Dr. Karen Kenkel is the Director of the NGL Academy in Santa Rosa, CA, which will welcome its inaugural class of ninth to eleventh graders this September. Karen received her B.A. in German Studies from Stanford University and her Ph.D. in German Studies from Cornell University. Before joining the NGL team, Karen was the Director of Instruction and a Philosophy Core Instructor at the Stanford Online High School.
I recently sat down with Karen to learn more about her background and her expectations for the NGL Academy in Santa Rosa.
Ilana: Tell me about your education and teaching experience before NGL.
Karen: I was an undergrad at Stanford University and had an opportunity to study in Berlin. After I graduated from Stanford, I returned to Germany on a Fulbright scholarship and studied at the Free University in Berlin. Then I enrolled in grad school at Cornell in German Studies and taught German language. Later, I got a job in the German Studies department at Stanford as a tenure-track professor. I taught film, literature, philosophy, and feminist studies for seven years.
When my kids started school I homeschooled some, and I worked on re-chartering a local public charter school they attended. I substitute taught and became interested in public education. Then I had the opportunity to come back into full-time teaching at Stanford’s Online High School. I started teaching AP US History and Philosophy, and very quickly moved into administrative roles. At various times, I oversaw the humanities department, the languages program, the philosophy program, and developed the arts program.
Ilana: What do you see as the biggest problem in education today?
Karen: It’s a set of interrelated problems, but I think the biggest problem in education is that it becomes institutionalized and people start to identify with the institution rather than with the kids. Institutions assume a life of their own, and preserving the institution and the related aspects of that institution like labor, the bell schedule, textbooks, furniture, or the buildings, prevents change. The teachers are not teaching to their passion, but spending too much time making inadequate things less inadequate. How do we keep our facilities and curriculum light, mobile, and capable of change?
Ilana: How do you think NGL addresses this problem?
Karen: NGL brings together educators, businesspeople, and entrepreneurs. The mindset is already different. If something isn’t working, people aren’t going to say “oh, but you know, we already invested a lot of time in developing this so, sorry, let’s make it work.” We’re looking at research, we’re leveraging experience and technology in a process of ongoing exploration to figure out what is the best thing for kids.
Also at the Santa Rosa NGL Academy, we’re trying to separate education from the institution. We’re not building ourselves into a certain kind of structure where, for example, we have this glorious new food arts complex, so we’re going to teach food arts and if kids don’t like it, tough, because we’ve got this amazing facility and they should like it! We are starting very minimally in terms of the site and the Maker Space so that the kids and mentors can teach us what is of interest to them. We are not investing thousands of dollars in equipment that’s going to sit there because they don’t actually want to use it.
My son and I joke that NGL is my belated gift to him. He said, “Mom, this is exactly what kids need, not just me, but all kids. This is exactly the kind of environment I needed. You don’t infantilize the kids, you accept that every kid wants to learn, is hardwired to learn, but may not want to be educated or schooled in the ways usually offered.
Ilana: How do you picture NGL learners when they graduate?
Karen: Here is my hope: they will be joyful, happy people. They’ll have self-knowledge, and the confidence that self-knowledge lends. They will be stepping confidently into their futures even if they’re not exactly sure where they are headed. And they’ll have a sense of the importance of community and collaboration because they will have been involved in meaningful service opportunities where they applied their talents, intellect, and spirit to issues in the community. They will have been given the time and space to develop a sense of purpose. These will also be kids who’ve had time to talk to their parents in their junior and senior year and to maybe clean up the kitchen every once in a while, and possibly have a job, and learn how to drive!
Ilana: So well-rounded, basically?
Karen: Yes! Because they’ve had time to be people, not just students.