A Year of Learning Condensed Into A Blog Post

So, it’s the second day of our last retreat, which feels odd somehow: maybe it’s just that we’re not quite in summative assessment mode in my other classes yet, though I’m not surprised that a) “What’s the Story?” is setting itself apart yet again, or b) reflecting on learning will necessarily feel different in a setting where the stages of learning are defined less by units or semesters than by a structured progression from learning to sharing. We’re still in the process of finalizing our products, with Erin and I working on the website and Kati, Petra, and Greta focusing on the documentary, which doesn’t put me in a place to have a final word on how they turned out, but reflecting on my learning isn’t hard. We were talking just last night about how this project has encompassed more than we could ever have imagined, and I think that this has been a year of realizing over and over again that the parts of this work that have felt hard or abstract or impossible have ultimately augmented us as learners as much as they’ve shaped our final products.


For me, this course has struck a clearly intentional balance of structure and freedom. The stages of the work have been clear throughout the course of the year, and each team has at least one similar final product in the shape of a documentary, but beyond that so much of what we’ve done has been decided by us. We’ve set our own goals, but almost more importantly (and certainly harder) we’ve created and adapted our own systems of organization to facilitate our progress. We have a veritable web of Google documents (assuming that webs are clearly laid out and organized by purpose), with places to keep track of our goals, short-term projects, notes, ideas, outlines, products and pieces of products, and footage, and I realized again today just how much our own commitment to understanding what helps us most as a team has paid off. After showing our documentary, someone said that they were impressed by the sheer breadth and number of our interviews, and what we showed was really just the tip of the iceberg. In the middle of the winter, we realized that the two most high incidence populations of ELL students (Winooski and Burlington) were close to each other, and it was essential that we visited both. We had various contacts at those schools and at UVM, and so we coordinated a day when we were all able to meet up, send at least one of us to those three locations, and gain a lot of footage at once. We talked to teachers, liaisons, an associate professor, a doctoral student, and one student who is also on the State Board of Education, and it was perhaps our biggest logistical feat to date, but it paid off.

Responsible and Involved Citizenship

I really believe that seeking to understand issues in one’s own community and the communities around them is a logical and important step to being an involved citizen, and I think that WtS necessarily facilitates this. More importantly than researching and going out into the community to find perspectives, I think, is taking steps to appreciate the nuance of the issue and one’s own role in it, and I think that this occurred at multiple points throughout the year for me. Our continued collection of ideas, perspectives, and data shaped our understanding, and for me there was a personal and parallel understanding of what my responsibility is as a person with privilege. Especially in the Trump era, I believe that people have a responsibility to understand what role they inhabit in society and how they can manipulate their own agency such that it ceases to perpetuate hierarchies of power and works to create balance. I realized this year that if the final products involved me acting as an expert in the experience of ELL students or believing that I fully understand those experiences and the vast spectrum on which they fall, I’ve missed the point. I’d like to be able to elevate the voices and visibility of this community without speaking over them, and it’s possible (probable?) that I’m still not fully grasping my role in this, but I hope that the products we’ve created are clear in communicating this. I wrote a segment on the website (under “Our Mission”) to address this publicly, but I really want to keep learning about what is appropriate for me to do in terms of my relationship to privilege and agency, and I think that a lot of this will come from experience in the world and communities very different than the one in which I’ve grown up.

Informed and Integrative Thinking

I also think that taking steps to reassess my thinking and realize where I was wrong have really reinforced for me the essential idea that assumptions can’t be trusted. We went into this issue thinking that we would find a universal experience and one of hatred and victimization, despite our attempts to temper our assumptions, and what we found wasn’t that at all. I’m sure that those things have happened, and there are undeniable issues facing ELL programs, but we also found a network of dedicated support and an overwhelming appreciation of communities that had welcomed ELL students. On our day of interviews in January, we met at one point partway through, and though we had all attended a different mix of interviews, we compared our results and concluded that we had been incorrect in our preliminary assumption (and I’m glad we were). I’ve also really thought a lot this year about moral humility after watching a TED talk on the subject at the December retreat. Increasingly during and after the election and inauguration, I think I’ve joined a lot of people in incredulity at the idea that acceptance is partisan. I don’t think that that will ever change, and I still do firmly believe that when one view promotes acceptance, and the opposing one signals harm to marginalized populations, it’s unfair and overly simplistic to equate the two as though they were simply differences of opinion. However, I have come to realize that taking a “moral high ground,” as it were, really doesn’t change anything, and in fact often serves to further entrench people in what they already believed, and I think that this understanding (as well as an openness to its continued evolution) will apply in many aspects of my life.

Clear and Effective Communication

Another aspect of this course that has stood out to me is the opportunity it presents for multiple kinds of communication. It requires assuming a confidence one may not always feel to reach out to adults (and ones with a lot of authority!) and ask them to donate their time, energy, and expertise to aid one’s project, and intra-team communication is really a constant work in progress. As my team has gotten to know each other, our methods of communication have begun to reflect our group dynamic, but I think we’ve all learned that the more frequent and involved our communication is, the better. In moving forward with this, I think that I need to find more immediate ways to get a project back on track after communication has lapsed, rather than waiting to see each other in person. Another aspect of communication involves the audience for our message: in typical projects for school, the audience is largely fellow students. However, in WtS, we decided on the most effective audience for our work, and our message has really been crafted with an eye towards that group’s prerequisite understanding, level of agreement, and responsiveness to our message. This has required some informed guesswork on our part, but more than anything, it’s forced us to be very intentional with our message and go through a lot of revision of our goals and then crafting of our ideas to align with them.

Unexpected Learning

My team had an impromptu conversation last night in which we really took a step back and looked at our progress over the year and discussed how, even though we’ve been deeply entrenched in it for a while, it still feels a little impossible. The magnitude of this project still astounds me, especially when I look at the vast network of things we’ve created and words we’ve written together. At the time, though the steps may have been individually exhausting, they never felt insurmountable or unrealistic, but our progress from misinformed, purely uninvolved researchers to creators of media has taken a lot of work. I think that the biggest mistake that people can make when looking at a large or looming project is to view it as a whole, rather than a conglomerate of many smaller, deeply individual but connected pieces. It was so necessary for us to immerse ourselves in the work as it happened and our goals for that week or month that even when we did come up for air, we still didn’t really grasp just how far we’d come. There have been studies that show that having a surplus of options actually cripples one’s ability to make decisions, and I think that because of the sheer amount of research and perspectives that we collected and studied, we set ourselves a really hard task in synthesizing the information. Looking at a lot of real people’s experience and finding common threads through those abstract and sometimes disparate ideas can be really hard. When the information is qualitative, rather than, say, a survey asking what percent of ELL students feel safe, it’s very hard to gain an accurate understanding of the reality of the situation, and I’m sure that there are places where we’ve gone wrong or neglected some important ideas. However, I think that we did the nebulous, hard work of synthesizing a wealth of information into a nuanced perception of the topic to the best of our ability, and that may be what I’m proudest of this year. It wasn’t until we sat around the living room last night and talked about how we never could have imagined doing something of this depth and over such a long timeline that I realized that we’ve certainly utilized the structures provided, but a lot of our progress and learning has come from our own initiative and dedication to doing the things that are hard and abstract and force us to find meaning.


Clara Lew-Smith

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