SOUTH KINGSTOWN — Stories are powerful. They shape reality, evoke emotional and physical responses, and every person has one – or several – to tell. Wakefield resident Jen Hetzel Silbert, professional facilitator, believes stories can paint a picture of what powerful learning is and can be.
She references a quote by poet Muriel Rukeyser, “The world is not made up of atoms, it’s made of stories.”
“I really believe that,” Silbert said. “The more we can get back to sharing stories, we not only learn how to improve education in Rhode Island, but we really connect as empowered citizens who are capable of being that change.”
One night in 2011, Silbert noticed her daughter was crying herself to sleep. Her daughter had learned from a friend that if she failed the NECAP test next year, her teacher would be fired, which terrified her.
Silbert tweeted her daughter’s story and received a message back from Rhode Island Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist, who said she wanted to learn more. After making a connection with Gist and speaking with several people in the community, Silbert decided it was time to create a learning movement in education in Rhode Island: Learning401. The movement’s goal is to give a voice to everyone through open mic storytelling slams.
Silbert will bring the movement to South County Saturday from 7 to 9 p.m. at Contemporary Theater Company, 327 Main St., Wakefield. Local students (middle school and older), families, educators, administrators, policy makers, employers, community leaders and residents are asked to attend and share their most powerful learning story in five minutes or less.
“Learning401 is a call to action in education, giving a voice to everyone,” Silbert said. “People commit to what they help to create.”
She added, “And who doesn’t like a good story?”
The movement’s inaugural event was held last April at New Urban Arts in Providence. One hundred and one people attended, including Gist and Providence Teachers Union President Steve Smith.
“There is no deficit of exemplar learning stories in Rhode Island. There is a deficit on the opportunity to share them and promote them. Learning401 is creating that forum,” she said.
At the Providence slam, one student approached the mic and said her most powerful learning story was how she, her school and friends all “suck.” She broke into tears and ran off the stage. Silbert thanked the student for having the courage to share, and asked if anyone was especially moved by this story. One hand shot up. It was the hand of a social worker in the Providence public schools. She said, “You know, she’s right. School does suck for many of our students.” She went on to tell her own story about a great teacher.
“The reality was in the room and the hope was definitely there of why these stories really do change not only how we interact with each other, but how we think and our own individual roles and calls to action,” Silbert said.
Learning401 is very much about a systemic dialogue when one looks at the movement’s past, present and plans for the future. Its beginnings stem from the work of Sam Chaltain, national education activist. Chaltain’s website, Faces of Learning, shares people’s learning stories from around the country. Silbert met Chaltain at a Save Our Schools March in 2011 in Washingston, D.C. After the rally, Chaltain brought nearly 60 people together at Busboys and Poets, a venue of open mic poetry, to host a learning slam.
“It was very solution focused, inquiry driven and story based. With those three qualities, I just knew he was onto [something],” Silbert said.
Silbert asked Chaltain for his blessing to take the movement and make it work for Rhode Island. He was all for the idea. She soon teamed up with Andy Cutler, writer and strategic communications consultant, to launch Learning401.
“The importance of creating this forum is for us to talk about what we do want instead of who broke what and who we want to blame,” Silbert said. “And more importantly, [it’s] to shine the light on the awesomeness going on in this state.”
There are many incredible happenings occurring across the state, Silbert said, including: the Central Falls Chess Team who placed in the top 10 of the U.S. Supernationals in 2013, and several Providence-based robotic teams who competed and placed nationally at championships.
“We may not have all the resources we want, need or think we need to make great strides in education happen and yet we’ve got a lot of good stuff going on. It’s just a matter of changing the conversation to talk about [the good things] and by talking to each other and not past each other with our parochial agendas,” Silbert said.
Social media sites like Twitter allow Silbert and Culter to spread the word of the movement. Although Learning401 just started, Silbert sees a slow change in the conversation already. Each day presents a new opportunity for Silbert to seek partnerships across the state and spark conversations outside of the slam events.
“I’d love to see this become a contagion in how we talk about education,” she said.
From Vermont and Pennsylvania to Texas, people have expressed creating their own learning slams. Learning401 was a created movement specifically for Rhode Island, Silbert said, but the idea behind the movement can work across the country.
With help from photographs, videographers and media experts, Silbert is on the verge of capturing stories by creating a digital library on learning401.org. People will have the opportunity to write or film their story without the fear of speaking in front of an audience. It’s Silbert’s hope that the digital library can be used to help form curriculum and classroom design and change local and state policies.
The idea can be owned and operated by anyone who wants to shift the education conversation, according to Silbert. She dreams of the movement thriving in classrooms, cafeterias, staff meetings and even a statewide summit.
“We’re all in education. Anyone and everyone who cares about learning should come. You don’t have to be a teacher or even a parent of a student,” Silbert said. “If you care about your community and the future of where we’re going, let’s talk.”
Saturday, 7 p.m.
Contemporary Theater Company
327 Main St., Wakefield