Unleashing community knowledge when school districts close their doors
This article was written as a result of conversations between Lisa Rossi and Tim Regan-Porter.
Family School started as a happy accident.
It’s a project I launched to match family volunteers to children living in social isolation. It started with my family. Adult family members were given a simple ask: Get on Zoom and teach on a topic you are passionate about — and have direct knowledge — for 30 minutes. It’s for children who miss live, in-person learning experiences from teachers, which include my own, ages 6 and 9.
It quickly gained volunteers and children beyond my two boys and my extended family. In its third week, up to 18 children (and growing) plug in throughout the week to hear lessons from volunteers, a mix of friends, neighbors and family members of the children.
I want Family School to grow. I want more children and more volunteers. I want a strong and trustworthy platform to bring together children and volunteers. My dream is that this is only the beginning, and this effort of personal storytelling for children will knit us together in a time of unprecedented turmoil and sadness.
As it stands now, I manage a Facebook group of more than 30 volunteers. Children can log on to three to five 30-minutes sessions a day. Volunteers also join sessions they are not teaching to watch each other present too, a happy byproduct that I’ve been delighted to see unfold.
I have marveled at what children have learned, and what the presenters have shared —deep truths in the midst of a global crisis.
The lessons are simple and joyful.
Children have learned:
- How to write a letter by hand and send it in the mail.
- About equality between men and women.
- The science behind coronavirus.
- How to invest at a young age.
They’ve learned from red state Republicans, doctorates in environmental engineering, as well as librarians, journalists and higher education administrators.
This week, a CFO of a local hospital took them into a “virus huddle,” when a health care team assessed the day’s challenges.
In one session, my dad Martin Livermore gave a demonstration on how to repair tools, broadcasting to us from his garage in Sioux Falls, SD. It felt particularly relevant to me after my husband’s recent trip to the grocery store in Des Moines, IA, only to find empty shelves.
“I think there’s a little of my spirit in that hammer,” my dad said, explaining the feeling of seeing something he fixed continue to offer utility past its initial life.
We could be spending our days worrying and wishing we could be together. Family School pushes us to stay home and learn from each other.
How it works.
People fill out a Google form indicating their availability. I create a Google calendar invite with a Zoom link and add everyone’s email address who wants to join. I also created a private Facebook group. We also make Facebook events for every session of Family School, as some people don’t use Google. (I see a future where sign-ups and matches to volunteers and children are made more seamless.)
I organize this effort by hand, talking to volunteers about their topics. I promote events on the Facebook page and onboard volunteers for the first time onto Zoom (my husband Mike Rossi and other volunteers help with that too). My sister-in-law Sara Comstock has also worked behind-the-scenes to make the process more smooth and enable more volunteers to join.
I sign in and monitor each presentation.
I want more children to hear these presentations. I want to ease the pressures on parents. And I want the stories from the precious mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, grandfathers and grandmothers in our networks to be heard, across geographies and across generations.
Imagining the Future
I launched Family School to test an idea I hatched with my friend and my 2018 Stanford John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship colleague Tim Regan-Porter. We wanted to know whether groups of friends or neighbors would gather to listen to someone else teach a short lesson on something only they know about. We imagined pastry chefs giving a lesson to their neighbors over Zoom on rising dough. Or perhaps an artist teaching pastels.
We dreamed of building a Zoom-based news organization based on groups of caring citizens that regularly gathered.
We also hoped it might ease loneliness during these times of social isolation. And in the best case scenario, it would be facilitated and organized by trained journalists, who would make sure that after the lesson, people would receive a manageable dose of vital information, better known as news. (Both Tim and I have backgrounds in journalism.)
Family School was one of many tests I pushed out on Zoom to see what would motivate groups of people to consistently show up for each other. And it was the one that is taking off
I am personally drawn to this project fueled by a lot of the experiences I had as a former journalist. I spent years listening to stories. And I know that stories don’t do much when they are buried. They take a life of their own when they come to light. Tim and I also believe from this experience of Family School that a lot of people have expertise they don’t share because they are not given a compelling platform to do so.
We have imagined Family School in other places as well.
What if we had something called Community School, and it is organized by neighborhood? Each week, one person in the neighborhood would be elevated to tell their story or share knowledge only they had. What if we put it in a special kind of neighborhood bar, when this madness is done, and we can gather again in person?
We also want to know how carefully facilitated Zoom gatherings like this can help the workplace. We all see the need for collaborative work environments. What can we learn from Family School to help unlock more creativity when we gather for work? How strong are we at listening to the stories and the expertise of those we see every day? How can those stories and this knowledge enrich us? Family School is trying to find out.
Have ideas? Want to learn more? I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org