Tag Archives for " storytelling "

One way to out-hype the scandelous

By Kym Reinstadler, SCN Feature Writer | Expert Insights

On the day the 2012 National Teacher of the Year was announced in Washington D.C., a local TV station led off its broadcast describing how a teacher had been fired for shooting off a cap gun in the classroom.

“When I saw that, I knew it couldn’t get more obvious that educators can’t rely on the traditional media to tell their stories,” said Josh Stumpenhorst, the middle school teacher from Naperville who represented Illinois in the contest. “Let’s be honest, good stories don’t make the news because good stories don’t make the station money.”

But it’s essential to get positive stories out there. They promote every school’s intangibles – the sharing of best practices, expanding understanding, and imparting hope.

So where to start?

What’s the easiest way to bust through the all-news-is-bad-news barrier? Start a blog, open a Twitter account, and begin telling your own stories on the internet, Josh says.

“Educators are hypocrites if we complain about the bad things said about us, but fail to stand up and talk about the good things,” Josh said. “Standing up and speaking out is up to us.”

It’s not hard to find Josh on line. Since Stumpenhorst is a last name that’s “easy to have fun with,” Josh uses “stumpteacher” as his Twitter handle, YouTube channel, and Skype name. (“Keeping it the same helps me remember it!” Josh says.)

Josh’s blog – as busy as any active “two year-old!”

Josh started his blog, “Stump the Teacher,” at the summer 2010 International Society for Technology in Education conference, and has continued writing two or more posts per month during his off time.

The blog today is a mixed bag of whatever’s on Josh’s mind: happenings in his sixth-grade language arts and social studies class at Lincoln Junior High School in Naperville, tutorials, resource recommendations, and musings on education reforms.

He confines posts to a single page, wary of making any topic more complicated than it has to be.

“If I’m not getting across what I want to say in one page, I’m probably blowing in the wind and need to do something different,” Josh says with a chuckle.

The blog resonates with an audience that’s predominantly teachers and school administrators. “Stump the Teacher” gets 10,000 to 20,000 views monthly, depending on how many new entries he writes. 

No fear of writer’s block.

No matter how frequently Josh posts, he says his list of potential blog topics grows faster. He generates ideas through conversations with colleagues, interactions on Twitter, even his relationship with his own young sons.

Twitter is often the preferred mode of communication for Josh, who considers it faster and better than the search engine Google for finding what he wants.

“Google can be a crapshoot,” Josh said. “With Twitter, you get information from people you know and who know what you’re looking for.” 

For example, when a student writing a report on Hershey, Penn. came to him for research help, Josh tweeted out the request to his more than 7,000 followers.

In short order, two followers chirped back. One was a lifelong resident of Hershey and another had been employed at the Hershey chocolate factory. This gave the student primary sources the school library couldn’t offer.

Through Twitter followers, Josh was also able to put a student creating a report on Rwanda in communication with a survivor of the genocide, and a student writing a report on Australia in direct communication with an Aborigine.

It was through Twitter that Josh also became friends with a Pennsylvania principal whose second-graders were learning about Abraham Lincoln. Their teacher wanted students to give their reports via Skype to older students familiar with the president’s life, Josh said. His students were delighted to watch and provide feedback because their school is named for President Lincoln.

There are 24 hours in a day. Josh tweets more.

As you’ve probably guessed, Josh is a voracious tweeter. He tweets an average of 30 times a day, but sometimes reaches the 100 mark if he’s conversing over Twitter, instead of email.

Josh also advises his school’s computer club, which produces the bi-weekly TV show, “Lancer News.” These 4-6 minute broadcasts feature news, weather, sports, and book talks – all shot in front of the green drape in Josh’s classroom.

“Computer Club used to be three or four self-professed nerds in the lab playing computer games until my principal let me take it over,” Josh said. “With a heavy focus on video production, the club has grown to 30 members, and I’ll let it grow as big as the number of kids who are interested.”

The most popular video project was an all-school lip dub to We Are Family, which was choreographed, executed and edited by the students. Plans are to do a new lip dub every three years to give every student who passes through a chance to participate.

The “eyes” have it.

Josh’s most recent project, Collaboreyes, has roots in the 2011 ISTE conference in Philadelphia, where Google was handing out goofy sunglasses with its name written in the bows. Josh and fellow teachers Kristina Peters, Jeremy Macdonald, and Josh Allen had fun being photographed in the shades at historic sites throughout Philly.

Teachers asked Google for 250 pairs of the glasses, which they could then send to students around the world who would wear them in a photo taken in a place not in history textbooks. The photo and the student’s essay about why the place is special would be uploaded to a site, which would become a unique atlas.

Google refused, but the project was subsequently funded by the George Lucas Educational Foundation.

Collaboreyes is now populated with posts from children living in the U.S., China and Romania. Arrangements are being finalized to include Collaboreyes in a mission to outer space in 2013.

“Social media takes time, but everybody makes time for what’s important,” Josh said. “All of us who are educators need to make time, show what we are doing with students, and promote our positive stories.”


Glee — A real world version

By Kym Reinstadler, SCN Feature Writer | Expert Insights

love the dramedy Glee. A bit of Broadway. Lots of pop music. It’s free on TV. Now, that’s entertainment!

Glee also connects with me because it’s about a high school show choir with complex characters that take their differences in stride and make beautiful music together.

Believe it or not, I discovered a real world choir even more amazing than the choir on GleeKalamazoo Regional Education Services Agency YAP Choir

In this choir all the students have disabilities, though none are wheelchair-bound like Glee character Artie Abrams. They’ve got Autism Spectrum Disorder, cognitive impairments, or learning disabilities. For them, performing became a way to transcend some of their limitations.

Who doesn’t yearn to promote good stories like this? And, if you’re a program decision-maker, who doesn’t yearn to set stories like this in motion?

Twinkle, twinkle  . . . New big stars!

Honestly, this choir got me gaga! It was formed in fall 2011 with a dozen 18 to 26 year-old special education students at the Kalamazoo (Mich.) Regional Educational Services Agency’s Young Adult Program (YAP – I know, another acronym. But that’s our world.)

Anyway, Principal Deb Wild dreamed of one day entering a student choir to sing in the Southwest Michigan Recreation and Leisure Choral Competition. Most entries in this event are from schools serving students with special needs, and many attempt only lip dubs. Nevertheless, Deb moved forward. She made one of her YAP staffers an offer that couldn’t be refused, and with a director now enlisted, the student choir was formed with the one provision: They would sing with their own voices.

You Are Not Alone

It’s a lofty goal, for sure. Four students have speech impediments. Several others prefer their own company to groups. One usually eats lunch – social time in most schools – with her face mere inches away from a brick wall with her hoody pulled over her head. Getting these students on stage singing and connecting with an audience is the stuff of miracles.


On-key credentials. In tune with students

 KRESA YAP Director Corlis V. WatkinsDeb knew she made the right choice in selecting Corlis V. Watkins, a special education paraprofessional for 25 years, to be the YAP Choir Director. Deb knew Corlis moonlighted as a music ministry consultant and had sung backup for some big names in gospel music. Plus, she knew about Corlis’ passion for students first hand.

Preparing students for individual auditions would take some doing — and that’s just how Corlis wanted it. Corlis saw an opportunity to teach the young adults to advocate for themselves. She required them to seek her out to obtain recorded tracks and lyric sheets for the two songs they’d need to audition. Auditions were held in front of a panel of three judges – a nerve-wracking scenario for most of the students.

“They didn’t have to be great,” Corlis said, “but I had to see initiative and potential.”

Specifically, the young adults needed to be able to take direction without becoming upset, and stand without engaging in behaviors their audiences would consider unusual. They had to be able to match notes and blend their voice with others. Regardless of their reading ability, they had to memorize lyrics. They had to be able to manipulate a microphone. They also had to commit to two-hour rehearsals twice a week as well as practicing with recorded music at home.

The students learned. So did Corlis. And others.

Corlis discovered that students learned best in layers. So, as a group, they would memorize the lyrics and discuss what a song meant first. Then Corlis would introduce the melody and begin work on timing, which was always the Mt Everest of learning a new song.

Practice didn’t always make perfect. Far from it. Occasionally a student would walk out of a rehearsal in frustration and complain that Corlis worked the choir too hard.

“It’s O.K. to have high expectations,” Deb said. “Just because people have disabilities, you don’t have to say ‘it’s all good.’”

Some parents of the 13 students who auditioned,  but were not selected for the choir, complained. There were even objections on philosophical grounds to roster trimming from the YAP staff. Deb and Corlis held firm, committed to the belief that singing isn’t every person’s special talent. Young Adult Program Choir win an award.

Was it all worth it?

Many adults with disabilities have grown accustomed to being “invisible,” but Corlis and Deb were hoping that the school choir would help their students buck this reality. Singing in public could help students feel more comfortable in the public eye. Some might even choose to join a church or community choir.

Over the course of the school year, the YAP choir stunned the community by winning the Southwest Michigan competition. They went on to learn 18 songs and perform eight more concerts during he school year, including one paid gig where the choir’s rendition of “Imagine” left many in the audience teary-eyed.

The choir achieved maximum exposure with their performance of “Seasons of Love” before 500 people at the Michigan Council for Exceptional Children’s annual conference in Grand Rapids. State Director of Special Education Eleanor White bowed to the choir during a standing ovation.

Corlis says the concerts attended by the students’ families were the most emotional and meaningful.

“Some of our parents had never before had the joy of seeing their son or daughter on stage performing as a member of a group,” Corlis said. “And there their child was, right up there, confident, and part of something good. No wonder the parents bawled.”

Singing solo – but not alone.

No student blossomed fuller than the handsome 20 year-old Cer Bolton, who has Autism Spectrum Disorder. Deb said choir was the first time Cer stood out among his peers and assumed a leadership position. He had heart-rending solos in covers of the Michael Jackson hits “You Are Not Alone” and “Earth Song,” which helped catapult the YAP choir to in-school celebrity status.

Cer was presented the state’s prestigious “Yes I Can!” Award, which acknowledges the achievements young people with disabilities. Even today, Cer gets recognized on the street from people who read a newspaper story about him. Students with autism rarely achieve such notoriety. (So, top that, Glee hunk Finn Hudson!)

Four factors made a difference.

1)   Tap into skills and interests the students already have.

2)   Communicate openly and often with parents.

3)   Maintain high expectations, even when there’s pushback.

4)   Get the right leader.

A leader’s inner passion is essential to any startup, be it a choir or a chess team.  “Sometimes the person is the program,” Deb said. “We probably wouldn’t have a choir if we didn’t have Corlis.”

Principals are wise to know the various talents disbursed among their staff and try to match them with the interests of students, she said.

It doesn’t matter, ultimately, if a school has the talent to do a choir, a band or a bowling league. The goal is finding activities that students care enough about to stretch themselves by learning skills that can last a lifetime.

What special programs have been started at your school? What did it take to pull it off? Let us know on our SCN Message Board.