Light Bulb Moments: Community
by Noah Siegler | 08.9.16
Noah Siegler is a kindergarten-to-third- (soon to be fourth-) grade fine arts teacher at KIPP Austin Obras in Austin, Texas. He is the founder of Humans of KIPP—an ongoing digital collage featuring stories, statements and images he gathers during interviews with the school’s students and staff.
Noah Siegler and his students
It began with just collecting quotes from kids. You know, cute one-liners—I was just posting them on my own Facebook page. But, near the end of the last school year, a third grader said this really amazing thing. She said, “Adults always think that we’re naughty and they yell at us. Or, they just think that they can play with us, and they don’t realize that we have opinions and thoughts. I just wish that every adult was a third of a kid, so that they could remember what it’s like.”
It was really one of those jaw-dropping moments for me. [I realized] that kids are just desperately trying to be heard, and that it’s hard as teachers—or adults—to understand that they do have these independent thoughts, that they want to understand the world around them and have all these amazing insights. We rarely take a moment to ask them what their thoughts are—we tell them what they should be thinking.
I wanted to provide a platform to try and collect these thoughts and stories so [the students] could be heard. I didn’t know exactly where it was going—I’m obsessed with Humans of New York, so [Humans of KIPP] just seemed like a natural thing to do. It started off as this small thing, but then people really started responding, and I realized [the posts] were striking a chord.
“In kindergarten, my dad and I invented a secret kind of sign language that only we understand. Basically we just have a lot of signs that mean things like “hugs” and “kisses” and “I’ll miss you.” Every morning we probably spend a whole minute saying goodbye to each other, because you know, when you’re at school you can’t be with your dad! And when I enter the building, I know that if I look out the first window, he will always be there, right outside, giving me the sign for “I love you.”
I’m just so obsessed with this project. I’ll get the kids going at their work stations, then I’ll steal a kid and have them come sit down on the carpet with me. Or, during prep period, I’ll do laps around the basketball court with a kid that’s by him or herself.
[The conversation] starts with something pretty simple, like, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”—just to get kids comfortable. Or, I’ll ask questions like, “What do you wish adults knew about what it’s like to be a kid? If you could be president and create one rule, what would it be? What frustrates you? What are you most proud of? If you had a time machine and you could go back to your happiest memory, where would you go?”
Sometimes, the story is so apparent, and within the first two minutes, you’re onto something. Other times, it takes a lot longer. I don’t ever want to interview a kid and then not use something that they’ve said—every kid that I’ve interviewed is on the site. Once you find that hook, you just have to dig a little deeper. I used to just carry around a notepad. More recently, since I’ve been doing longer interviews, I’ve been recording voice memos. Then, I’ll type [the statement] up. Of course, I try to make it a cohesive story, but I never edit their words—we always read it together. That way, the student has a chance to say if it’s not exactly what he or she meant. They have the final say.
Some kids are just shy and it takes a while. So, I’ll pair them with friends and ask them questions together—that’s when they’ll start to open up. Sure, sometimes they’re reluctant, especially if they’re talking about personal things, like being scared about being deported or feeling hurt that their stepmom has left and they haven’t seen her in weeks—I won’t include their faces when it’s personal like that. But, for the most part, now that they know what’s happening with their stories, they’re desperate to share. They see friends on the Humans of KIPP page getting comments and likes; they hear others talking about it.
“My dad was dating a woman. She and I were really close. She was like a mom to me. She told me that she loved me. I loved her too. We had a bond. A couple weeks ago, my dad and her got into an argument and I haven’t seen her since. My dad has been buying me things since then, but that doesn’t work with me. I just can’t forgive him yet.”
It’s cool to have an opinion at our school now—to not just talk about Pokémon. They want to talk about the presidential election, about love and friendship and school and community.
I was in my classroom and there was a group of four boys—this was right after the terrorist attack in Paris—and the four of them were having this argument. There they were, these third graders, talking about what the appropriate response should be. What if words aren’t enough? When is it okay to use violence? Is it okay to want revenge? I was just 15 feet away, trying to act like I wasn’t listening in as they had this in-depth conversation. Yes, of course they’re still little kids—they’re still effortlessly joyful. But, [this project] is elevating our level of discussion. They want to know what others are thinking.
There’s also this whole other layer of empathy. We have computers in every classroom, so they’re checking [the site] frequently—seeing how many likes they have. But then, they’ll see a picture of a kid’s hand—they don’t know who it is, because they can’t see their face—and [the caption] will be something like, “You know, my dad is in jail until I’m 18.” So, we talk about it in class—about how we all have baggage—and there’s kindness and there’s understanding.
I just think that when our authentic voices are being heard, it builds this mutual respect among everybody.
[Humans of KIPP] is changing how I teach, and it’s changing how the teachers at our school teach. You can’t not think about what it was like to be a child when you’re hearing about things that are world-changing for a six-year-old. I’ve challenged myself to remember what it was like to be a kid and have everything be so extreme—the sense of wonder in everything around you and the discoveries happening all over the place. I think that sometimes, as adults, we fall out of tune with that. It’s been completely jarring—but, in the most beautiful way—to be constantly reminded of what it’s like in a kid’s brain. That’s been the most fascinating part for me.
The posts that have been viewed and shared the mosts are usually the posts that speak to kids having an understanding of our world we don’t often give them credit for. When they open up about how they’re nervous for their parents, about wanting to be understood as people or about how they want to show that a girl with a dad from Mexico can be president—those are the things that, I think, really hit people.
“What do I want to be when I grow up? That’s easy. President of the United States. Because I’m…I’m sorry. That part is hard. I can’t talk about it without crying. It’s just…no one should be scared because of who they are, and that’s happening to people I know. I would make the United States a place where everyone feels equal. And I would do a good job at that. Also, some people need to know – no, everyone needs to know – that girls with dads from Mexico can be president.”
It’s not an exaggeration when I say that not a day goes by when there isn’t a moment when I have to just leave the room for a second, or just, like, hug a kid, because it’s amazing. They’re saying these wonderfully profound things, and as a relatively new teacher—but a relatively experienced adult—you have all of these moments of just saying “Hi” to kids. But, to really get past that first layer, to get at who they are and hear what they’re thinking, it’s been one of the most remarkable projects of my life.
I did one parent interview right before summer break. I’d love to [interview] custodians, office staff, teachers, principals and parents—just to have every stakeholder in our school be represented. That’s the next step. I mean, it’s great that this page is getting views, but our audience is our community. It’s our parents, our families, the students, the teachers. This feeling of a giant community hug that this website has been giving us—that’s the thrust of our page.
We were a tight community before this, but now, you can just walk into our school and you feel this bond.
I’m never pushing them to share their deepest, darkest secrets—that’s not what I want this to be at all. But, sometimes they just have these things going on that are taking up every moment of their time, every thought. And suddenly, they have this chance to say, “I said, ‘I love you’ to my stepmom, and she left me.” You can just feel it—you can feel the weight of the world on this elementary student. I don’t always know exactly how to respond, but I think there’s value in [their] saying it, and in showing that kids are complex.
“My mom came to the United States to have a good life. She didn’t go to college. My dad didn’t go either. And pretty much every single week, one of them reminds me that I need to work hard at school. That I need to get to college, that I deserve a better life. They don’t care what I do when I grow up, but they want me to be happy and find a good job that I love. And now…can I tell you something? My mom is starting community college in June. They have always been proud of how I do in school. And now I’m proud of her, too.” #proofpointday
Below, Noah shares his method of approaching particularly sensitive student posts, along with some advice around how to prevent and respond to any negativity generated by divisive topics:
1. There’s only been a handful of really sensitive topics. There was [one about] a death in the family—another about parent in jail. Not only do I not show faces, I’ll also call their families and say, “This is the quote that I have.”
In one, a second grader was talking about not having a dad who was around. But, he also said, “I have a mom, and she loves me very much. So, I guess I’m pretty lucky.” I called the mom; she was definitely okay with it, and that night they had a long conversation about what he was thinking. They talked about his dad, about their family. So, you know, there are these conversations that are happening because of what we’re discussing as school.
2. We sent media release forms home with every student for their parents to sign. I haven’t gotten any negative feedback, but there have been ickier situations. One of the political posts was shared a lot and all of a sudden there was this big backlash of comments. We had a big conversation with the student’s mom, but her response was, “This needs to stay up.” She had talked to her son, and she was proud of him for saying what he did. I know now to police the comments section, and to turn off comments for posts that I think can be divisive. But, I’m not steering kids away from anything because of that.
Sometimes, it’s hard to find the story, but every kid has a story and they want to tell it. When an adult is looking them in the eye and asking them how they feel? It empowers them. Then, they let us in.