Read by Laura Walker, President of Bennington College and former CEO and President of New York Public Radio

It is 8th period at the Bronx Latin School and twenty or so sophomores are taking turns attempting to answer some of life’s biggest questions: “What is purpose?” “Is life about me or is it about others?” “Why does it take courage to be yourself?” As hands go up and down across the classroom, some common themes emerge: vulnerability, interconnectedness, and acceptance. There is not a phone in sight. 

These students are taking the QUESTion Class, an evidence-based course offered in public high schools in low-income neighborhoods that gives young people the opportunity for self-reflection and personal development. Now in 10 schools in New York City, the curriculum uses a method whereby a series of questions — categorized by theme and developmentally sequenced — help students explore and form their own identities and strengthen their sense of agency in school and life. With superlative outcomes, both formal and anecdotal, the QUESTion Class may be one answer to how to prepare children to become adults in a complex and challenging world. 

“I think the class allows students to realize they can be resilient and that they have these inner strengths to make it through difficult situations,” said Matthew DeLeo, the students’ teacher at the Bronx Latin School and a trained QUESTion Class instructor. “It helps them realize that they’re stronger and more capable than they might otherwise have thought.”

The class is part of a larger effort known as the QUESTion Project, an initiative of the Open Future Institute, a non-profit founded by Gerard Senehi and his wife Francesca Rusciani. The project is, in many ways, the result of the founders’ personal quest to provide better support for the emotional development of emerging adults, something he says “allows them to understand themselves and what they choose to do rather than simply follow a script.” The class was designed for students with less of life’s advantages but its ability to build character and confidence is widely applicable and, many would say, universally lacking. 

“I know from my own experience, there’s not enough support out there to figure out who you are as a person and how that influences your decisions in life,” said Senehi. 

Senehi is an academic and entrepreneur who, himself, has held a number of identities. An alumnus of Amherst College with a master's degree in education, Senehi has been a social worker, a teacher, and a successful entertainer doing mystery shows to help off-set his non-profit work. His role as a mentalist has made him appreciate the process of discovery that students experience in taking the QUESTion Class.

“One of the things we learned early on was the importance of making room for the unknown,” he said. “Questions about purpose and identity are really profound and intangible and we need to let students know they don’t need to have an answer but to be true explorers.”

The questions themselves are designed to empower the agency of students by encouraging intrinsic thinking as opposed to skill-building.

The QUESTion Project includes the QUESTion Academy, in which teacher training, professional development, and coaching take place and the QUESTion Leadership Program where students take leadership roles including co-teaching the class. The curriculum took four years to develop and was originally co-created and piloted with college students at the Florida State University and Amherst College, as well as students from public schools in the South Bronx where word spread to other public high schools. All of them are “Title I” schools that receive federal assistance to provide quality education to children from low-income families. A portion of the schools are college prep, where principals often look for tools to support first generation students in their transition to college. 

“What principals tell us is that it helps students with motivation for college but also with the skills needed to stay in college, which is a big issue for public school students,” he said. 

Senehi says the program’s approach – and the questions themselves – are designed to empower the agency of students by encouraging intrinsic thinking as opposed to skill-building. An advocate of learner-centered pedagogy, he differentiates this work from other social and emotional programs that might recommend the right choices, versus connecting them with the agency to understand those choices for themselves. It is a dynamic that can be jarring, but ultimately transformative for students. 

“I remember in my first QUESTion class I was like ‘whoa, why am I speaking more than the teacher?’ ‘Why are other kids telling me how they feel?’” says Alexander, a graduate of the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics, now at SUNY Purchase studying acting. “In American education, we don’t really get to see students as the captains of their learning.” 

The QUESTion Class curriculum is 80 lessons, divided into five core units with different themes, topics and perspectives. They are Choice, Purpose, Fearlessness, Interconnectedness, and A Bigger Picture. In Choice, students might explore aspects of freedom and responsibility, and how the choices they make may affect others. Within the Fearlessness section, students begin to understand their fears within the context of others and explore the role of fearlessness in being true to themselves. Each curricular unit builds upon the others, and by the end of the course, students consider “a bigger picture” with a closing session in which they explore their place in a larger world. 

If there is a foundational pillar, it is purpose, or bringing meaning to your life in a way that is outside yourself, for which there is a well-documented connection to wellbeing. Purpose scholar William Damon, whose team from Stanford did a formal assessment of the program, wrote, “Alumni demonstrated that the QUESTion Class was effective in nurturing their sense of purpose and their feeling of being connected to others through their shared humanity. They learned to see purpose as a driving force now and throughout their lives.” Damon called the students he observed in the Bronx “as insightful, engaged, thoughtful, and articulate as any group of students I have ever seen.” 

The principal of the Bronx Latin school, Annette Fiorentino, said she had been searching for the QUESTion Project long before she knew what it was. Bronx Latin is a public high school in a low-income neighborhood of New York City with a large percentage of college-bound students. 100% of them are students of color, largely Latinx and Black. 

“When we share our opinions, we don’t divide ourselves.”

“Some of our top students, going to top universities, would come back to the Bronx in between terms and just seem so lost,” she said. “Some of them wanted to drop out of school. They weren't sure who they were. They weren't sure where they were going or what they wanted to study. I knew I needed a program to better prepare them emotionally for college and a principal friend of mine said, ‘Annette, you need the QUESTion Class.’” 

Fiorentino says the class gives students confidence in who they are and builds a resilience muscle to flex when things get tough. The process helps prepare students for the real world of college, particularly in PWI’s (Predominantly White Institutions) with cultures and norms that are unfamiliar to first generation college students whose families can’t tell them about the sudden discomfort they might experience. 

“I grew up with mostly Black and Brown people,” said Alexander. “The way we speak to each other is very different than the way I do now, now that I am in a PWI. There are certain things I need to be mindful about within this community and certain things I need to advocate for myself about. Taking the QUESTion Class gave me the fearlessness I need to be able to go up to someone who is different from me and be able to have those conversations that may be difficult or uncomfortable.” 

For Fiorentino, what started out as a college transition tool became so much more. She is particularly impressed by the value of the interconnectedness unit which was critical in addressing loneliness during the pandemic and helps students learn to see others through their shared humanity, not through their labels. 

“I think after they go through this program, they really understand that we're more alike than we are different,” she said. Asked if she was familiar with other types of social and emotional learning programs, she said, “nothing as powerful as this.”

In a review of the program by Stanford’s Center for Adolescence, Senior Researcher Heather Malin wrote, “Students who participate in the QUESTion Class gain confidence in their ability to navigate a path forward through their choices, while becoming more comfortable with an uncertain future. As they engage with their most important questions with peers, their feelings of isolation start to dissipate. They connect with a sense of direction based on their own understanding of the meaning of life and the purpose they hope to fulfill. Most striking to us has been seeing their fears and concerns for the future replaced by a sense of joy, positivity and confidence about the possibilities ahead.”

Among the results of the report’s alumni survey, 89% of respondents said the class provided opportunities to think deeply about the future choices they were making, take responsibility for their choices, or explore the unlimited choices available to them; 78% said the class provided opportunities or greater capacity for being open to or accepting of perspectives of others, recognizing the humanity of others, and seeing connection with others despite our differences; 100% said it helped them improve their autonomy and agency. 

The report cites additional research on the value of purpose education among students, particularly those who’ve grown up in poverty and the added benefit this holds for others and for society. “Society benefits when individuals pursue a life of beyond-the-self purpose. Communities benefit from the prosocial activities of their members, and from being made up of individuals who are living lives of purpose.” 

Matthew DeLeo doesn’t need an assessment report to understand the impact the QUESTion Class has on his students, or on others. He sees it every day during 8th period when they file in ready to get to work. Sometimes students who aren’t even in the class will ask to sit in. Now in his eighth year of teaching the course, Deleo said the class has been a learning process for him personally. “It was the students’ growth and development – and the way they express what the program has done for them – that has enabled me to learn and grow as their teacher.” 

One afternoon in March, Gerard Senehi visited DeLeo’s class to ask, “What has this class helped you with?” The first indication may have been the level of seriousness the students gave to Senehi’s question. The room was silent. All eyes were on the visitor. Slowly, the hands went up. Some students asked for clarification: “What do you mean by helped me?” Others jumped right in: “It makes you OK with who you are, who you were, and who you want to be.” Another student added, “It opens up more doors to get to know yourself.” 

Asked if the class is a little like therapy, some answered yes, in that it allows them to share thoughts they have inside that they can’t always speak with their families about. Hearing other students share similar thoughts lets them know they are not alone. Other links to mental health and wellbeing include comments such as “there is no judgment here” and “it is a place of comfort.” 

Senehi’s last question moves the conversation from the individual to the collective. “How is it different here than what you see happening in the world outside in terms of polarization?” The answers to this are eerily spot-on and reflect a wisdom beyond their years. “When we share our opinions, we don’t divide ourselves.” “We’re not judging and we’re able to listen.” “In this class, it feels like there is no right or wrong, just people sharing their point of view,” all said with a remarkable lack of self-importance. 

As they burst into the crowded hallway after class, it is impossible not to hope that what they take with them that day will stay with them for the rest of their lives.