Tackling school change as a community

Community conversations about education

community conversations about educationWhat would you tell your neighbors about your school? What do you think they’d say in return? The Washington West Supervisory Union has set out to find out, by hosting a series of community conversations.

Life LeGeros, a Tarrant Institute professional development coordinator and WWSU community member, is taking part in those conversations, and sharing out what he learns.

A full transcript appears below.

 


This episode is entirely given over to Life LeGeros, who you might remember from Generation Z — and who had the chance to become part of a community-wide conversation on school change in the Washington West Supervisory Union in the Mad River Valley area of Vermont. The conversations were structured with a screening of the movie Most Likely to Succeed, followed by group discussions facilitated by students and other members of the Washington West community, including Life.

These Community Conversations brought together 140 community members over four two-hour weekly sessions which we covered over here.

 

Life: My name is Life LeGeros, and I work at the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education. I’m also a community member in Washington West Supervisory Union, and I’ve been interested in education, and democracy in education in particular since college. So I was very interested to hear about this community conversation approach. People came open-minded, and really brought their experience to the table, as community members ready to engage in participatory democracy.

When we first shared our personal experiences on the opening activity of the first session, there was a very strong common thread where everybody had generally pretty mediocre experiences. Most people in the room were generally pretty successful in school, but people when they shared experiences either shared that their educations had been overwhelmingly boring, in some cases mildly traumatic because they didn’t necessarily go for the compliance and rules following structure of schooling.

This dissatisfaction with traditional schooling seemed to apply across the community. Here’s Evan, a Junior at Harwood Union High School in Duxbury, Vermont, who co-facilitated a different group:

Evan: We’ve had some very emotional moments with people sharing stories about their own education. Which has totally opened up my eyes. I never imagined adults specifically having situations like ours or situations even worse that what we are having when they were growing up.

I used to think adults would be like “oh, how’s it going in school?” And I would think, “I’m not going to tell you, it doesn’t matter, you’ve never experienced it.” But hearing what they have to say, it sounds like they know way more than we could ever really know.

In addition to Evan, I had the chance to interview other students and community members to hear their thoughts about the process. Two of the students I was most impressed by were Maya and Jonah, two sixth graders from Moretown Elementary School, in Moretown, Vermont. They were in a group with students, teachers and community members from nearby Crossett Brook Middle School and Harwood Union Middle School. The latter is the middle school they both expect to move up to.

Maya and Jonah

Life: Why don’t you start by telling me like, how did you hear about it and why’d you get involved?

Jonah: The reason I got involved with it because that I wanted to hear other people’s idea of how the community and education could change, and make learning better.

Maya: I wanted to see how other schools were adapting to Act 46 and 77 compared to our school.

Life: Cool. So how did it go?

Both: I think it went really well, yeah.

Maya: We talked a lot about 21st Century Skills, and passion projects, PLPs, and how we’re going to move towards that.

Life: So did you feel like you were able to contribute to the discussion as well?

Jonah: Absolutely!

Life: How?

Jonah: Like in a positive way to like help people make recommendations to help students in school and stuff.

Maya: I think there were a lot of teachers from Harwood so they knew most of what was going on at Harwood. And there were some from Crossett Brook, so they were telling us how it went at those schools, and we were able to tell people how it went at Moretown. One of the big things was technology. At Harwood they don’t have a policy and you can take out your phone whenever. And here we can’t take out our phones until we’re on the buses. There were a bunch of people saying that technology was good, and there were a bunch of people who were against technology. So there was kind of a debate about that.

Life: Interesting. What did you guys contribute to that discussion? What did you say about the technology stuff?

Maya: We told them about the technology we use here. And how it’s pretty helpful.

Life: What were people most passionate about in there?

Maya: We were talking about the themes and one of them was equity.

Life: What does that mean?

Jonah: Like, giving people, like equalmost parts of places, like transportation and stuff.

Maya: Oh yeah. They showed a video where these students were able to do their passion projects in the community and help out. But the big problem was transportation, because if their parents weren’t able to take them where they needed to be, they weren’t able to participate in activities.

Life: Do you think other communities should do this again?

Both: Yeah!

Maya: I think it was really helpful. We got to know what the parents also thought, and other students.

Life:  Were there any big recommendations you wish would’ve been on the table or anything?

Maya: I know there was one rec yesterday, there are parents who dropped out of school or didn’t have a good experience when they were younger, so they don’t want to get involved with their students schooling. So they were the kind of people everyone wanted in the meeting, so they could find out what they thought about this stuff…they really wanted those people.

Life: Do you agree?

Jonah: Definitely.

Life: So trying to think about how to get everyone involved in the conversation?

Jonah: Yeah, yeah.

 

Johnny

I was inspired by certain members of our group, Johnny in particular really emerged as a leader over the course of our sessions. She did not have children directly in the system but between her unique perspective of moving to Vermont, growing up elsewhere, her role as director of Mad River Valley Food Shelf, and so being very much in touch with some folks who were struggling within our community, she really became a really strong moral beacon for the group. She kind of personified a lot of what the rest of us believed, and she is not shy, she is very articulate in it of herself.

[Add: Johnny also happens to be Evan’s grandmother.]

Johnny: I’m Johnny Yorr, I live in Waitsfield. I’m originally from Memphis, Tennessee.

Life: How long you been in Waitsfield?

Johnny: 11 years.

Life: And how did you hear about this conversation? Why’d you decide to join?

Johnny: From Dara Torres. At senior lunch one day, she said, “Oh! We’re looking for seniors.” And you know, I barely qualify, but…

Life: So, so… have you taken an interest in education in the past? Was it the community part that drew you, or the education, or both?

Johnny: I think the curiosity. What we can mold. Just how much flexibility — I don’t know, coming from a system from way long ago, and far away. I’ve been involved, with my grandchildren, but certainly not as much as my daughter. So I was just interested. This seemed intriguing. I’d never heard of it, that the community could put in input. I thought it was interesting.

Life: And how’s it gone so far?

Johnny: Oh, I was surprised and thrilled: so much enthusiasm! Truly. From my fellow seniors that I’ve seen around here, to even the young people, that seem really caring and concerned. It’s sort of reassuring.

Life: Have there been any surprises?

Johnny: Yes, in a way. I hate to sound this way but just how really intelligent our young people are. And how motivated, maybe, curious? I like that. We’re unique here, I admit that, but this valley, this state. A very involved community, unique. It’s a blessing — I think the kids, I honestly think that they appreciate it more than I thought, as far as the community, and most of them have engaged parents. That’s why I chose to come here, my daughter was in sixth grade. I didn’t know a person. But I had been here and I liked the feel and the villages and I thought this is where, as a single mom (I got divorced when my daughter was two) where I could work, have to work, but also feel like she was safe in an involved community. And it was true.

Life: You brought up a little bit about some volunteer work you did and how that has brought some perspective on the conversations. Could you talk about that a little bit?

Johnny: Well, I was surprised when I was asked to become the coordinator for the Mad River Valley Food Shelf. The need in this community, I really didn’t know. We do not let, as a rule, children from this area volunteer at the Food Shelf. Because we don’t wanna make that child uncomfortable, coming in to see who’s getting food for their classmates. We do encourage them to volunteer off-hours, which you guys have certainly done, to plant flowers and rake leaves and clean windows, which you guys have certainly done. And I think that is nurtured here at this school. The giving back. Which can start at any age.
If the seeds are planted at a young age, do for this little old lady or whomever, I think that’s good.

Life: That equity conversation’s been part of what we’ve been talking about. Do you think this personalized learning approach could do something about these kinds of inequities?

Johnny: Yes, I do. I definitely do. You might go home and your parent might have — I mean I know this! — maybe they have some health issues, and they’re not able to sit down and help them with their homework, so the kids don’t get help at home. …I guess I had a traumatic childhood, and I had a tutor come to my house because my mind was so involved with things in my family life I couldn’t concentrate once I was at school. It was hard to go to school — this is my experience — when your home life is in turmoil. And I know that it’s happening today, maybe even on a grander scale. In my day, it was unusual not to have the mom, the dad, the Leave It to Beaver life. And I’m thinking today that would be the exception if you had a Leave It to Beaver life.

Life: And so this extra connection that we’re trying to create, these changes, could really be helpful.

Nina and Anna

One of the students I learned the most fromwas most impressed by was Nina Brundage, my group co-facilitator, and a senior at Harwood Union High School, in Duxbury, Vermont. I had a chance to speak with her and another Harwood senior, about their impressions from the conversations.

Nina: I’m Nina Brundage. I’m a senior and one of the facilitators.

Anna: I’m Anna Van Dine, also a senior, also a facilitator, and we are both co-presidents of student government.

Life: What’s your general feeling afterwards? How do you feel / how did it go?

Nina: I thought it was really great. I really liked to see that grownups care about stuff too, and what they do about it, because I am one of those rare students  who’s really passionate about education and it’s great to see that adults care about that in the same way, but also that they have different ideas and perspectives and can apply life experience to that. It was cool to see all of the people from different educational backgrounds, and people’s education, no matter how they got it still left them as functional adults, and you know, that gives me a lot of hope for my own future, but also you know– I got a lot of ideas out of it, and I hope to act on some of them.

Anna: I think that it was really interesting staying neutral on the whole thing and keeping my mouth shut? Um, on some of these issues that it made me kind of process more than I would’ve in other circumstances. And I liked seeing how everyone else processed things and how I would’ve gone about it.

Nina: We had this one person in our group who has been teaching for 30 years and has been participating in events like this throughout that career — you know about every 5 years this happens — and has seen very little change. And I actually found that very inspiring: her lack of disillusionment? And I don’t know, the fact she still has hope.

Anna: She keeps coming to them.

Nina: Yeah. And I think that’s really cool she hasn’t given up on it. And so I don’t know, I think there’s always going to be room for change no matter what we do end up changing, but I’m glad that people are still open to change and trying to make it happen.

Anna: I was expecting a lot more confrontation, in our group, and we didn’t really get that. Maybe it would’ve been more fun like that, but everybody was kind of on the same page.

Nina: Same.

Anna: Where they understood that this was– that something needed to happen and this was trying to make that happen, and everyone was very open to all of the new initiatives in the district that they’ve already made. And I know on a student level that hasn’t — we haven’t had the same response with that? But everyone here was very open to trying to figure it all out.

Nina: and it was crazy how under-utilized the resource of community is.

Anna: Completely. Completely.

Nina: Like, we had 100 community members here who were caring about education. And you could easily match students to working with community members like that. You could do, you know, these 1:1 out-of-school relationships with people just there are so many opportunities we have that we don’t do anything with or don’t realize to take advantage of. And that was really eye-opening to me.

Anna: I feel like there was almost this sense like, “Oh they don’t care, they won’t take the time, but this has kind of shown otherwise. That there are people from all walks of life that are willing to come to Harwood from 6-8 on their Monday night, and talk about change.

Life: So what do you predict is gonna happen with the recommendations?

Nina: You know, I honestly don’t care what happens, because all of the people in my group are going to go out and do something in their own lives, and I feel like people are under the impression that change has to come from the top down because our system is so bureaucratic, but it doesn’t. Every little thing that people do matters. Every single dinner conversation matters. So I think that, I think that stuff is going to happen no matter what, and whether these recommendations are actually listened to or not, the change that needs to be happening, on some level, will be happening.

Anna: I agree with that, but I hope there is a change at the higher level. You know, only so much can be done from the ground up, and you do need some change from the top as well. And it will take longer if these recommendations aren’t listened to, for the end goal to be reached.

Nina: It’s about meeting in the middle.
People did have great respect and overall satisfaction with the teachers in our systems, but I think in terms of the overall system, people saw a need for transformation, and similarly with the students, I found this very strongly that they were an impressive bunch. They stood up for the importance of student voice, and in this form they had won their voice, and they were using it really eloquently and really powerfully. They were talking about social justice, and really acknowledging that they needed voice across the spectrum, that they needed diverse voices to be represented, and sort of wise beyond their years.

And here’s Evan again.

Evan: This is a great opportunity for student voice, but also, it’s a great time for parents who feel disconnected from their kids, and from the school and community and knowing what their kids are learning, to really put out what they feel and think and kind of talk about it with other people and have it facilitated by two people who go to the school to kind of guide that thought process.

The best part of meeting these folks, the best part of Community Conversations for me were that it allowed a sense of collective hope to really be voiced and articulated. In terms of whether the community conversations have changed the dialogue around education in this community, I’m too new to the community to know whether this has truly changed the dialogue around education.

So I think that something has been set in motion, and that the Washington West Supervisory Union deserves great credit for being courageous enough to involve the community in this sort of way, because once you set something in motion, you’re not quite sure where it’s going to go.

Evan: This is a great opportunity for student voice, but also, it’s a great time for parents who feel disconnected from their kids, and from the school and community and knowing what their kids are learning, to really put out what they feel and think and kind of talk about it with other people and have it facilitated by two people who go to the school to kind of guide that thought process.

Life: If there was one thing that you could steer the group towards, that we could change what would you want that to be? About the education system.

Johnny: I don’t know how to put it into one. Possibly… Listen. Listen, to the children. You know, people tell you (old cliche) who they are. And they might not even fit these new ruts that you’re carving out. There’s always — you think this is for everyone, there’s always an exception and you don’t want that one to fall through, because even in the extended education system and the wonderful one, there’s still the ones that — and most of the educators here are caring and observant, and I just think really, let the children tell you who they are. And follow their lead. They know what they want. Sometimes they just don’t know how to voice it.

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Audrey Homan is a Vermont-based digital media producer, and host of The 21st Century Classroom podcast. She's worked in non-profit communications for more than a decade, and in her spare time develops video games and mucks about with augmented reality and arduinos, ably assisted by five dogs. Interviewing students and yelling in PHP are the best parts of her job.

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