“Let me try!”
These three words are always music to my ears. As a former kindergarten teacher and museum educator, these three words mark the lesson transition from modeling to independent practice. These words demonstrate confidence and connection. “Let me try,” means I am learning, participating, and owning my experience. I love the light that emits from anyone’s face when they feel like they “get it” and would try. For the past eight months, I had the pleasure of working with teachers all across the district as they tried something new with their students: a digital storytelling exhibit from the perspective of the children in school.
From our final report:
Our project team included community educators; college-level advisors; student-led videography and education-related ethnography; exhibit design professionals; and of course the young photographers. The overall Photovoice project design requires a highly collaborative process from conception to completion.Our process welcomed this larger team to add depth to the scope of the project, nuance to the history presented on the panels, and varied perspectives regarding interpretations of literacy in our community, our state, and our country. We offered hands-on training, in-class demonstration, and personalized follow-up to any educator participants.
This project provided a real opportunity to learn from the voices and visions of our young people about literacy. After rounds of teacher and student training and supports, we sorted out emergent themes together, landing on the title: Reading Our World.*
Students spent time in their homes, schools, and communities with digital cameras documenting how they tell their stories. The project, focused primarily on second and third-grade participants, invited their perspectives without the typical bounds of a school-assigned project. We had an opportunity to engage with teachers about the project and to catalog their responses into the exhibit that you can see in final panels and video at ImaginOn: The Joe and Joan Martin Center in Charlotte.
With all my interviewing and preparation, I had little time to reflect on the implications of this project. There were three majors lessons for me regarding collaborative design with schools from this initiative.
In pursuit of “the right way,” the project suffers.
Teachers are told to follow rules and to teach students to follow rules. The right way, the first time. The behavioral expectations are fine for walking in an orderly line down the hallway, but what does it mean for student creativity for an opportunity to express yourself without a “right way?” This initiative challenged the participating educators to loosen their grip on conventional literacy and just do it. But it definitely took a while to get there.
Teaching teachers to trust their students.
The foundation of any meaningful relationship is trust. For this project, students used lightweight digital cameras to document their experiences with literacy. These cameras traveled everywhere with the students. Sometimes the cameras came back…sometimes they didn’t. Each teacher had a classroom set of cameras for this reason. Some teachers waited to give students cameras until they could trust them. They waited a long time.
Systems take away the agency of the learner.
The teachers wanted to try! The students wanted to try! The administration was supportive and the parents gave their permission. So where was the holdup? Testing. And not just one round of testing at the beginning of the year – several diagnostics and standardized tests prompting the teachers to refer to the start of the year as “Testober.” I haven’t been a classroom teacher since 2007, but even I recall how tests could hold learning hostage in schools. Unfortunately, our educational system has become beholden to testing, testing and testing some more – all for the sake of “accountability.” The question I ask is in this test and diagnostically obsessed educational culture, what else are we leaving behind?
There are so many ways that we can be good stewards of our community resources, especially in providing support to our schools. The Reading Our World exhibition, while challenging, certainly created a window into the experiences of children in a community with a 3rd-grade literacy rate consistently demonstrating that less than 50% show mastery. We may be doing what we think is right, but maybe it’s time to “try” something new.
*The public opening of the Reading Our World exhibit will be held on February 1st, 2018 at ImaginOn. Join us to learn more!