Final Retreat: Learning What’s Really Important

Looking back on What’s the Story is like looking back on a class, a summer camp, a winding journey, an intensive workshop, and a giant inside joke—all rolled into one. It’s hard to believe that back in September, I had never spent a weekend at the Common Ground Center, filmed a documentary interview, or played Anomia quite the same way. Most of all, it’s hard to believe that I hadn’t met most of the people in the cohort or in my group. Since November, we’ve formed such a tightly knit team that I can’t imagine working on a project of this scale with anyone else.

Working with my team has taught me how to communicate more deeply than school ever has. Because it’s been such a long term project that can’t progress to the next level without the previous one being complete, we’ve had to work through each down together in order to get to the next up. And believe me, there have been plenty of them. There have been times when I’ve felt like I’ve been working alone on something too big to tackle, and times when I’ve felt like every effort at effective communication has failed. But there have also been times that we’re working so well together that we keep going until 9 PM when we were really supposed to be done at 8. Even more importantly, we’ve had motivation to get through our challenges because the project is so important to us. My team has a document called “Weekly Goals and Progress”, and scrolling through it is incredibly satisfying because you can see just how much we’ve done every week in order to get to where we are now. The documentary may not be done yet, but there’s so much under the surface that we’ve done just to get to this point, and that is just as satisfying. I’ve learned how to build a nest, and I’ve learned how to appreciate every little twig.

Even better, that nest is for positive change. I can credit What’s the Story for helping me become a more responsible and involved citizen, both inside and outside of the course. Before this year, I don’t think I really realized I could make social change. Now, my goal in life is to make as big a difference in the world as I possibly can, and I’ve gotten a good start. Between this documentary and the Women’s March on Montpelier, my whole year has been centered around proposing positive change. Every day of What’s the Story, my awareness of the world and of myself becomes more nuanced.

All of this has involved an incredible amount of self-direction. It’s incredible for me to remember that my team, five teenagers, designed our entire project. Yes, we had guidance, but we singlehandedly (or rather, fivehandedly? tenhandedly?) shaped what we pursued, how we pursued it, and what we created. That has also involved informed and integrative thinking—after all, we asked a complicated question, gathered a broad array of perspectives on that question, and synthesized them all into a meaningful story. In September, I never would have thought I could do that. After What’s the Story, I’m a much more responsible learner, and I’m excited to find more opportunities for this type of learning. In Maddie’s documentary, she talked about taking control of your own learning, and I’ve done just that. Now, I never want to let that go.


And now for everything else I’ve learned. It’s hard to know where to start, probably because by now, it’s hard to imagine myself before What’s the Story. It’s not like other classes I’ve had this year, where I could name what I’ve learned in a concrete list: integration by parts, the nitrogen cycle, why Andrew Jackson was a bad bad man. What’s the Story goes so much deeper than that, into a web of interconnected skills that I don’t even realize I’m learning until I look back and notice that something has changed.

And so much has. In September, I would never have thought I could undertake something as big as this. A project with Google Drive subfolder upon subfolder, a team with a group chat and a Google Hangout, a topic that I don’t go a single day without thinking about or talking about or wondering about. And in September, I didn’t know what ELL education was, and I certainly didn’t expect myself to find out. Yet a few weeks ago, I was pondering the future (as one does), and suddenly I thought to myself: what if I became an ELL teacher? I realized that in talking to ELL teachers for our documentary, I had taken to heart just how meaningful the job is. Teaching immigrants, refugees, the children of immigrants and refugees, a language that will empower them to become our country’s future. Changing their lives just by showing them the words. What could be more meaningful than that? Who knows if I’ll actually follow this passion—it’s just one page I could turn to in the complicated choose-your-own-adventure that is my future. But now, ELL education at least is a passion, and I know it will continue to shape my outlook on life. All of this from a group I chose pretty much on a whim—something that, I may add, isn’t a common occurrence for me. Add flexible, fast decision making to the long list of what I learned in What’s the Story.

When I take a step back from the grinding work of editing (find, clip, tune, repeat), I can see just how far I’ve come in understanding the broader themes of my topic: diversity, inclusion, visibility of what is often invisible. One day sticks out in particular out of the past months. On January 23, my entire group visited Burlington and Winooski schools to interview various stakeholders for our project. We got a lot of great footage for our documentary, but it went far beyond that. After the very first interview with an ELL student, I realized what was most important: I wanted these people to be my friends. This group of kids who I had been thinking of merely as “ELL students”, a faceless mass of unknown people, were some of the brightest, most insightful, most interesting people I had met, and I wanted to get to know them beyond just an interview. As Kati and I walked through the halls of Burlington High School, we kept telling each other, “I wish our school had this kind of diversity!” It was a breath of fresh air to walk through hallways full of people who all looked and talked so differently, and we wanted to be a part of it. I think we were learning what’s really important.

Greta Hardy-Mittell

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