Rebranding America’s Schools — One Tumblr Post at a Time
In the heart of East Los Angeles, in an office building turned magnet school, Jonathan Araiza speaks into a camera. “My dream is to get out of high school,” the former gang member says. “I will be the first one to graduate in my family.” The man behind the lens, Jason Pollock, would say that Araiza is “undroppable” — he has persevered, against trying circumstances, to graduate this year. For the past two months, Pollock has interviewed hundreds of students like him, in some of the poorest districts in the country, to find out what keeps them from dropping out. The result — a documentary film project and vast social media campaign that launches today on Tumblr — is called Undroppable.
Your first film, the Youngest Candidate, followed teens who were running for office. Why take on education?
Of all the issues I could make a film about, as an activist for the world, I feel like education is theissue that needs to be fixed. Sure, jobs and unemployment are a problem. But if we fix education, all of that other stuff falls into place.
How is your film different from Waiting for Superman?
I thought Waiting for Superman was a well-made film that put the spotlight on some very controversial issues. However, I know a lot of educators who felt attacked by it. I want to show why we are having this dropout epidemic through the eyes of the student who is one in a thousand. If there are 999 students like him who didn’t make it through, we want to tell the story of the one who did.
What’s the biggest thing keeping these kids from graduating?
I think it’s too early for me to be saying anything too sweeping yet. I would say [there are] a few really important things that are working [to keep kids in school]. A strong family is the backbone of a good education. Strong families succeed and most kids really do need something to come home to. Also, smaller class size is super important. Teachers who have hundreds of students a day simply don’t have the time to get to know each one individually … We also need to give a lot more respect to teachers and education administrators if they are doing a good job.
So you’ve gone into six districts to interview students and administrators. What do you ask them?
The most common thing I ask is, “If this camera were a senator threatening to cut education budgets, what would you say?” Almost every person responds, “Please come to our school and meet us and hear our stories. You won’t want to cut our budgets then.” I want to tell a story of students graduating high school through great adversity. Schools should not just be about statistics and grades. There are real people inside of them who are going through a lot to be there, and they deserve our respect. I have found that once people hear your personal story, they look at you in a much more clear way.
What are some of the things these schools have in common?
Most of the time, if a camera comes to these schools it’s because something bad happened. And so students are trained to see a camera and think, somebody got killed, somebody got robbed. We went in to say, these kids are making it, these kids are doing something, and that’s what we want to show … These kids are resilient. No matter how bad you bend them, they don’t break. So if resiliency is a defining trait in many of these kids, I often ask myself, how do we nurture resiliency within our kids?
So what’s the solution to all of this? Funding? Smaller classes? Teaching resiliency?
It’s too early for me to go around saying what I think the solution to all of this is. But I think from what I’ve seen, our teachers and schools need way more financial support and schools in high dropout areas all need to be smaller. It takes everyone in the community to care more about the schools as well. I can’t tell you how weird it was for me to drive less than 20 minutes from some of the more impoverished areas we filmed in, to incredibly wealthy areas with huge homes. I think we all need to start helping our neighborhoods a little bit more.
Describe the social media aspect of your campaign.
We are launching today with more than 60 individual Tumblr pages, which feed into six school Tumblr pages, which feed into one main Tumblr. Each page will have it’s own YouTube character package, explaining who the student is. We will work with the students to regularly update these pages with more videos and content about their lives. Eventually, many of the kids will get their own handheld cameras — we’ve given out 50 so far. They’ll send in video diaries and updates on their lives. The film will be a compilation of a lot of different media. [It will launch in 2013.]
How do you respond to people who say, “Here’s another privileged white dude coming into our community trying to tell our story”?
I definitely realize that I come from a different background. But I wanted to tell these stories, and I didn’t see anybody else doing it. If it comes from someone who’s white, then so be it. That was definitely something that I felt — being there. In Chicago, when we were on the streets with cameras, everyone thought we were the cops. But that’s part of what I’m trying to change — yes, here we are with cameras, but we’re not the cops, and we’re not here to cover something bad. We’re here to cover something good.
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