum it had developed for schools, based on its research on students and thriving. The partnership happened almost by chance. District officials had been looking for a way to develop personalized learning plans for students, as a way of keeping them engaged, when they heard Benson speak about Sparks.

“This simple, powerful idea, that if a student knows their spark, and has some adult supporting them in it, they’re going to be successful — it really resonated with us,” Haugen says.

The district surveyed all students in middle school and high school about their sparks, and gave the results to parents at spring conferences. Some groups at the elementary level have embraced Sparks as part of the counseling curriculum. One school had a sparkle banquet, where students created writing and art projects about themselves and invited parents to school to view them.

Although the pilot partnership with Search concludes at the end of the school year, Haugen says the district plans to continue with the initiative because of the positive response from students, teachers, and parents.

“Parents come up to me routinely, and they are so thankful. They have never had these kinds of conversations before, where they get to talk about their kids’ strengths, things they have a passion for,” he says. “Now, I always hear people using the word ‘joy’ at school; they are talking about something that brings them joy.”

In addition to the West St. Paul effort, the Search Institute has been working on a community-based pilot program in Northfield, which will launch this summer. That’s how I first heard about Sparks, more than a year ago. I serve on the board of the Northfield Healthy Community Initiative, which supports the Sparks initiative. Also, my 9-year-old son, Elias, attends Greenvale Park Elementary, a school that has embraced the Sparks concept this year.

Nancy Tellett-Royce, the Search Institute’s community liaison, says when parents and children talk about sparks, it can change the dynamic of the parent-child conversation in a positive way.

“It’s not a conversation where one person is knowing everything, and one knows nothing. It’s not a utilitarian conversation, about how you need to make the bed. It’s exploring something at the heart of who you are.”

Tellett-Royce says it’s not enough to ask what a child’s spark is and get a one-word answer. Parents need to ask additional questions to gain a better understanding of why it’s a spark. As an example, she says, she talked to a dad who was sure, without even asking, that hockey was a spark for both of his kids. When he asked additional questions, he discovered that although both kids did name hockey as a spark, it was for completely different reasons. One enjoyed the competition; the other disliked the competitive aspect but enjoyed improving his skills. The dad was able to use this information to adjust how he talked to each child about hockey.

“I hear from young people that when adults take that step further into a conversation, they feel affirmed and heard,” Tellett-Rocye says.

I think I have a good idea what each of my three kids would list as their sparks. But I’m not sure I could explain their reasoning. It sounds like a great topic for our next family dinner.

Joy Riggs blogs about her sparks, family history and music, at

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