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Reel-World Education

A new documentary captures teachers creating more equitable classrooms
Illustration of teachers
Illustrations: James Graham

When filmmaker Aimee Corrigan, Ed.M.'11, flew to California to gather the final footage for a new documentary about equity and education, the novel coronavirus was already ubiquitous in the news, but it had not yet changed day-to-day life.

By the time she flew home, she was wearing a mask. Within days, schools were shuttered for in-person instruction. Classrooms would never look quite the same again.

Because of when the documentary was filmed — in 2019 and the early days of 2020 — We Have to Do Something Different has almost a dreamlike quality, with nary a blue surgical mask in sight.

But its message — about the journey some teachers are taking to make their classrooms more equitable — is timeless. If anything, Corrigan says, it is more urgent than ever.

Ready, Set, Action

We Have to Do Something Different is a production of MIT’s Teaching Systems Lab, a project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology focused on the future of teacher learning that includes online classes and practice spaces for novice teachers through games and simulations. The lab is led by Justin Reich, Ed.D.’12. Corrigan and Reich first met at the Ed School, where they both studied the intersection of education and technology. Later, they were fellows at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. So when Reich needed a team to produce short video case studies for online courses he was developing for the lab, he reached out to Corrigan for help. Corrigan has spent much of her career working on documentary films that offer actionable solutions to social issues — a mission that dovetails with the lab’s focus on praxis.

The pair ended up partnering on several courses, including one about equitable teaching practices, built on a foundation of research by Rich Milner, the chair of education of Vanderbilt University’s Department of Teaching and Learning, and the author of Start Where You Are, But Don’t Stay There.

For that course, Corrigan traveled across the country, identifying teachers who were trying to make their classrooms better places for all students to learn, and using that footage for modules throughout the course. The team scanned the lab’s network for educators who were focused on equity and willing to let filmmakers into their classrooms.

“Our hope was that rather than just having teachers tell us in an interview about what they do, they could show us what they do in an actual teaching moment,” Corrigan says.

After the course on equitable teaching practices was finished, Reich and Corrigan realized that they could repurpose the footage into a longer film. They brought in Doug Piertzak, Ed.M.’11, to help produce it. Piertzak is the founder of Fresh Cognate, an education media company focused on storytelling. He had partnered with Corrigan and the Teaching Systems Lab before and was excited to partner on a longer documentary.

“This project is the gem of longstanding partnerships, strong relationships formed at HGSE (and elsewhere), and common desires for the students, teachers, and schools now and into the future,” he says.

The result is a series of vignettes that allow the viewer to observe educators across the country enacting specific practices to help foster more equitable learning environments — from focusing on students as individuals, to making sure curricular materials represent all students, to facilitating conversations about real-world issues in the classroom. Scenes from lively lessons and discussions are threaded through with interviews with both educators and students, as well as narration from Reich, a feature that was added relatively late in the production process.

Originally, Corrigan wanted the scenes in schools to speak for themselves, without narration. But after an initial cut of the film, she and the team decided that the flip side of the imperative in the title — We Have to Do Something Different — was to make sure that educators walked away from the film with things that they can do differently. While all the schools featured are public schools, they exist in different contexts, with access to different resources and funding. The film doesn’t ignore the bigger picture, or racism and structural inequities. To the contrary, it acknowledges the enormity of those problems, while still offering reasons for optimism. An individual educator or school cannot solve societal injustices in a day, Reich and Corrigan say. But there are things that they can begin doing immediately to address those injustices, which Reich’s narration underscores.

The schools featured in the film are located in Boston, Florida, Indiana, and California, in both urban and suburban settings. Reich and Corrigan say they wanted to show that high-quality teaching is not just happening in schools in certain settings, or with certain resources.

“I think you could find a teacher in just about every school who’s doing this kind of work,” Reich says. “If you want to have teachers adopt new practices, they have to see it. Not just to know what it looks like in practice, but to be like, ‘Oh, that person who looks like me and is in a context like the one I’m in is doing this thing that seems foreign or difficult — and it’s kind of working.’”

Going Short

We Have to Do Something Different is not a feature-length documentary. It clocks in at around 35 minutes, just a little longer than an episode of a sitcom.

That meant painful decisions in the editing room. A lot of footage from schools had to be left on the cutting room floor. But keeping the documentary relatively short was important to the team, who wanted to differentiate the movie from the multi-week course it evolved from, for several reasons.

For one, Reich said he hopes that the shorter film will be a more accessible way to introduce educators to other offerings from the Teaching Systems Lab, including future online courses on equity and teaching. While self-paced online learning is not for everyone, Reich says, it offers exciting opportunities for teachers. The students who tend to get the most out of selfpaced learning — where you’re not meeting with your classmates and teacher at the same time — tend to fit the teacher profile: already educated. And asynchronous online learning has a better chance at fitting into teachers’ busy schedules.

But there’s still the question of how to make sure they know about the lab’s course offerings — and that’s where the documentary comes in.

“We sort of have to think about bringing people in as kind of a funnel. You want free, no light-touch activities to get people interested in what we’re doing,” he says.

“We thought [We Have to Do Something Different] would just be a great way to reach people who didn’t have time to take a full course,” Corrigan says. “If they were captivated by the film, then they could take the course as the next step.”

Another rationale for making the film shorter is that educators can more easily share it with their colleagues.

“One of the things that we found in our research is that it’s relatively unusual for an entire school to sign up together to take one of our courses,” Reich says. “Part of our impact model is saying, how can we make it so people feel empowered to go back into their school community and share some of what they’ve learned?” Most of the time, if someone in an online course wants to share a single learning or takeaway from the course with their colleagues, it’s difficult.

“Like, if I was to send you a link to something that’s within that course, you’d be like, I gotta register for this thing,” says Reich. “And then there’s like a bunch of formatting around it and menus and stuff like that. I just wanted to see the thing.” Some of the footage from the documentary is also available in even shorter videos on YouTube.

And finally, the shorter length makes it perfect for professional development sessions.

All of the teachers at any given school are unlikely to take a course together — but they can watch a short film together. Sara O'Brien, Ed.M.'19, is an instructional designer in the Teaching Systems Lab who collaborated on the documentary film. O’Brien spent most of her career as a classroom teacher, first as a teacher in independent schools, and then, after completing her masters at the Ed School, as an English language arts teacher in Newton Public Schools in Massachusetts. O’Brien says that, in part because of her experience in K–12 classrooms, she was very conscious of time constraints during the school week.

“You don’t have time for people to watch a 75-minute documentary and then have time to talk about it,” O’Brien says. “We really wanted to keep it manageable for PD sessions.”

The team has more than the film to offer school communities. O’Brien helped design a screening toolkit that includes a facilitator’s guide, discussion slide deck, and a note taking tool that’s designed to help viewers organize their thoughts as they watch the documentary, as well as reflect on and discuss their learnings afterward. Dialogue, all along, has been one of the primary goals of the project.

“We tried to really keep it focused on, what are you seeing in the film? What are the small things that these teachers are doing, whether it’s an action or a mindset, that you could really adopt on your own?” O’Brien says. “What’s already happening in your school that you can build on?”

Corrigan says that as she was making the film, she pictured a teacher who was interested in equity, but who did not necessarily feel like they had a lot of support — a teacher who needed a tool to start a conversation with his or her colleagues.

“We thought this would be a pretty accessible way to start the talk and to see a few small things that you could start doing to make change,” she says.

Change in the World

We Have to Do Something Different focuses on the changes that educators can make that are within their domain. But of course, educators are also responding to societal shifts far out of any individual’s control — shifts that were on clear display in the months between filming and the release of the documentary. In addition to the pandemic, there were also massive protests against racism and police brutality, as well as political struggles over critical race theory, all of which resulted in sudden changes in education policy and curricula. Demand for materials about racial equity in education skyrocketed — and not all of the materials to meet that demand are substantive. O’Brien says she hopes that the project cuts through some of the buzz around equity and gets to the heart of it.

“People are throwing around words like equity and justice and social justice,” O’Brien says. “But what does that actually mean? That was always the goal of the film: If I actually go into a classroom where a teacher believes in equity or in racial justice, what is actually happening on the ground? What is that teacher doing?”

As the world changed, so did the teachers and educators highlighted in the film. Ronni Moore was an instructional leader at Purdue Polytechnic High School in Indianapolis during filming. Today, she’s the director of K–12 curriculum at Christel House Indianapolis, a local charter network. She’s also pursuing her master’s in education at the High Tech High Graduate School of Education.

The pandemic brought the importance of relationship-building and students’ humanity — a central tenet of We Have to Do Something Different — to the forefront, Moore says.

“Because students’ home lives were more visible, what I saw was … educators making more of an effort to connect with their students. Checking in with them and asking how are you doing before asking what are you doing, or have you done this, or did you do that?” she says.

Even when students returned to in-person instruction, it wasn’t a return to how things were before the pandemic. Moore says that all of a sudden, things that used to seem important, like dress codes, seemed beside the point.

“There are a lot of compliance things [in schools], like, ‘Make sure you’re quiet in the hallways! Make sure you have your pencil when you come to school!’ All of those things,” Moore says. “We started having more conversations about things like, should we be policing students’ bodies? If it doesn’t have to do with learning, do we have to correct it?”

When Moore watched the finished documentary with other educators, a lot of the lessons resonated more than ever. But she also realized that her approach to equity haseven evolved since the filming took place. In the film, Moore discusses how trauma informs her approach as an educator, and how instead of asking what’s wrong with a student, she asks what happened to them. Now, she says, she frames the question differently. She asks herself, what does each student carry? The question “what happened to you,” Moore says, places the student in the place of the victim, while asking what someone carries offers more points for connection. “We all carry things,” she says.

Her ethos of constant evolution is reflected across the film: the stories it portrays show that every day, we all can learn and grow and strengthen relationships, even while still acknowledging daunting problems at both the societal level and in our own lives.

Next Steps

Because of the pandemic, the roll-out of We Have to Do Something Different hasn’t been what the team envisioned when they first dreamed up the project. The broader release of the film was delayed almost a year due to the pandemic, but the documentary is available for free screenings for educators. Corrigan says she wants to keep in conversation with educators around the film. (There’s a contact option on the website.) Something that excites her about her work with the Teaching Systems Lab is its focus on impact — a motive she honed at HGSE.

“It’s become more and more important to me in my career to find out, does the stuff I make matter?” she says. “And I think hgse made me really have a commitment to continuing to find innovative ways to engage with the audience and measure the impact of the communication.”

The hope is that regardless of the largescale societal changes yet to come, the documentary will remain a relevant tool for educators, and that its messages — about the importance of inclusion, and relationships — are timeless.

As long as there is inequity in schools, there will be a need to do something different. The film shows that every day, we can.

Grace Tatter, Ed.M.’18, is an education reporter and audio producer. Her last piece for Ed. looked at the battle over what history students learn in school.

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