Everyone is an expert on education as everyone went to school and many people have children in schools. However, school is starting to look different in pockets across our nation as well as all across our school district. School was created on a factory model that has not seen a significant change in many, many years, and has created equity gaps, especially for black and brown learners and those with disabilities. The needed skills for success in our current world are different than what was required for the industrial era and continue to change all the time, but school is not always designed to teach the needed skills. In our district, classrooms are becoming deeper learning experiences that are founded in creating a sense of belonging through the relationships we make with our learners. Teachers and students are discovering their passions and getting the opportunity to explore them through cross-curricular projects with public demonstrations of learning that receive feedback from peers, community members, and families. We needed to find a way to communicate this shift in our practice to our greater community, document our progress, and provide clarity for all staff on our why as some of our schools are further along in our deeper learning work than others.
As we started to learn how to best tell our story, I read a great blog post from IDEO. In it, Jen Massaro shares five tips for storytellers. The first one is to determine the big idea. We needed to be able to define what equity means and how the implementation of the deeper learning competencies is what we hold in common to achieve equity. However, this may look different at each of our eighteen schools based on the needs of the learners in that community. We often think about equity in terms of outcomes and gaps, but equity at its core is not about measuring the outcomes. If we wait until we see the results of standardized tests, graduation rates, and discipline data, it is too late. Equity is about giving every learner the same opportunity at the start and not making assumptions about their abilities based on what we know about learners from their backgrounds or the labels we use in schools. We create equitable opportunities when we believe in every learner and know them well enough to create authentic learning that is connected to our greater community and driven by their passions and interests. When that is EVERY learner’s experience in school, we don’t create equity gaps. That is the big idea of our story.
Jen’s next tip is to get outside your comfort zone. My work provides me many opportunities to learn new skills, but I had no idea how many I would learn when we started working with the Urban Misfit Ventures. We were looking for a partner to tell our story that is driven by purpose and community, which is exactly what the Misfits embody. They started the company as an opportunity to connect to their passions and create, which is exactly the experience we want for our learners in schools and makes our partnership a great fit. They are interested in our shift of practice and tell us all the time that they wish high school would have given them the chance to explore their interests through projects. We have learned about storyboarding, editing, guiding interviews, directing, how much teachers are not used to being on film, and how challenging it can be to get small children to articulate what they are thinking in a few sentences or less. Fortunately, they are patient with us and believe in many chances to iterate as we try to capture each school’s story in less than seven minutes.
As IDEO storyteller Neil Stevenson says, “Storytelling is like sculpting, where you carve away to reveal something beautiful.” Becoming a sculptor is next. It took us many tries and the opportunity to learn how to be film critics to keep carving away at the interviews and the footage until we found the beauty. As district leaders, we get to see and know the inspiring work our staff and learners do every day, but capturing that in a short video was a challenge. Every interview and piece of footage is meaningful, so deciding what to keep and what to cut has been tough.
The fourth tip, empathize with your audience, is one that is really important to us. We have made some concerted efforts to listen to our learners more often. When we do, they tell us the same two things that they want and need from us in school. They will regularly tell us that they want to be known. Being known verses being seen is a powerful concept to think about and is especially important as our world becomes more virtual and less connected to one another. Learners and their families want to feel deeply connected to their school and be known for who they are and what they have to offer to our world. The other thing they usually say is that they want school to be interesting, which does not mean learners do whatever they want. It means that school helps them to discover their interests and inspires them to solve problems. Their connections to each other and feeling inspired are what change the learner experience and create equity.
The last tip is to practice, practice, practice, which is true of anything you want to do well. Over the next couple of years, we will be making a video of each of our schools, so they each have the chance to tell their story of equitable opportunity through deeper learning. We have grown a lot since we started making our first video, which is exciting to see. It is also why it is so important to continue telling our story over and over again. It gets clearer each time we do, and the learner experiences get deeper, more connected, and more meaningful with each iteration. Capturing our story as we go helps us to see where we have been and how much progress we have made in a short time. We are also using the videos to connect our schools to share the great work going on at each, which can be a challenge in a large district.
We don’t have it all figured out, yet, as it is a feat to scale change in a public school district of eighteen schools. However, we have found some things that are working really well to humanize education and change the learner experience that we are proud of and want to share. Here is the video that tells our current story at Franklin Elementary West Allis, WI, with more and more to come for our learners.