Bordentown Regional Middle School hosts a talent show every year. This year, though, faculty and staff members wanted to do something a little different.
Karyn Fitzsimmons, a language arts teacher at the school, and Toby Sebelist, a counselor and anti-bullying specialist, had attended the New Jersey Leadership Forum for the Positive Behavior Support in Schools last May. There, they met staff from Eisenhower Middle School, who told them about a video they made for their students in which teachers anonymously shared stories about their lives. The idea was to gives students a glimpse into the person beyond the teacher.
Energized by the concept, Fitzsimmons and Sebelist brought it back to BRMS this year and introduced it at a PBSIS committee meeting where the talent show was the main item on the docket. The school’s PBSIS committee is called RAPS, which stands for Respect, Accountability, Pride and Safety—tenets the teachers encourage all students to embody.
Faculty members wanted to do something at the talent show to connect students to staff, as well as reflect on the RAPS principles, and Fitzsimmons and Sebelist introduced the idea. From there, they all worked together to create the “Everyone Has a Story” video from start to finish. The video played following the talent show.
“They took the ball and ran with it,” BRMS Principal Joe Sprague said. “We had different members of the team, some people cut the papers for the video, some organized the iMovie. It was a total team effort. It was pretty cool.”
Staff members submitted anonymous anecdotes, ranging from stories about being a student-athlete in high school to others about poverty and domestic violence survival. Sebelist wrote the introduction to the video, and Fitzsimmons filmed, added music and uploaded the video to YouTube.
The student reaction was more than they could have asked for, Sebelist said.
“Aside from wanting to know which staff member wrote which comment, it made the students feel like the staff also goes through issues as they do,” she said. “Immediately after the viewing, two eighth grade girls came up to me and hugged me saying, ‘We’re sorry.’”
Sprague saw a similar reaction.
“It was extremely powerful,” he said. “There was total silence in the auditorium. The kids were well-behaved, and they were totally engaged in what was going on. You need to find a way that connects with them. Our staff here does a phenomenal job. They connect with them in a way that they can engage with learning, but also connect their real lives, too. That’s what this video ultimately did, to have that ‘a-ha’ moment.”
The video also served as a learning exercise for Sprague, who took over as principal at BRMS in October. He was previously the athletic director at Bordentown Regional High School.
‘I feel like we have an obligation as a school community to help our kids learn how to become good people.’
“One of my first goals that I wanted to make sure I did was to know the staff,” he said. “Obviously, the simple thing is to learn all the staff members’ names and try to get to know their stories a little bit. I don’t know in that video which teacher was which, but it kind of helped me gain a greater appreciation for what they do. Coming in here and starting as a first-year principal, I couldn’t be more appreciative of the staff I have and how much they’ve welcomed me with open arms.”
Sprague added that as a first-year principal, the project is something that he takes pride in. Even though the stories in the video were anonymous, he added, he felt the staff’s participation was courageous and spoke volumes about how committed they are to their students. He recalled one story about a teacher who lived out of a car while pursuing an education.
The staff also appreciated the video, Sebelist said. She added that many said the video sparked a number of meaningful, important conversations in class.
“[Projects like this] build community and foster empathy in the building,” she said.
Sprague said he would like to see more projects in the vein of “Everyone Has a Story” at the school. Education is important, he said, but person-to-person connections are, too.
“I feel like we have an obligation as a school community to help our kids learn how to become good people, good citizens in the community, responsible, respectful, learn how to be genuinely good human beings outside of what they learn in the classroom,” he said. “Know to say ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you,’ know to say ‘Hello’ when you pick up the phone and talk to somebody. I think we have a responsibility there to connect with the kids in that way, rather than just academically.