You probably have noticed that VOW has been pretty quiet so far this school year. Maybe you've missed our weekly newsletter in your inbox or seeing our students in action on Twitter. We've missed you too, but don't worry, our silence doesn't mean we haven't been here hard at work. In fact, our silence means we have been working harder than ever.
While Voice of Witness is in its third year as a class here at Stagg, once again VOW is setting a new precedent with a record enrollment of two section of 60 students--yes, that means we have 120 seniors that chose a project-based learning experience with empathy as its core--how cool is that?
As teachers sitting down to plan for the class over the summer we felt a huge weight of responsibility to these students. VOW is no longer a new and unknown variable at Stagg; thanks to the work and dedication of the class of 2016 and 2017, it has earned a reputation of being enlightening, challenging and ultimately transformative. Those are weighty descriptors, but perhaps the heaviest expectations came from within ourselves. After so many conversations about what we were going to do next, we decided to go back to where and why we started in the first place. At the heart of it all, we wanted to make a change, not just for the 60 or 120 students in our classroom, but for our school, our school community and maybe beyond. Heading into our third year we knew we had witnessed the transformation of our students, but we weren't sure how much further that change had really spread. So, we turned to someone we had to come to rely on in moments of doubt like these, our friend, Cliff Mayotte, the education program director at the Voice of Witness nonprofit organization in San Francisco, the organization our class is named after.
Cliff shared that, coincidentally enough, the questions we were asking ourselves about the direction of our VOW class were the same questions the Voice of Witness organization had been asking themselves that summer. They were an organization that had published several oral history collections focused on various human rights issues; from amplifying the voices of those displaced by Chicago Public Housing changes to the voices of those living under occupation in Palestine, Voice of Witness had accomplished so much and yet they too were asking how they could do more to directly impact their narrators and the communities they served. With Cliff's guidance we realized that as teachers we needed to go back to the basics, to remember why this class was started and to focus intensely on the skills of oral history and empathy that form the foundation on which change is built.
And so this school year we spent most of first semester with our 120 students doing just that--we spent weeks interrogating the core values of our class, making sure we not only knew what empathy was in theory, but what it looked like in practice. We also spent a significant amount of class time working slowly and intensely on the skills needed to conduct and produce a high quality oral history interview. Our students practiced and practiced and practiced again interview skills before going out and conducting their first interviews. We spent more time walking through the transcription and editing process than ever before with each student submitting draft after draft of one interview. At times it felt tedious and I'm sure even boring, but what we have now is a group of oral historians more than ready to take their skills to the community to explore issues, amplify voices and create real change.
One of the first lessons we cover when we teach interviewing skills is how to embrace silence. Silences don't always have to feel like an awkward void and they don't always mean that nothing is happening--sometimes silences are needed to slow down, to stop, to think, to regroup and refocus. Sometimes in the silences we find our foundation and our direction. We know we've been silent for awhile, but we hope you're still with us, listening, ready to see where we go from here.