Stagg has never offered a class like this before. Mainly because it’s not a class where we, the teachers, aim to teach you material that you will later be tested on. It’s a project. We don’t have a final exam, but an end goal of publishing a book together. We don’t have worksheets that lead to a unit test, rather experiences that will hopefully give us the skills and perspective to do our best work. The answers aren’t defined by us because we are working with the human experience, and the unique perspective you will bring to that process is exactly why we are happy you’re here. As you can see, it’s difficult to explain the exact parameters to the class because in many ways, they are yet to be defined. What we do know is that what we are doing is very important, there are a lot of eyes on us, and at the end of it all, we will all be authors of a book about the complex and interesting people that make up our Stagg community.
We feel the best way to bring everyone up to speed on the journey of this class is to briefly go through its history:
A group of teachers, counselors, and administrators met to discuss replicating the sense of community at Stagg many people felt in the wake of the loss of our friend and beloved teacher, Ms. Mary Ogarek, the previous spring. Although many students and staff felt great heartache at this loss, there was also a sense of reverence and togetherness as people shared stories and realized life is short and important, a universal idea every person in the building could appreciate. Not only did we want to find ways to hold onto that reverence and community, as close friends of Mary, we also wanted to find a way to honor the amazing teacher, friend and human being she was. Discussion led to incorporating students into the group and possibly collecting stories to build empathy and find more of these unknown commonalities. Who would write these stories? Who would read them?
The group reconvenes with a diverse group of students to brainstorm ideas about building a more empathetic community at Stagg. The group takes part in a workshop led by Voice of Witness (a group specializing in amplifying unheard voices). The workshop leads to many transformative ideas for our school: students want to be empowered and sometimes “school” gets in the way; when students see past stereotypes or labels, they open themselves up to more genuine experiences with peers; and students and teachers understanding there is a deeper story to everyone is the foundation for a community that is empathetic and optimistic. [Sidenote, this process gains some attention and becomes the subject of a documentary.]
Mr. Olsen creates a class within English senior electives that students can collect, write, and publish a book of stories capturing the diverse identities that make up the Stagg community. The hope of the book is to give students a voice and allow that collection of voices to teach us about ourselves. Sixty interested students are needed for the class to run.
Later Spring 2015
Thanks to some courageous students, a dedicated guidance department, and a determined principal, the class runs. We begin planning a curriculum and apply for a grant that would win our class Chrome Books.
Early Summer 2015
The class wins the grant for Chrome Books and is chosen by the district technology department to pilot a program where students get to take the Chrome Books with them. Mr. Olsen also allocates $5,000 to the class to help cover publication costs. The project begins to gain attention throughout the district administration and, thanks to the ongoing guidance of the dedicated Education Program staff at Voice of Witness, the class becomes affectionately referred to as the "Stagg Voice of Witness Class" or "VOW".
We continue planning the curriculum. Our vision for the class is to provide a rigorous learning experience (learning everything needed to write and publish a book [a good book]) while allowing the class the flexibility and freedom to take the wheel and go where we need to go. We hope to create a community more than a classroom, a goal more than a grade, and operate on an expectation that we all want to create something that will outlast us and positively impact the way Stagg students see each other. Oh yeah, somehow the class must be graded. We begin collecting examples of people who have done what we are trying to do always leaving space in the day for student ideas and changes in direction. We also research and select a publisher for our book.
Academic Year 2015-2016
With an amazingly dedicated group of 60 seniors from Stagg High School’s class of 2016 we began the inaugural year of the Stagg VOW class. Not only did this class successfully publish a book, 111th & Roberts: Where Our Stories Intersect, they also taught us so many things about what the hard work of teaching empathy through oral history truly looks like and also gave us insight into what happens when teachers step aside and let the students take the lead.
During the school year, filmmaker and University of Illinois Media Instructor becomes a staple in our classroom filming our progress for a documentary.
Our school year culminates with a Red Carpet Book Release event that invited our school community to hear story excerpts, meet our narrators and student editors and encourage meaningful conversations.
Kenneth Erdey’s documentary film, Voices of Stagg, is released at a public screening held in Stagg’s Performing Arts Center. Our newly graduated students reunited to watch Ken tell their stories and the story of our class journey.
Academic Year 2016-2017
After the success of our students the previous school year, we were lucky enough to continue to run our class and have yet another amazing group of brave and dedicated students ready to build on the momentum of the class of 2016, but with their own unique perspectives. After much debate, the students decided to publish their own follow-up to 111th & Roberts, entitled, Anatomy of Empathy. Published with the help from the Germanacos Fellowship for Sharing History, the book took a different approach to oral history stories by seeking to expand beyond the immediate school community to explore larger social issues.
Academic Year 2017-2018
Thanks to the awesome work and enthusiasm of our VOW students, Stagg’s unique Voice of Witness elective course becomes a staple of our senior English elective offerings. The class of 2018 astounds us with the highest number of students registered for the course giving us two sections of 60 students each! Eager to blaze their own path, these students took an honest look at what changes the publications from the previous two classes prompted in our school community as well as what work was still left to be done. Rather than focusing on a final publication goal, our students chose to create groups projects that sought to highlight voices still unheard in order to bring more immediate and sustainable change to the way we do things in our school. In addition to organizing school events aimed to bring the school community together, they also worked to bring about systematic changes to better serve our students.
Academic Year 2018-2019
We are currently works in progress. The class of 2019 is hard at work. Check out their projects here.