I wouldn’t really describe myself as someone who cries easily, but as the closing melody of “A Million Dreams” began to play I found myself overcome with emotion, unable to hold back tears. Looking out across the audience of parents, students, and teachers I realized that the moment that we had been planning for months had arrived and the true journey was about to begin.
It all started last fall when author Katie Martin visited our school to talk with our teachers about her amazing book Learner-Centered Innovation. (Side Note: If you have not read this book, I highly recommend it. Check it out here.) As part of the day she held a workshop with our parents that included conversations about our own school experiences, what we really want for our children, current success indicators vs. what we truly value and messages from parents to the teachers.
There were tears at this event as well as many participants realized that the message they were sending in their language and actions didn’t match the future that they deeply wanted for their children. Our community found connections in shared memories of their own school experiences, dreams for their kids, and what they valued most in education. They created new language stems to use with their children that better matched their desired outcome of a growth mindset, kindness, and empathy.
What I found to be most powerful about the workshop evolved out of one of the last questions: What do you want to share with the teachers? Smiles ensued as parents wrote down positive messages of support, a desire to be a collaborative partner, and deep admiration for the work that they do. They also discussed a need for increased communication due to the recent changes including a no homework policy, Standards-Based Reporting and a workshop approach to the classroom.
I walked away from that day with my mind brimming with ideas. We collected a lot of great information, but I knew the conversation couldn’t stop there. We needed to engage more people, collect more feedback and continue the dialogue started that day. The result could be a shared vision that went beyond just our district or school by integrating all of the stakeholders in our community. This would pervade everything we did and shape the culture of our school.
Beginning Stages of the Work
Knowing that a great way to engage the parent community was to first go through our PTA, I reached out to Erin Stratton, our dynamic PTA president. An organizational ninja, filled with ideas and always willing to lend a helping hand, she has been such an asset to our school both inside and out.
When I initially proposed the idea of engaging families in creating a shared vision of the school she agreed with me that this was a great idea, but posed a really great question:
How are you going to engage all stakeholders? Not just the ones who come to all of the meetings. How will you ensure that all voices are heard?
This question literally drove the rest of our conversation for the meeting as we brainstormed ways to get more people to come. We talked about typical ideas like making it fun, including food and maybe even holding it off school property so that we could include an adult beverage or two. What really struck me though was Erin’s honest conversation with me about the need to open up the school, give parents a window into what was happening in the classroom. Parents will always come if it is somehow connected to the kids and they can gain a greater understanding of how their children are learning.
This got the wheels turning in my mind again. I thought about doing a learning fair where we opened up the entire school and students could pick any sort of way they wanted to demonstrate their learning. Parents could move around the school, talk to the teachers and students, and get a sense of what learning looked like. After they did this we would have break out rooms to discuss what they saw and talk about what resonated and also other ideas they had.
The biggest obstacle I saw with this was time. When would students work on these projects? If it was going to be during the school day how would teachers feel about giving up some of their instructional time to facilitate these projects? The other tricky component would be asking teachers to give up a night for essentially another Open House at our school.
At the end of the meeting, we talked about building excitement for the event and advertising it to our community. I don’t remember whose idea it initially was, but we decided that some sort of promotional video that involved students would be a great idea to spark conversation and get people interested. It would include snippets of instruction as well as some sound bites. I told Erin I would reach out to Kate Allt in our communications department to help produce it.
We also sketched out some questions that we wanted to ask parents at the event to spark the conversation and decided that we would have a sign-up that night for parents to join a Shared Vision Committee that would do the work of putting the vision into action. The questions we initially thought we would ask were:
What resonated with you about what you saw in the video?
What was your experience like in school? What do you still use now?
What do you wish they would have learned in school?
What do you most value for their children in school?
What is your vision for your child’s future?
Hawthorne wishes for the school…
As Erin left the meeting I was excited about the work that was before me, but nervous about how it would actually all play out. The idea of a movie about our school really resonated with me and I started thinking it could go beyond just the promo and be the focus of the evening. I decided to reach out to Katie Martin to get her feedback on the idea and sent her an email with an outline of the plan. She liked the idea of inviting the community to a movie night that would spark conversation about a shared vision for our school, but added one piece of advice that ended up changing the trajectory of the film:
“I think you should definitely invite students to the movie night and see if a few of them can help you out the movie together. Their insights throughout the process would be valuable.”
I couldn’t believe I hadn’t considered this. I was currently working with a group of 5th grade students, The Hawthorne Hawkeye (YouTube Club as the kids affectionately named it), who were learning about video production with the goal of creating 5-10 minute videos about each classroom in our school. We had spent most of the year working on building their skills and understanding of film, but hadn’t actually started creating the mini-documentaries yet. They would be the perfect group to do the work of telling our school’s story.
Excited (yes, I know I get excited a lot), I reached back out to Erin to meet up again and talk to her about the slight shift in plans. She was in agreement that this was a good plan and we sketched out a tentative agenda for a “Movie Premiere Night” complete with popcorn, tickets to the event and maybe even a red carpet. The attendees (parents & teachers & involved students) would first watch the film and then meet in break-out sessions to discuss the questions listed above. After this, groups would carousel around to read other groups responses and we would create a list of themes. There would be a sign-up sheet for anyone who was interested in continuing the conversation and actually putting the vision into action. We decided to replace the PTA meeting on February 19th with the premiere which was a little over 3 months away.
Getting the Students Involved
Creating the video with the students was a three-step process with many intricate details and nuances along the way. I sincerely wish that I could say that the students drove the entire process, but with the time crunch and the fact that I could only meet with them once a week, I did take control of facilitating and designing of the structure and process.
Because asking good questions was going to be key to building a great film we started there, brainstorming questions for both our teachers and parents. Based on what we captured in interviews, it was our intention to then go in and capture “B Roll Footage” of classroom instruction that matched what the interviewees said.
In designing the questions I told the students that we wanted to capture what was positive about learning at our school, what made Hawthorne unique and what are some hopes for the future. After working in partnerships to come up with ideas, our teacher questions ended up as the following:
- How long have you been teaching at Hawthorne and why did you become a teacher?
- What is your favorite thing about teaching or What’s your favorite teaching moment?
- What are attributes that you think a good learner should have?
- What is your favorite thing about Hawthorne school?
- What do you expect from your students?
- Is there something that you want your kids to learn that you don’t teach? If so, what is it?
- Did you like school when you were a kid? If so, what was your favorite subject?
- What is your favorite subject to teach? Why?
- What is your ideal classroom or school?
We then set up a schedule for teachers to sign-up to be interviewed during their lunch hour in our library and TRC. The students worked in teams of two to interview each teacher, one working the camera and the other being the interviewer. Mr. Chambers was kind enough to send over York High School students from Ytv to mentor the students prior to this in how to use the cameras and tips for capturing the best shots. I could see from the way that the students operated behind the camera as well as performed in front of it that this had a lasting effect on their work.
We did not have every teacher sign-up, but I did have teachers reach out to say they would have participated if all the slots weren’t already full. Our staff is amazing at jumping in and contributing to a variety of opportunities in our building. If we ever did this again, I would try to accommodate them all.
After Winter Break, we began the grueling process of interviewing students and collecting classroom footage. For the classroom work, we had the teachers sign up over a period of three days for 1-2 students plus myself to come in and record in their classroom for about an hour. We didn’t give them any specific parameters, only that it should represent learning in your classroom and that it didn’t have to be fancy. We ended up with at least one teacher volunteering in every grade level and even had a few specials sign up.
When it came to the actual recording, one of the students would man the stationary camera while another would capture more candid footage. At about halfway through the time the students would move outside of the classroom and would pull students to be interviewed to find out what was happening in the lesson from their perspective. They also asked them the following questions that the group had developed during one of our meetings:
- How do you learn best?
- What do you wish you got to do more of in school?
- What do you want to be when you grow up or what problem do you want to solve in the world around you?
- What is your favorite subject and why?
- What is the best thing about your grade level and why?
- What is one thing you would change about Hawthorne?
We also interviewed students during lunch and recess time with these same questions either individually, in a partnership or in a small group.
Although I had initially wanted the students to be involved in the parent interview portion as well, scheduling and time got in the way and I ended up creating the questions with feedback from Erin Stratton. We decided it would be best to send out a Google forms survey to the parents to pull quotes from first. The last question asked participants if they would be willing to be interviewed on camera answering these questions. We used responses to that question to invite parents in to ask them some of the same questions, plus a few more.
- How would you describe learning at Hawthorne School?
- What does Hawthorne School do really well?
- What is your greatest dream for your children?
- How does Hawthorne help your child to reach that dream?
- What do you want to share with the teachers at Hawthorne?
- When you imagine the ideal school experience for your child, what does that look like?
- My favorite moment or favorite experience at Hawthorne School is…
- How do you think Hawthorne is different from other schools in or out of District 205?
- What do you wish Hawthorne did more of?
- What was school like for you growing up?
One of the things I learned in conducting the parent interviews was how amazing it is to sit 1:1 with a parent and talk about their experience in the school. I met with parents who had children at Hawthorne from 1 year to 15! It was incredibly insightful to hear either viewpoint and moving forward I would like to start scheduling these annually to get an idea of where we’ve been and also where we want to go. If I was still a teacher, I would do the same practice, but with parents of students in my classroom. Surveys are great, but you miss out on some of the nuances and ability to probe more deeply.
The Editing Process
The editing process went through several iterations. The students quickly discovered that looking through film to find interesting quotes and clips was not as fun as doing the recording itself. These meetings tended to drag and I was honestly a little worried that we would ever finish based on this progress.
What made a huge difference was the way that we ended up organizing the way that we took notes on the clips. Instead of the original template that looked like this:
I ended up making a specific template for each group we interviewed with a section for each question. The students then signed up for the question they would be paying attention to as they listened to the interviews. (Try to picture the example below with a section for each question as well as the stakeholder.)
This expedited the process significantly because it gave students something to focus on. I also made a copy of the questions for each of the groups for writing down specific quotes that we might turn into quote slides in the documentary.
When it came time to decide on the structure of the video itself we went through and looked for themes in the questions and decided to organize the documentary that way. Here are a few examples of where we started:
By organizing all of our ideas ahead of time we were able to put the actual video together in much less time than if we had just input all of the videos into WeVideo and tried pulling clips as we went.
One huge obstacle to consider if you are considering having students do something like this with WeVideo is that the students can’t all simultaneously work on the same project at one time, even if it is in collaboration mode. To solve this problem and not waste students time during lunch I had them each sign up for individual times they would come down to my office throughout the day to work on the project importing clips or adding in design style like transitions, music etc. I am sincerely grateful for one student in particular who I am pretty much convinced is the next Steven Spielberg with his creative genius and ability to figure out any video creation obstacle that we needed to overcome.
If I thought Erin Stratton was a creative and organizational ninja before this process started, working with her on this project only reinforced that idea tenfold. Leading up to the event she dropped everything to come in, talk on the phone or even text about ideas. Her questions and ideas added incredible value to the focus of the evening as well as the smooth organization.
While OUT OF TOWN, she continued to work behind the scenes to ensure that this event was a success. She helped organize parent volunteers to facilitate the post-film discussion, recruited PTA President-Elect Jennie Beal to help with set-up and coordination for the night including assigning tables, decorations and food, and somehow managed to get back to help set up for the evening.
The final plan for the night ended up being the following:
Prior to the event starting, I met with the 10 table leaders to discuss how they would facilitate the discussion based on the guide. We were expecting around 100 people who RSVP’d including parents, teachers and students who were involved in the making of the film. We ended up with less than this number, but the conversation had by those involved was a powerful one.
After watching the documentary (huge applause, happy tears), tables started out talking about what resonated with them from the film. Many agreed with the positive messages about our school being one that focuses on the needs of the students. They smiled as they shared stories of the impact that particular teachers had had on their children and even discussed behaviors of teachers who had the opposite effect (I did not hear specific names used). I overheard conversations about liking our workshop model approach and how their children come home happy with school.
What sparked an interesting debate was our recent “No Homework” policy. Some parents thought that this was a great new policy because their children have so much they’re involved in after school and this gave them back more family time. On the flip side, parents who also had middle school and high school students were concerned that this wasn’t preparing students to develop organizational structures and responsibility when they start getting homework again as they are older.
Another interesting conversation that occurred at one of the tables came out of a conversation about bringing in more experts from the community to talk about the work they were doing. Some parents thought that we needed to do more of this because it would expose students to career ideas for their future. Another parent brought up the point that we spend a lot of time focusing on preparing students to be “career and college ready,” but we are missing out on the development of the whole child if we only focus our efforts there. It was an interesting conversation for sure and one that I would like to continue.
The cumulating work of each table was to create two posters based on the following:
Imagine a school where…
Then we need leaders who…
Then we need teachers who…
Then we need parents who…
I loved hearing tables debate back and forth about what was essential for our students and what we might need to make that happen. It was also amazing to hear families say, well, we already do a lot of these things. I want to make sure you know that this is not a criticism, but just our best ideas. A few of the posters created:
I had many amazing conversations that night with parents. One of my favorites came from a parent who was teaching a religion class and had started reading every Smokey Daniels book she could get her hands on. It was so fun talking to her about inquiry and how passionate she had become about instruction through this process. She jokingly mentioned that maybe parents could come to some of the staff development workshops that we did. I seriously thought this was a fantastic idea and wasn’t sure why we didn’t do this more! (Side note: I already picked up Upstanders and am enjoying it immensely)
After the Shared Vision Night, I took the posters and typed them up into this document. The starred items are ones that had additional markings on the posters indicating that more than just one group agreed with that statement when they did the gallery walk. Just like the day that Katie Martin visited our school, the themes that stood out were more greatly related to students truly enjoying learning, developing character and strong relationships being created among all parties.
The Work is Just Beginning
As much fun as it was working with the students to create the school documentary, the true work begins now. As you can see from the charts from the evening there are so many ideas for what our ideal school might look like and what teachers, parents, and leaders might need to do to achieve that dream. The Shared Vision Committee will be meeting soon to discuss:
- What are the common themes from each of the sections?
- What do we already do well?
- What are areas for growth?
- What are our next steps in achieving our goals?
My greatest takeaway from this work is the importance of everyone having a voice in what goes on in our schools. In Learner-Centered Innovation, Katie Martin articulates
“If we want to better align our schools with the world we live in and develop the type of learners and people that will be productive citizens, administrators, teachers, families, and the greater community must work together to develop a shared understanding of the desired outcomes for students and align the vision, policies, and practices.”
Schools are the center of the community. They have great potential to connect those who might not otherwise connect, to bridge differences thought perhaps previously impossible, to create unimaginable and limitless possibilities for those they serve. As educational leaders, we can no longer sit behind the walls of our building developing plans based solely on academic outcomes related to levels of achievement. When we engage all voices, we go beyond academics and get to the dreams of the human beings we serve and start the journey towards the world we want to create.
If you are interested in watching either of the videos you can see them here:
Full Documentary (40 minutes)
5 Minute Ending “A Million Dreams” Song (5 minutes)
A Few More Shout-Outs
You may have already surmised this from the rest of the story, but a key component of this process was generating help from others, sometimes by asking, and other times being the grateful benefactor of an awesome human being who hears a need and reaches out.
The first part I am referring to is our awesome music teacher, Ms. Cunanan. She is seriously one of the most generous and creative human beings I have come into contact with in education. Last year she helped myself and our instructional coach out when we were creating an end of the year video for the staff by having the choir record a song that we had written a parody to about all of the amazing instruction our teachers were doing. What’s even more amazing she didn’t ask any questions, she just said yes and did it. This year was no different.
I think I asked her in January if she thought that the choir would be able to learn the song, “A Million Dreams” and be ready to record it by February she didn’t hesitate. She found a lead singer, practiced regularly with the students, organized permission slips for the kids to record at York High School one morning and essentially took it over. I honestly couldn’t have organized it any better. I definitely couldn’t have gotten 40 students ready to record in the record time that she did. THANK YOU Ms. Cunanan and the Hawthorne choir for practicing relentlessly during your lunch recess to produce such a beautiful tune!
This brings me to my next musical genius, Mr. Chris Gemkow, the music production teacher at York High School. Last year he helped myself and a group of students to record a song for our “21st Century Learning” video for teachers at Lincoln at the end of the year. It was such a wonderful experience and I was excited for the opportunity to work with him again. The morning of the recording he gave up his own time to set up the sound booth to record almost 40 students plus one soloist. After this he produced the song and got it back to me within a week! Seriously blown away by his kindness!
Finally, there is ZERO way this video would have happened if it weren’t for the amazing and incredibly talented, Mrs. Leban, our creative tech teacher at Sandburg, one of our middle schools. (Side Note: If you do not follow her on YouTube you are missing out!) She actually reached out to me about WeVideo after hearing me talk about my technology dilemma with students using the Chromebooks in this process. I had been talking about it on one of the SuperCharged Learning podcasts and she emailed me to get together. We met during her lunch/plan time one day and I am sincerely grateful for her help!