What are the negotiables? What are the non-negotiables? What is flexible in the space in between?
I first heard about the HGTV Hometown Takeover contest through a Facebook post, although I don’t remember exactly when or in what context. I thought about how great it would be if the town where I teach, Bath, MI, could put together an entry. I honestly couldn’t imagine that the show producers will actually give this town the time of day—there’s no cute, 100-year-old infrastructure like most of small town America; there’s no courthouse or town hall majestically rising from the center of the town square, surrounded by struggling and dusty store fronts boasting old records and antique rocking chairs and yesterday’s clothes. But, there is an amazing rise-from-the-ashes story, the story of the Bath school bombing 93 years ago that wiped out much of a generation, just sad enough and hopeful enough to capture national attention every time a mass shooting or a school shooting hits the news. And although there is no cute pub or historic movie theater on Main Street, there is a vibrant school system, many independent small business owners, and a strong sense of community. This story has the right narrative, the right storytelling arc. This story has heart and soul.
I thought about my own AP Lit students, who also had heart and soul, but were not courageous or born leaders. They also were struggling, in AP MC quizzes on AP Classroom, to understand the function of setting and narrator and the relationship between them and the “meaning of the work as a whole.” My lightbulb moment was when I realized that a perfect way to really hit logos, pathos, and especially ethos, was through telling the story of Bath, MI and pitching the makeover idea to the production team of HGTV Hometown Takeover.
Two days after telling my students my idea, and noting that they were not only on board but excited, the town’s community Facebook page erupted with people calling for someone to enter the contest for Bath. I posted in one of the threads that the town’s AP Lit class would be creating an entry. But a few days later, the District Development Association decided that they would be creating the entry. They hired a local township employee who had some documentary experience and a Bachelor’s degree in Media and Information with a focus in Film and Media Production to create the town’s entry. They asked a local celebrity to get involved. Someone suggested that two entries would show a lack of unity and that the DDA entry should be the only one…and then the DDA suggested that the students should work with them to create one entry and that the students could learn something from them about how to film a video documentary. I tried not to bristle at what felt like condescension towards my students’ abilities, and at what felt like an intrusion into what had become a meaningful class project, not only teaching critical life skills, but also hopefully inspiring unity and leadership in a group that was often splintered and quiet. In addition, this project would give them an authentic national audience, far beyond me as their teacher or the AP Exam readers.
My students said, “Thanks, but nope” to the idea of working with the DDA. They wanted to do their own entry, in their own voice, presenting their own story. Two entries, they pointed out (if both got done), wouldn’t show a lack of unity; it would show differing perspectives of the same town. Student voices telling their own story of what their town means and what their town needs are much different than adult small business owners pitching their town. The students wanted to tell their story, and I knew that building their story with their own ethos, connecting it with the logos of the town history and the pathos of tragedy and hope would create a writing opportunity for them that I had to encourage and honor. In order to make time for this, I had to throw a week’s worth of curriculum out the window. But I knew I could justify—both to myself and to my administration—the learning opportunities that this would present, both in “AP Lit” level skills, and in teamwork and leadership skills.
So I tossed aside my written curriculum for a week in order to create space for this project. My students self-selected areas of interest and split into teams. Research and Development found statistics and history, both of the current town, and of the past tragedy. Photography and Videography tried to capture photos of the town and its essence. And four students created a leadership team, mapping out the narrative arc of the video, writing the script, and crafting the story that the students wanted to tell. The leadership team also had to guide the other teams with what resources they needed to be gathering, and keep them on track. I took about 5 minutes each day to question and redirect as needed: what is the story we are telling? How do we keep it authentic and framed through the eyes of high school students (ethos)? How do we connect to the lost generation and tragedy of the Bath bombing, but remain focused on hope and the success of what our community is already doing (pathos)? And how do we pitch to HGTV what this town needs and what winning the competition and bringing the program to Bath would do for the town and its residents (logos)?
The resulting written submission and video that the students created is excellent. It’s not perfect, but it is clear that many voices were honored in the submission package, including photographs and video clips from over half the class, and pieces of writing from several students that were merged into the final pitch and script. The narrative of the submission package nails the logos, pathos, and ethos of the story, and presents the narrative as one of resiliency and hope. The students’ submission video has been viewed thousands of times and shared all over the nation by former graduates and residents, proud to show the world what their hometown stands for. Unfortunately, some in the town are now pitting the student video submission against the DDA submission, questioning why there are two submissions, and presenting some mistruths about the process. I worry that there might be some backlash as I consciously decided to ask forgiveness rather than permission from my own administration when starting the project, and I actively chose to not work with the township DDA, in order to protect the autonomy of my students. But I also know that my taking this risk and making this space for my students—both in terms of time and in terms of autonomy—was also a fundamental opportunity for learning and growth for my students that was authentic and extended far beyond the walls of the classroom.
As Christina Ponzio succinctly said at a recent RCWP mini-conference, “What are the negotiables? What are the non-negotiables? What is flexible in the space in between?” Although she was talking specifically about creating space for culturally and linguistically diverse students within the classroom and curriculum, these questions can apply to our teaching and our classrooms no matter who is in the room. What can we set aside in order to create space for authentic learning opportunities? What are the standards of our curriculum that need to remain? And where can we be flexible in the in-betweens, to foster authentic opportunities for our students? Because there, in that slightly scary but flexible space in between—that is where inspiration can happen—if we are willing to sit in those uncomfortable spaces.