The Story of “What’s the Story?”: The I-Search as a Political Act

Jan 16th, 2018 | By | Category: BLTN Teachers, Featured, Winter 2018

by Tim O’Leary
BLSE 2016
Co-Director, What’s the Story? Vermont
Technology Innovation Specialist
Addison Central School District
Middlebury, VT


What’s the Story?: The I-Search as a Political Act

In 1988, former Bread Loaf School of English faculty member Ken Macrorie published The I-Search Paper, a radical political act that democratized authority in classrooms around the world. Macrorie challenged a century of  empty expectations and tedious traditions that pushed students to write research papers pretending to be something they were not, losing their voices, and taking a distant back seat to their bibliographies. Those research papers that Ken Macrorie railed against, the worst ones, stole from students time and time again and demoralized them in an infinite chase toward being a so-called expert. The I-Search Paper posits that the student’s story of learning and meaning-making is paramount. It is the “I” who searches that matters most, and we must empower students, their reflections, and their learning journeys. The I-Search Paper, part of Macrorie’s legacy to the Bread Loaf Teacher Network’s commitment to advocacy literacy, now ignites student expression across 21st century media.

Nanja Horning unpacks a media kit with his food waste social action team and works to frame a shot as he considers the rule of thirds, frame composition, light, and sound.

The major movement in the first two months of What’s the Story? The Vermont Young People Social Action Team is to empower students’ voices guided by Ken’s premises as they are adapted to blogging. Through careful and regular prompting, and through matching learners with a national network of blog readers who provide timely feedback, we provoke further learning and reflection via dialogue and towards a collective genius. This approach also allows for a deeply complex portfolio of thinking as youth archive their meaning-making process on our website’s blog.

A WtS social action team takes some time to craft their vision statement to guide their research and filming.

What’s the Story? empowers young people to become informed, strategic, and empathic change agents on topics of social concern. At no cost to students or schools, WtS nurtures and networks self-reflective young leaders through authentic, challenging, and collaborative work. An innovative, credit-bearing course that invites middle and high school students from across Vermont to work in teams that are united by a common passion around a topic of social concern, WtS is part of the BLTN Next Generation Leadership Network that has emerged from the teaching and learning at Middlebury Bread Loaf School of English and the decades of pioneering by the Bread Loaf Teacher Network. Cohorts of young leaders extend across geographies, schools, ages, and academic interests and are connected to a national network of teachers and young people who are pedagogically and practically committed to advocating for responsible and involved citizenship. (Please visit this recent blog post on the NextGen Leadership Network site for an update from our last overnight retreat in Vermont.)

The I-Search tradition is one key link that has helped us to extend the What’s the Story? model to Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, Kentucky (a district with with more students than we have in the entire state of Vermont). We have been working closely with colleagues in Louisville to help develop What’s the Story? Louisville which builds on our Vermont model, and on the 2016-17 WtSL pilot headed by BLTN leader Paul Barnwell and supported by a planning grant from C.E. and S. The project is on track to include at least 45 to 50 students, nine teachers, and five schools for the 2018-19 school year. Kip Hottman, who leads What’s the Story, Louisville? brought a panel of students to present at the National Council of Teachers of English annual meeting in November. Goal Clarity Coach Ashley Lamb-Sinclair has now stepped in as WtSL co-director; she and Hottman are assisted also by former duPont Manual math teacher (now PhD student) Alisia McClain, who acts as a teacher-mentor and digital instructional designer for the course.

WtS? Louisville youth blogging at a recent retreat

Three overnight retreats have been planned for Louisville in 2017-18. The first retreat was held in November. Students pitched their ideas for research projects, identified shared themes, and formed four distinct research groups. The winter retreat will give students grounding in requesting and conducting interviews with community stakeholders. A third retreat will follow in the spring. These retreats allow students and teachers from participating schools to meet, learn digital technology, and share research and writing.

Students’ stories of meaning making are driving What’s the Story? Keep an eye on our work as young people apply their authority and voice to meaningful social change.

Sites DOT MiddleburyThe Middlebury site network.