PICTURED ABOVE // Senior Paloma Renteria presents Powerful Protagonist student Ava Guen Sanchez with a rose and a certificate of “most enthusiastic.” Photo by Michelle Chen.
Two of senior Paloma Renteria’s favorite things to do are to think positive and write. This school year, she has combined these passions through her Powerful Protagonist program, a community service program between David G. Burnet Elementary School and the Hockaday School. Renteria, who wrote the curriculum in 2017 and launched the program last December, teachers a group of five fifth grade girls from the elementary school in Hockaday’s Whittenburg Dining Hall every Saturday.
“Powerful Protagonist intertwines positive psychology and creative writing concepts to empower young girls who are just about to go into middle school, and develop the confidence that they’re going to need, inside and outside the classroom, to be successful in what they want to do in middle school and beyond,” Renteria said.
Each Saturday session, usually running from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., involves class time, activities and games. Renteria explores different ways of storytelling and applies these concepts to the bigger picture of the world.
“I want them to get curious and to be mindful of how they’re seeing the world,” Renteria said. The program got its name, “Powerful Protagonist” from Renteria’s vision that the girls will see themselves as protagonists in the world who can write their own fates. Renteria hopes that through this mindset, her students can feel that they have control over their own future. Renteria’s education style is based on positive psychology, a branch of psychology that focuses on the positive aspects of human life and well-being.
She first became interested in positive psychology in 2016. After attending a few conferences and studying in an online program for six months, Renteria became a certified positive psychology practitioner.
“I absolutely loved it, but the one thought I kept coming back to was how this needed to be accessible to everybody,” Renteria said.
With this thought in mind, Renteria brain- stormed different ways to offer positive psychology to others. It wasn’t long before she settled on some- thing she is equally passionate about—writing.
“Writing has always been my way of processing my emotions and processing everything that I experience, so I wanted to share that skill with other girls who could use it and maybe enjoy it,” Renteria said.
After the initial brainstorm, Renteria quickly thought of partnering with David G. Burnet Elementary School.
According to Hockaday’s Director of Service Learning Laura Day, Renteria fell in love with David G. Burnet Elementary School after she served at the school during Hockaday’s Day of Service. In her junior year, Renteria ran the Saturday tutoring program at David G. Burnet and helped prepare the students for the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, commonly known as STAAR.
Renteria also feels connected to the elementary school because of its 99.9 percent Latino student body.
“I wanted to reach out to these girls specifically because I thought that there is a lot to face not only in the context of growing up but also in the context of the country and the wider world. I wanted to give them someone who is similar and can speak about that,” Renteria said.
Cynthia Gonzalez, Community Liaison at David G. Burnet Elementary School, has maintained a good relation with Renteria through community service since 2016.
“She’s done wonderful things here for our school and our students. She’s very com- mitted,” Gonzalez said.
After Renteria wrote the curriculum for Powerful Protagonist on her own, Gonzalez contacted the fifth grade teachers at Burnet and asked them to nominate girls in their classes who had a strong interest in writing. After the nomination, Renteria contacted the girls’ parents last December and met with them at Burnet to explain the program.
Since this is Powerful Protagonist’s first run-through, Paloma remembers that the first day was very scary. Over time, however, she has personally learned a lot from the process.
The girls have learned a lot from Renteria too. Gonzalez’s granddaughter, Ava Guen Sanchez, is one of Renteria’s students. Gonzalez said that Sanchez often describes Renteria as a very confident woman and a great listener.
Gonzalez also points out that recently, Sanchez gave a presentation at school about gender equality, where she was very confident even though it was her first experience of public speaking.
“Now, my granddaughter is somewhat like a mini Paloma,” Gonzalez said.
On May 5, the last day of the program, Renteria hosted a reception in Whittenburg where each girl presented a book that they have written in the program. Food and drinks were set up as parents and Day attended as audience.
In each book, the girls wrote about their life stories and aspirations for the future. At the end of their presentations, each girl shared something they loved about the program.
When it was Sanchez’s turn, she said, “I know I didn’t have to be here every Saturday, but I chose to because being here made me a better person and I learned more about writing.”
Renteria also handed the girls certificates that recognized their completion of the program and some of their best traits like “most kind” and “most enthusiastic.”
Day believes that Powerful Protagonist has been an incredible opportunity for the girls in the program.
“It’s huge. They don’t get a lot of extracurricular things at school. Helping young girls, in general, find their voice is so important, but these girls are just girls who don’t get these opportunities, so it’s really awesome,” Day said.
Looking forward, both Day and Renteria think that more Hockaday students can be involved in Powerful Protagonist. Since Renteria is graduating this weekend, she wants to train some students from Hockaday to keep up the program at school. Renteria will also attend university in Dallas, so she will keep in touch with the girls and look for more ways to expand the program.
While the project itself holds great potential in the future, Power Protagonist’s first run- through was successful. At the end of the day, the girls in the program have found new friends, a new mentor and new voices. Renteria is happy to see their growth.
“It’s been really cool to see the impact of this program on the girls I’ve worked with. It makes me believe that better educational opportunities and raising young women who are going to be confident and educated and excited about what they want to do is totally possible,” Renteria said.
Story by Michelle Chen