Recently, I wrote about a project that increased engagement and brought fresh energy and enthusiasm to my classroom during these challenging times. The full virtual school year had started, and things were going okay. Slowly students were less eager to respond in the chat or participate in class. In the Spring of 2020, I reconnected with Alicia Peletz, who I had met through my school in 2014. Alicia had coached me through a PBL experience called “What’s Your Cause”. She introduced me to Sam, a high school history teacher, and we worked together on a project called Breaking Bias during the shutdown. In December, Alicia, Sam, and I met to discuss how the school year was going. As a result of our thought partnership, The All Eyez on Z project was formed.
All Eyez on Z has recently wrapped up our project, and I am pleased to report that the project sustained engagement, and our students collectively produced breathtaking final products. Please visit our final product page to view these meaningful projects, which will be discussed further in this blog post.
Increase Learning Through Connections
When we last touched base during the project, we had completed a mid-unit survey. Students from both schools highlighted the enjoyment and interest of learning about other schools and their communities. The students wanted to see and connect more with students of other cities. As a result, Alicia reached out to Liberty North High School in Liberty, MO, through their instructional coach Tara Harvey. The 11th grade English teacher, Ms. Natalie Meyer, and her students breathed new life into our project. After the midway point, she came in midway but could still dive in by personalizing it towards her standards. To orient students, Liberty students prepared postcards for Rochester and Chicago students to read in order to acclimate our students with their perspectives. In exchange, our Rochester and Chicago students shared a postcard about their community to connect with our new members of our learning community. Check out the Rochester example, courtesy of Alyissa, and the Chicago example, courtesy of Janelle below. During the end of unit reflection, student feedback continued to reinforce the positive experiences and interest in more interactions.
Use Professional Models To Grab Student Attention
After Liberty Public Schools was integrated into the project, we began to dive into storytelling. Students focused on caption writing and stopping the scroll, studying the models of the well-respected Humans of New York photostories with captions that connect to the audience emotionally through storytelling. It’s important to use professional models so students can see the exemplary work authentically and feel empowered to join in that work. Students also used the professional models to understand the scope and power of their work fully.
Get Experts to Help
Another purposeful layer was added--professional recommendations. Once we had gathered some advice, one of the students communicated that she truly felt she did not have a story to tell, despite what we had shared with her. Alicia, Sam, August, Natalie, Tara, and I used our collective networks to locate experts in storytelling. We had experts respond to questions about storytelling, audience engagement, and perspectives on our Flipgrid board. A tool we had been asking students to use throughout the project. Experts happily obliged and reached out to their networks as well. Our board was populated with videos from over twenty professionals with various career expertise living across the United States in less than a week. These experts willingly shared led to powerful discussions with our students, from questioning more about professions to reflection after listening to advice. Several students turned in this project's final product because the expert videos reassured them they were on the right track--- it truly helped encourage them to find their voice.
"Several students turned in this project's final product because the expert videos reassured them they were on the right track--- it truly helped encourage them to find their voice."
One of the benefits of utilizing the Flipgrid platform is that both students and professionals were not restricted by time conflicts and brought in this level of unexpected authenticity. Experts could record at their leisure, and students could consult the Flipgrid for advice while working on their final product. Pre-pandemic, I would not have thought to use Flipgrid to get expert advice, and this is something I will continue to use long after the pandemic to bring more authenticity to my projects and units. It also made me realize the power of just reaching out to your own personal learning network; people are so willing to help if you ask.
Illuminate Student Voice
When we came to the idea for All Eyez on Z, we sought to give students a space to share their experiences as a teenager during this pandemic. Our final product allowed for this in both a safe and productive manner. As teachers, we collected student stories and photographs. We then posted them to the teacher-ran account for public viewing and commentary. Students could send friends and family to the project website or provide the Instagram account to share their voice and pride in their work. More than half of my students completed the final product and shared their voices. The effort, time, and thoughtfulness were evident in each post. Stories were thoughtful, images were compelling, and the posts came together beautifully. I insist that this is attributed to the public audience and inclusion in a collective series.
"The combination of a safe, supported environment, a project that was designed with the end in mind, a safe and public product, and the reassurance of experts outside of their teachers were all factors in this success."
The combination of a safe, supported environment, a project that was designed with the end in mind, a safe and public product, and the reassurance of experts outside of their teachers were all factors in this success. I was particularly beaming with pride that all my special education students and English Language Learners eagerly submitted their projects. The public audience began viewing, liking, and commenting on our student Instagram posts, encouraging some of our more absent students to turn in the final product. See some of the examples below:
Student feedback illustrated the impact of this project. Some of the notable comments included, “There's a lot of situations that happen in this world, and it's up to us to solve them.”; “One word that would describe what I'm feeling after finishing the project is "proud.” I’m proud of me and everyone else who shared their stories”; “We were able to communicate with people from other schools to see the differences and similarities, and that was a cool experience to be able to do that.”. This project was designed to incorporate four core values (democracy, authenticity, personal growth, community) to try to increase student participation by 25%. I am pleased to say all of our expectations and goals set were exceeded by the end. Another bonus was that I learned so much about my students to form deeper and more meaningful relationships beyond a Zoom screen and gained lifelong teacher collaborators and friends.