Like many schools, our faculty is made up of unapologetic cherry pickers. We are always surveying the most compelling ideas to borrow and adapt for our different age groups, academic disciplines, and learning objectives. We co-opt ideas from down the hall, from the internet, and from inside and outside academic settings. As teachers, we know that sometimes a borrowed idea might fall flat or at least require several iterations before it achieves its potential. But on rare occasions, an idea outpaces our most optimistic aspirations. Our recent project, Humans of MCDS, inspired by Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York, was one of those. In this case, one borrowed idea led to many unanticipated and powerful connections.
The project started out as an idea to add dimension to our year-long 5th grade global citizenship study. Throughout the year, the fifth grade teachers use photojournalism to transport our students to kitchen tables, bedrooms, neighborhoods and classrooms around the world. Inspired and humbled by Chimamanda Adichie’s classic TedTalk, “The Danger of a Single Story”, we are sensitive to the possibility of oversimplifying a culture by distilling it down to a few representative photos.
This year, we hoped to broaden our students’ understanding of the power of perspective (and media literacy) through experiencing the editing choices made by photojournalists. We put them in charge of their own photo storytelling. After studying Stanton’s HONY examples of photographic portraiture and interviewing techniques, students were charged with capturing a story of a community member through a photo and accompanying short caption. We decided in advance that if the project turned out well, we would share the stories with the rest of the school (and we warned our potential participants that this might be the case).
After soliciting the campus adults for volunteers, we were thrilled to have many more willing subjects than young photojournalists. Consequently, we placed a priority on featuring the less known members of our school community, whose jobs interacted with many grade levels (maintenance, landscape and kitchen crew, after-school care, transportation and business staff, and some learning support services and technology faculty). In pairs, the students set up appointments to interview and photograph a volunteer who they did not know prior to the project.
We immediately witnessed the power of the interviews. Students returned to class with effusive reports about their interactions with their new friends on campus. And in turn, the interviewees sent the fifth grade classes grateful emails and stopped us on campus to tell us about the sweet relationships that were forged because of these surprisingly intimate encounters. Some interviewees commented that they felt more visible and connected as a result of the project. We also witnessed relational shifts take place between the students and adults in the lunchrooms, at our community gatherings, and in passing conversational references. Several students commented that the experience led them to think more about how they treat their communal spaces, since they now knew the people who help take care of them.
These important discoveries were not limited to the individuals involved in the interviews. By sharing the stories in a community gallery, connections were made across many school subcultures. The interviews allowed all of us to discover surprising interests and talents that our co-workers pursued outside of work. They also revealed intimate struggles and triumphs related to race, ethnicity and sexual identity, complex immigration journeys, past learning and employment obstacles, and other life-altering challenges and achievements. Some of the interviews were even sprinkled with reflective wisdom. Each story added important dimensions to people in our community. They also helped introduce another group of diverse adult role models to our students. Variations of “Who knew?” became a common refrain as students, parents, faculty, and staff reflected on the gallery. I, too, felt grateful for the important stories shared by my co-workers. It was a true act of trust to let us glimpse into their lives. Their willingness to share helped all of us break down the “single stories” we had about each other and provided us with many entry points for richer connections.
Photo taken by Clara Greisman
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