Educators and thought leaders swarmed the Austin Convention Center Monday as the 9th annual SXSWedu conference kicked off with an opening keynote on the critical nature of community and social capital.
Focused on the Aspen Institute’s Weave: The Social Fabric Project, which aims to connect community organizations and support common cultural foundations, the session's speakers laid out the argument that social fragmentation is society’s core problem, as isolation and alienation ultimately foster greater division.
But to start the session, SXSW EDU founder Ron Reed welcomed attendees to the show. What began as a regional event has grown to a conference with attendees from around the globe, he said, and the breadth of topics has expanded to reflect that, with more than 450 sessions and 1,100 speakers this year.
“The power of education to transform and empower and include and embrace is at the heart of this morning’s keynote,” Reed said, introducing the Aspen Institute's David Brooks.
Brooks, a columnist for The New York Times who also leads Weave, largely focused on his experiences with isolation as a writer, and how society is in a valley with high percentages of chronic loneliness, depression, suicide and addiction. And when humans are alone, they revert to tribalism — a condition not based on mutual affection and community, but on mutual hatred and a desire to build walls between groups, he said.
“Deep down, everyone I’ve ever met wants connection,” he said. But pulling out of a valley requires a desire to be led from there, he said. Weave: The Social Fabric Project seeks out people who need community or are working to build it.
Dan Porterfield, also with the Aspen Institute, interviewed APEX Community Advancement Inc.’s Lisa Fitzpatrick. She described APEX, an open-door youth center in New Orleans, and talked about how she came to the city as a healthcare executive following Hurricane Katrina. Through her teenage daughters, she began opening doors to local teens — with the crowd growing from a few to a few dozen. She also has a background as a minister, and the youth she worked with eventually founded the church that she now pastors.
Through building community with these young people, Fitzpatrick said, she was able to heal herself, as well.
Coming together to build on each other’s strengths and lift up each other’s areas of improvement to enhance student achievement. Every child is worth it. They just need to know that someone is on their side and in their corner. You are truly inspiring. #SXSWEDU2019 pic.twitter.com/wxLWBd0QGk— Melissa Belle Gutierrez (@MelBGutierrez) March 4, 2019
Darius Baxter co-founded GOOD Projects in Washington, D.C. in 2016 when he and two friends were challenged by a mentor. They were undergraduates at Georgetown University and didn't want the typical path to consulting or Wall Street.
“We wanted to go out there and solve problems,” said Baxter, who as a master's in education from Johns Hopkins University, noting that one big problem they wanted to tackle was gun violence in cities and the connection to youth. Their overall goal is to address poverty in D.C.
Western culture, Baxter said, has become one of constantly wanting more, but he believes that the more you give, the more you receive.
Through his work with Weave, Brooks highlights efforts by organizations, such as APEX and GOOD Projects. Finding causes, co-creation and working across generations are key to building community.
“If anyone’s a weaver, educators are weavers,” Brooks said, bringing the discussion back to classrooms.
Baxter added that there’s no better place to scale efforts to build community and address isolation than in schools, and challenged educators to consider how they can produce people who are more thoughtful, compassionate and caring in order to build a better society. The combination of words and deeds can motivate people to come together and be more mindful of the impact of their actions, he said.
“With great power comes great responsibility,” Baxter said, adding that Peter Parker’s uncle Ben was perhaps a philosopher like no other.
@DariusiBaxter on how to "scale" goodness, "We have to be conscious of what we're spreading" - Be mindful that what you say is rarely said in isolation, but you almost always have an audience (especially on the internet!), so what kind of example do you want to be? #SXSWEDU2019 pic.twitter.com/NMW0UX79hT— Tracy Mehoke (@tracymehoke) March 4, 2019
Fitzpatrick tied the topic back to her public health background, noting that the right actions can create a “pandemic” of love that can change culture.
@LisaFitzNOLA I will join you to spread the pandemic of love! Can programs that focus on relationship building scale? Absolutely! “We cannot all do great things, but we can do small things with great love.” #SXSWEDU2019— Mingyan Ophelia Ma (@MingyanMa) March 4, 2019
Brooks closed the session by saying the goal isn't to retreat from an individualistic culture and society but to become more communal. The current state of affairs, he said, is much like the late 1800s and early 1900s, when changes in culture bred changes in civics and then in politics, breeding progress.
David Brooks talking about the problems of hyper individualism. We had a 60-year run and it served us well but it may have run its course. We need to be weavers, not rippers. #SXSWEDU2019— Michael Palmer (@madintangibles) March 4, 2019
Transforming a district by listening to students, engaging with all
Devin Vodicka, the former superintended of Vista Unified School District in California — who now serves as chief impact officer for AltSchool — led a gathered crowd through a quick 20-minute session on how the differences he felt as a child, as well as rapidly expanding technological progress, guided his efforts to build a "framework for the future" during his time at Vista.
As a new superintendent, Vodicka was comfortable with the idea of striving for his district to be recognized as a model of educational excellence, though he admitted that he knew it would be a challenge in a system designed for standardization. Real-world problem-solving and perseverance were among his priorities for students.
"Strategic planning is something most people have bad experiences with, so I decided we’d call it a 'blueprint' as opposed to a 'plan,' " he said. His Blueprint for Excellence and Innovation involved first talking to students for six months, asking them, among other things, to write down one word they’d use to describe schools. A word cloud was created from those responses, and the one word used most often was "irrelevant."
Seeking to give learners more of a driving experience, where they have some level of control rather than being a passenger on a train with a set track, he next sought to engage the community. A collaborative process involving students, parents and other stakeholders helped to define what personalizing learning would mean. They wanted flexibility, adaptability and competency-based models, among other things. And the end result bore success on metrics from attendance and discipline rates to graduation and advanced programming participation.
Among the lessons Vodicka said he learned from the process were to listen to students, meaningfully engage all stakeholders and to shift thinking from a sense of challenge to one of possibility.
Building a school on a neuroscience foundation
In a packed afternoon session, educators from Pennsylvania's Valley Day School detailed how their alternative education facility has adopted a trauma-informed education model based on neuroscience research to help students ranging from ages 5 to 21 heal and succeed.
Executive Director Ron Hall stated that Dr. Sandra Bloom's Sanctuary Model and "The Education Revolution" author Horacio Sanchez's resiliency model are central to the school's approach and curriculum, in addition to intentionally focusing on predictability and quality relationships. Clinical support is woven throughout the day, with all students and staff equipped with individual safety plans for de-escalating a situation and decompressing.
“It’s all about the connection and helping kids reconnect with themselves internally and with others,” therapist Stacy Maurer told the crowd.
Teaching media literacy to boost students' success
Another afternoon session focused on media literacy skills students need to succeed in the world. More than just interpreting the news, students need the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create and act using all forms of communication. It's not just about recognizing facts, but about recognizing how specific facts are sometimes used to create a narrative that might not tell the full story, and how to tell a counter-narrative using the tools available. In that sense, knowing how to use those tools is now as important as literacy and writing skills themselves.
The speakers included PBS Vice President of Education Sara Schapiro, National Association for Media Literacy Education board member and past president Erin Reilly, KQED Education Managing Director Randall Depew and Rutgers University Graduate School of Education Assistant Professor Nicole Mirra.
Among their top concerns is that media literacy is somehow separate from the rest of curriculum, rather than being incorporated into all subjects, much like written literacy, so that students learn how to find and build an audience — and tell their own story.