Reflecting on What I Learned; Expectedly and Unexpectedly

Expected learning

 

The main attraction I had towards joining the What’s the Story? program was the promise of learning that was more relevant to me and my future. It was the promise of something that I could design and build for myself while working alongside others and creating meaning for what I was doing.

 

Self-direction

 

When I started middle school I made the conscious decision to be a better student and stay more organized. Since then I became a very self-motivated and independent in my education. Now, five years later I can proudly say that I have maintained and improved upon my time management skills and my motivation to grow and take control of my learning. Joining this program was the obvious next step for me in developing my self-direction. It wasn’t enough to just have background knowledge in various academic subjects or to know how to write essays and hand in assignments on time, I wanted to know how to make and do something. This something manifested itself in many forms. For example: giving effective presentations that argue my perspective and my interest, working with others and facilitating meaningful and mature conversations, recognizing and researching an issue, seeking out the characters in this story and creating a dialogue with them. Now My group and I find ourselves at the point of using the skills we learned over the past months to create something real and going public with our creation to enact change.

 

Responsible and involved citizenship

 

This category of learning ties in very nicely with self-direction. Part of my enhanced learning was allowing me to take my education in a different direction, one which not only improved me as a student but as a citizen. My education had never before allowed me to interact with my community as much as I have done in these past months. In the beginning, the goal was to learn new skills and explore new platforms of learning. Now that goal has taken a backseat and what is driving this project is my team’s motivation to improve ELL education for the lower incidence areas in Vermont. The source of the motivation comes from all the work we’ve done to absorb information on this subject.

Before this academic year, I had no idea that English language learner classes even took place at my school. I only found out because I started to spend all my free time in the painting room where I would occasionally see English lessons written on the chalkboard. I went to my guidance counselor to ask about who taught the class and immediately afterward Greta and I worked to contact and schedule interviews with the ELL teachers that served our district. Going into the interview I had no idea how impactful the conversation would be. The first thing that was striking to me was that there are only two teachers that serve an entire school district. The first thing I learned was that two people spread across 9 different schools, working with students that have diverse needs, at different levels in their learning with 13 different native languages does not make for an easy job. Additional challenges include not having the necessary access to translators and liaisons, parents that don’t speak any English or understand the school system and running a program that is so invisible many school officials and administrators don’t know who they are.  They expressed that while they are passionate about teaching, the lack of resources and support available to them requires them to be their own administrators and take on other tasks to support their program, causing the actual teaching to become secondary. This struck me and made me further realize why we’re doing what we’re doing.

 

Informed and integrated thinking

 

After electing to be a group and refining our topic we spent the next few months researching and striving for a deeper understanding of the issue in which we wanted to create change. It immediately became clear to us that this topic was especially relevant given the national climate. Cultivating good cultural relations starts in schools and is a crucial element in ensuring that Vermont citizens have the potential to be great global citizens as well. The more we researched the more connected our topic became to current events and the more relevant it became to speak out about it. All we needed to do was carve out our narrative. We initially assumed that the purpose of our documentary would be to convey needed changes in ELL programs across the state and find ways to combat bigotry by teaching open-mindedness and highlighting the benefits of having a diverse, multicultural community. However, after visiting the larger schools and hearing from the students themselves we saw that we needed to approach the story from a different angle. Using our new information we worked together to alter our storyline to exhibit the challenges of ELL students in smaller schools in particular. The story of designing and creating our media product is one of informed and integrated thinking. Five different minds researched a topic and conducted small interviews, then came together as a group to plan out what we would do with our gathered information. After moving on with our plan we interviewed the real stakeholders while allowing ourselves to be adaptable and afterward held a group discussion and reflection where we decided to alter our topic.

 

Clear and effective communication

 

Throughout the year my group and I strongly demonstrated growth in communication skills, both amongst ourselves and when communicating with an audience. We were very good at texting each other to keep ourselves updated as well as scheduling weekly google hangouts where we consulted one another and conducted meaningful conversations. We also maintained an almost ridiculous level of organization (mostly handled by Greta and Clara) through shared google folders and folders within folders within folders that housed all of our documents from interview footage to weekly progress schedules. Thanks to our level of communication and organization we were able to function as a largely self-sufficient unit throughout the year. By communicating with each other we are better able to communicate with our audience. The storytelling workshops held at the retreats were so educational and we worked very carefully to make sure that the techniques we learned show through in our documentary

Unexpected Learning

The first example of unexpected learning pertains to the entire topic I devoted a year working on. My original Ideas for topics were issues I was familiar with. I made my pitch on addiction and was fairly certain I would continue with the idea. Yet when hearing the pitches of two other students on intercultural communication and ELL education I was immediately intrigued. Afterward, my group naturally found each other and it took only a few minutes for us to solidify as a team. Thus, I unexpectedly spent a year learning and teaching about a topic I had little to no understanding on previously.

Each retreat we were presented with TED talks and workshops that pushed us beyond the realm of typical learning experiences. One that stood out to me in particular was the one explaining the importance of moral humility. This would become very important when considering how our audience would receive our message. However, beyond the world of storytelling the argument made in the TED talk remains relevant. There is no denying that when it comes to moral opinions people tend to have trouble maintaining good communication skills. When we truly believe in a cause or an issue we become very passionate and that passion can quickly turn into moral righteousness when confronted with an opposing view. Being morally righteous, shutting down and not being receptive to criticism or arguments is a problem many people struggle with. Reflecting on what was said in the TED talk helped me become more self aware and I like to think it made me a better communicator. Lessons regarding how to relate to others and how to be effective and persuasive are essential, especially with teenagers and young adults. We need to be taught the importance of sticking up for what you believe in while engaging in respectful and  productive conversations with those who may hold equally strong opposing views.

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Kati Tolgyesi

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