Gregg Behr delivering the commencement address at West Virginia University this past spring.
Gregg Behr

Last week, Gregg Behr, executive director of the Grable Foundation, delivered this inspiring commencement speech to West Virginia  University. The topic? Following in the footsteps of Fred Rogers and revolutionizing learning.

Thank you, Dean Denzine, and good morning, Provost McConnell, administrators, faculty, and staff. And a special good morning to you – the graduates – and also to your families, friends, and loved ones. Welcome to this beautiful day.

It’s an honor to stand before you here in almost Heaven, West Virginia.

Eighty years ago, in a small mountain town not far from this one, there was a young boy named Freddie. For years, Freddie had been plagued by the things that make so many childhoods difficult—he was shy, he was overweight, he had trouble making friends and trouble keeping them. Freddie felt isolated. The adults in his life were nice enough, but they didn’t seem to notice how lonely Freddie was, especially on warm summer days when his asthma got so bad that it trapped him inside. From his window, Freddie would watch the other, happier kids playing catch or jumping rope or riding bikes. There was his neighborhood, just outside, just out of reach. He’d lived there all his life, but somehow it didn’t quite feel like the place he belonged.

Except when one particular person would come by: Freddie’s grandfather, Fred Brooks McFeely. McFeely recognized the longing in Freddie—that longing in all of us to be loved, to feel at home. And so McFeely always told his grandson the same thing: “Freddy, you make my day very special.” It was just a simple sentence—McFeely couldn’t fix Freddie’s asthma or keep the bullies at school at bay. But he saw a problem, and he felt the need to respond. That need—that drive to do something—had an immeasurable impact on Freddie.

It had an impact on me, too, and on millions of others, and probably on many of you. Because when little Freddy Rogers grew up to host his own television show, he made sure to spread that same tenderness. “You’ve made this day a special day by just your being you,” he’d say. “There’s no person in the whole world like you. And I like you just the way you are.”

Like a country road, Fred Rogers took his viewers home—to a place where every child belonged. That place, of course, was Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, a revolutionary children’s program that took what was then a new technology called television and made it work for kids. Rogers brought together researchers, educators, and counselors just like you to create a show both grounded in the science of childhood development and unwavering in its message of love, respect, and self-esteem. “What if you were offered an hour of television live every day?” Rogers once asked. “Can you imagine what it’s like to try to fill that up with something of value? I wanted to give the best I could.”

Graduates, hours like these now fall to you to safeguard and enrich. Equipped with modern technologies that enable you to connect with children and youth in ways that Mister Rogers never imagined, what will you do? Especially amidst a world where hours are no longer bound by the constraints of an hour hand, and where kids learn anywhere, at any time, and at any pace. The question is, will you fill them up with something of value? Will you give the best you can? You’re no longer confined to the roads that have been laid before you. What will you do with this new power—the power to build entirely new country roads?

Maybe you’ll build one to Pittsburgh, where we’ve been trying to answer these questions for almost a decade. As the executive director of The Grable Foundation, a philanthropic foundation dedicated to improving the lives of children, I talk often with educators. Years ago, I realized I was hearing the same frustration again and again: teachers said they just weren’t connecting with kids the way they used to. To be sure, nothing about this was surprising; generations of adults have lamented about “kids today.” What was astonishing, however, was the seismic shift to which they were referring.

In a flash, the Digital Age had reached a tipping point; modern tools had become so pervasive and so transformative that kids were coming to school with entirely new frameworks for how to understand the world. They were pursuing knowledge differently, developing identities differently, and seeking affirmation differently. Their learning environments couldn’t keep up. So I started inviting all kinds of people—teachers, librarians, counselors, researchers, gamers, and engineers—to come together and talk about how to respond. Soon thereafter, we realized that, together, we had two major strengths: innovative learning pedagogies and the potential to prototype ideas rapidly. What might happen if we followed in Fred Rogers’ footsteps and blurred the boundaries between the two?

So we formed then what is now known as the Remake Learning Network: a coalition of more than two hundred schools, museums, libraries, community centers, universities, foundations, and private companies across southwestern Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The network draws on the expertise of nearly two thousand educators, artists, and technologists to remake the ways our children and youth learn. By mapping out developmental pathways —each one its own ‘country road’—we’ve built a region-wide learning network that takes education beyond the classroom, connecting kids with cutting-edge learning in and out of school that’s relevant to their lives and to their futures.

I’ll give you an example. On any given day in Pittsburgh, an elementary school student interested in, say, coding might take a class at Assemble, an afterschool space that connects kids with artists and makers. That same student might later take a circuit-building lesson at MakeShop in the Children’s Museum, where she’s introduced to robots. That in turn might lead her to a program called Tech Warriors, where kids build robots with the help of local high school mentors, using kits developed by graduate students at Carnegie Mellon University. And from there, who knows? The important thing is that she is eagerly acquiring the tools to build her own country road, just like each of you.

Maybe your road will lead to Elizabeth Forward, a moderately-distressed public school district just an hour north of here, where the future is taking hold in an unlikely spot among fields and industry. At the district’s Media Center, you’ll see kids hanging out in comfortable chairs in colorful rooms. At one moment, they may be connecting audio files to robotic devices, and at the next, teaching each other the latest gaming software, all the while challenging one other to develop new and inventive ideas. You’ll see students hard at work in the district’s Dream Factory, learning the basics of engineering, design, and programming with state-of-the-art-tools like laser cutters and 3D printers. School is once again a place where these students want to be, where they want to learn. The district’s rate of dropouts has plummeted from nearly 30 to just a handful annually.

Perhaps, instead, your road will lead you to a far-away place on the West Coast or the Asian continent; or maybe, as the song suggests, your country roads will take you home. Maybe you’ll find yourself in one of West Virginia’s Innovation Zones, where teachers and principals have the autonomy, flexibility, and support they need to go after ambitious student goals. Maybe you’ll head for the valleys of McDowell County, where – despite bearing so many burdens of poverty – the community does all it can to attract talented, passionate professionals like yourselves, even going so far as to renovate abandoned buildings to create housing oases for new teachers.

Wherever you go, and whatever country road you come across, I urge you to remember the most vulnerable among us, and to use your talents, your tools, and even your treasure for the benefit of kids. Fred Rogers once said this: “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.”

Graduates, this is your hour. Go forth and be our heroes. Make it your community. Make it your problem. Listen to what our children tell you. Keep an eye out for the lonely ones like Freddie. Tell them how special they are. For this is what was meant to be—that we share in this place that’s almost Heaven, a place we all belong.

Thank you, and congratulations.

See the video here at 20:30:

The staff at NEXTpittsburgh writes about the people driving change in the region and the innovative and cool things happening here.