What’s the Story?: Teaching Skills for Social Change

Feb 11th, 2019 | By | Category: BLTN NextGen, BLTN Teachers, Winter 2019

by Tim O’Leary
BLSE 2016
Co-Director, What’s the Story? the Vermont Young People Social Action Team
Technology Innovation Specialist
Shelburne Community School
Shelburne, VT

We are thrilled to be immersed in another year of a free Bread Loaf program for middle and high school youth across Vermont: What’s the Story? The Vermont Young People Social Action Team.

We recently penciled in dates for next year, our sixth, and plan to open registration in the next month. In these moments where we keep one eye on the work happening now and one to the future, I’m continually reminded of how lucky we all are to have grown out of the generous intelligence, excitement, and purpose that is the lifeblood of the Bread Loaf Teacher Network and palpably in the air like electricity when conversing with Emily Bartels, Dixie Goswami, Beverly Moss, Ceci Lewis, Tom McKenna, and all of the loving and brilliant adult and youth leaders from across the Next Generation Leadership Network.

This year, our youth have set their sights on six big topics of social concern that they have identified and galvanized around:

    • overt and inherent racism in our school systems,
    • understanding views on gender equality between different generations,
    • body image and identity created between parents and children,
    • income inequality in public education,
    • climate change and Vermont’s farming identity, and
    • complexity and compassion inherent in Vermont’s foster care system.

Each group of youth is currently working to get clearer about their inquiry, discover and connect with stakeholders and decision makers, determine what specific and local change they wish to make, and work towards that change. It’s thrilling to see youth engage in ten months of collaborative work with peers from across the state on these topics. It’s unlike anything we think they’ve experienced before, and we know that by the end of their work they will understand themselves better as learners and collaborators and more importantly begin to see ways they can change their worlds.

At key points during the year, we ask our learners to dive into specific learning targets and reflect on their learning journey so far. We are so pleased to share with you one of these reflections from Kaitlin Emerson, a junior from BFA St. Albans High School in St. Albans, Vermont, who wrote this during our December overnight retreat:

I have never been a part of a class that functioned in the way “What’s the Story?” does.  I have never been asked to take charge of my learning on the scale that I am being asked to in this course.  Throughout middle school I completed book talks and science presentations, each based around something that interested me.  I was in charge of learning more about the author’s purpose for writing the novel or discovering how a physics concept is applicable to the Average Joe.  However, these were small projects born of a lesson plan the teacher had created; though I was able to choose a topic, the topics themselves were limited to their connection to the idea or subject we were learning in class already.

“What’s the Story?” is different.  It has a curriculum, like any other class I would take at my high school, but it is teaches skills rather than content.  Instead of being taught something that interests me, I am forced to find something I want to learn about on my own. Of course, the content is also a major part of this course – in order to even begin to find the story my group wants to make a documentary about, we have to have both basic and advanced knowledge about what we’re talking and learning about – but the process of finding that information has already taught me something that even other school research projects have not taught me:  You have to care.

For some people, it’s easy to care about school, if only because one’s grade depends on completing a homework assignment or studying information to pass a test.  In “What’s the Story?” grading is almost an afterthought. The priority is to find, create, and tell a story that someone will care about. To do that, you first have to care enough to think about it, want to do something about it, and then actually do it.  This process teaches you to identify issues, create compelling stories, collaborate with a team, communicate with others, and become a more thoughtful and observant person.

These are not skills that cease to be important once I leave high school, or even college.  These are skills professional adults work to improve and develop, skills that are necessary and vital to function in society.  It doesn’t matter if you have great ideas if you can’t tell other people what they are, just like it doesn’t matter if you believe something needs to change if you don’t try to do something about it.  There are so many problems in our society alone that need solutions, and there is no room for someone to complain about them yet be unwilling to make a difference. And I’m not saying that this project is the be-all and end-all of problem solving because, let’s face it, though the culminating documentaries we create in our groups are likely to reach a significant number of people, we are not necessarily going to change the world.  

But the skills we learn while attempting to do so are the ones that may one day make it possible.  
—Kaitin Emerson. “What Schools Should Understand about ‘What’s the Story?’” Dec. 2, 2018

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