Getting Smart Senior Fellow
CEO and Founder of Core Shifts
Q. Hey Abby, please introduce yourself.
A. I am Abby Benedetto CEO and Founder of Core Shifts and I always say I’m an educator. That’s how I introduce myself to people and I think that’s who I am. Right now I would say that I’m an educator who’s trying to affect change at several different levels of the system. How can we have young people experience their own brilliance and wisdom in new ways while confronting issues of equity and white supremacy culture while we’re doing it?
Q. What does New Pathways mean to you?
A. I always say education is the least nimble industry in the history of all industries. If you walk into classrooms across the country right now (2023) they don’t look that different than they did one hundred and fifty years ago … for me, the idea of new pathways is people recognizing and acknowledging that this has to change. How can we reimagine and rethink the way that school happens for all young people so that they can, like I said earlier, discover the wisdom and the brilliance that is inside them already? Then they can figure out their purpose and their passions in life and move through an educational journey that isn’t marked by seat time, credits, and GPA but is marked by young people having foundational meaningful learning experiences that then lead them to the next foundational meaningful learning experience.
Q. Do you have your own moment of identifying a meaningful learning experience for yourself? Was there a pivot in your life or has that always been sort of the way you thought about learning?
A. I love that question because when I introduce myself now I often say that I spent most of my life fighting being a teacher. My mom was a teacher – I grew up in her classroom. Everyone was like, “Oh, Abby you should be a teacher!” and I was like “No, no, no I don’t want to!” I just wanted to do my own thing.
A lot of the work that I did out of college in my early 20s was youth leadership development and Americorp. I did city year, I was an AmeriCorps member… I think that experience shaped me so deeply in terms of what learning can look like when you’re actually trying to like build and do a real thing. When I did finally say, “Oh yeah I really do want to be a teacher!” I also got placed in a school that was heavily project-based. So, I got trained and sort of grew up in my teacher self doing project-based learning and seeing how meaningful that can be for students. So… I think I had my own version of it in my twenties and then was lucky enough to work within a system where I got to create that feeling alongside my students in high school.
Q. It sounds like that Americorps experience was sort of meta in the sense that it was helping you understand the real world and project-based learning as you were doing it? It was a project-based experience for you too in a way. Do you have an early memory of a pathways/PBL experience?
A. That’s such a good question – partly because I think it all felt that way. I was actually hired by City Year to help them build a high school engagement program in San Jose California. They were working with elementary school kids and middle school kids but they didn’t have anything with high school students. My job was to design a program that we thought would engage high school students in meaningful learning experiences outside of school.
We essentially tried to come up with what would be a dope experience for high school students that would get them to feel like they could have an impact on the world around them.
Q. Was there a person in your community who had a like profession or role or purpose that you were like “that is me … that is who I want to be.”
A. Yes, in the legend and lore of Abby’s life there was this amazing woman in my town who was a social worker and ran a high school leadership development program in my town that was called peer advocates. It was a thirteen-week program and it was so cool. I learned about Constructivist listening in like 1990 whatever when I was in high school because she was all about self-awareness and communication skills and leadership skills. I loved it and it was probably a place that I found a lot of like safety and comfort
When I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do I was like well …I just want to be her! I decided to be a social worker although, I don’t think I ever really wanted to be a social worker… I wanted to be her in particular. Anyway, that’s how I chose my colleges and that really helped get me to where I am today.
Q. I love how your relationship with someone actually ended up guiding some of your core decisions. I think that’s one piece of like the pathways journey that we don’t talk enough about… the restart. How people so often come back around and bring all of their experiences with them and then identify a new pathway.
A. Yeah, and we know that to be true in so many people’s lives, right? This idea of spiraling. How might we build educational experiences and structures and systems so that young people and the adults who are walking alongside them can pause and do that reflection?
That hasn’t been seen as an important part of formal learning in public education and it’s like that’s the most important thing we should be doing.
Q. If you were to self-assess and give yourself a credential for something that people may or may not know about you … what would it be?
Ah, well I definitely deserve a credential in fake tap dancing.
Q. Um, that is extremely unique. Paint the scene.
A. Well, I always joke that I partly became a teacher because you just get to be on stage, but one of my favorite things to do would be to just like do wacky things in front of my students when I was teaching. Fortunately, I am an exceptional fake tap dancer. I’ve never taken a lesson, but I can do the big finish, I can do the like shuffle off, the buffalo … I had a whole routine. You know, kids sort of eat that up.
Q. Backing track or acapella?
Just some jazz hands. It was anything to create some surprise.