In early March, as he addressed the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C., President Obama spoke at great length of the reforms he believes will give Americans “a complete and competitive education, from the cradle up through a career.” The proposals he laid out for improving early childhood education, K12 standards and assessments, graduation rates, teacher quality and college funding will be debated for months to come by thousands of school administrators, teachers, parents and politicians. It was the voice of a single teenager, however, that helped drive the president’s messages home that day.
At the end of his speech, Obama quoted Yvonne Boroquez, a California student whose high school class recently made a video exploring the impact of the economic crisis on their dreams of higher education and professional employment.
“It was heartbreaking that a girl so full of promise was so full of worry that she and her class titled their video ‘Is Anybody Listening?’” Obama said. “I am listening. We are listening. America is listening,” the president assured Boroquez and her classmates.
What of the myriad young people who aren’t as far along in the life-planning process as Boroquez, students who need help identifying their dreams before they can be heard and mentored? Increasing numbers of school districts are starting the higher education drumbeat by the freshman year of high school, employing 21st-century technology such as the popular career-based software developed by Naviance to help students map their school and life journeys. But what is the first step in inspiring those teens to define and pursue their passions?
“Nothing happens without a vision,” says George Johnson, a former special education teacher and self-described “serial entrepreneur.” Johnson founded several successful technology and Internet companies in his home state of Minnesota, including Internet Broadcasting and TECHIES.com, before becoming what he calls a “vision coach” for scores of other business and community leaders. While heading up Entrevis, a company he founded that motivates adults to reach their full potential, Johnson realized he could do something similar for young people while they are still in school.
“We have a huge vision deficit in this country,” Johnson explains. “There is so much fear and negativity, especially in the media. I decided to start a movement about bringing more hope and possibility into the world, and to do it by helping kids create little three-minute visions of what they want their life to become.”
Enter Tel.A.Vision. Johnson’s free Web tool gives today’s tech-savvy youth everything they need to create and share “vision videos.” A Tel.A.Vision is essentially a highly personal montage combining a student’s written hopes and dreams with still photographs, music and computer animation—created with tools available online at www.telavision.tv.
“Tel.A.Vision could never have been done before,” Johnson says. “It took the combination of high-speed Internet access (which we now have in most schools and over 50 percent of American homes), low-cost computer storage devices, access to music and photo files, and Web 2.0 software—which means there is no software that you have to buy to make this happen. Any kid who has access to a computer and the Internet can do this.”
Several months before Tel.A.Vision’s official launch in October 2008, Johnson tested the vision video concept in the Stillwater School District, east of Minneapolis, which serves the children in his hometown of Lake Elmo, Minn.
The free online creation and sharing of personal videos instantly proved both appealing and accessible to 120 tech-savvy fifth-graders at Lake Elmo Elementary School, including Johnson’s own son, Adam. Johnson says the reaction was just as positive among the 700 middle school kids who created Tel.A.Vision videos at nearby Oak-Land Junior High.
“One of my favorite stories is about an eighth-grader who had checked out, had not completed one assignment all year,” Johnson says. “She did her Tel.A.Vision video. And what she wrote in her diary was, ‘It’s about time somebody asked us what we want.’”
The completed pilot videos were shared during school community gatherings, as well as on the Tel.A.Vision Web site. This gave teachers, parents and peers new insights into each filmmaker—and often brought adults to tears during public viewings, Johnson says. One after another these imagined life stories were told as if they had already become reality: Madison, a horse lover, saw herself as an equine vet who would “adopt a starving child.” A boy named Nate would earn a culinary arts degree, open a beach restaurant, marry a pop star and teach skydiving. A seventh-grader named Haley charmingly shared multilayered plans for a happy, healthy life that include family and career goals.
And then there was T.J. “T.J. was a little kid with really skinny legs who was on my son’s basketball team,” says Johnson. “His whole video was about playing basketball for the University of Wisconsin. After seeing his video at a parent night, T.J.’s mom contacted me to say, ‘Thank you. I have always known that that was his vision, and I have always told him why it’s not possible. What I realized after watching his video is that it doesn’t matter if he ever plays basketball at the University of Wisconsin. What matters is that I support him in his vision.’”
It’s now a year later, Johnson continues, and “T.J. is the best player on my son’s team. His mom and dad and sisters and brothers come to every game. The dad is at every practice, always talking to the coach. T.J. has found his spark.”
Johnson credits his use of the word “spark” to Peter Benson, president and CEO of the Minneapolis-based Search Institute, which works with leading researchers to improve the lives of young people. “Peter Benson says the key to a healthy upbringing of any young person is to help him find his spark, and then have at least three adults that will support him in bringing it to reality,” Johnson explains.
Shelly Landry, lead counselor for Minneapolis Public Schools, was at a Search Institute conference last fall when a presentation on the potential use of Tel.A.Vision sparked her interest. Landry, who is also the president of the Minnesota Counselors Association, realized how easily this new video Web tool could dovetail with a career-planning initiative already underway in Minneapolis for the start of the 2009-2010 school year.
“Our district has a new requirement for graduation that we call ‘My Life Plan,’” Landry explains. “It’s a curriculum framework for college and career planning, with students needing to meet certain milestones in grades nine through 12, whether writing a resume, researching colleges, doing mock interviews or participating in real internships.” To graduate, seniors will need to complete a capstone project that reflects back on their high school career and clearly communicates their post-high school goals to others. “Tel.A.Vision fits very nicely with the personal, social and career domains that all school counselors need to address,” she says.
Tel.A.Vision also fits with the Minneapolis Public Schools’ use of the Web-based tool Naviance, Landry says. “Counselors can use Naviance to track student progress in academic, college and career planning. For example, the college search is built into Naviance. Students can upload their resumes into Naviance, so if they do a Tel.A.Vision, they can upload that into their portfolio,” she says.
Also excited about Tel.A.Vision are the 50 Minneapolis counselors and scores of AmeriCorps program directors throughout Minnesota who have already been trained in creating Tel.A.Vision videos. Then there’s the National Youth Leadership Council, which showcased Tel.A.Vision during its service learning convention in Nashville this spring. And in a letter of support to Johnson, David Walsh, founder of the National Institute for Media and the Family wrote that Tel.A.Vision “is an exciting technology and one capable of enriching the lives of millions.”
In fact, Johnson says, there’s nothing to keep every teacher and student in the country from accessing the free vision video tutorials and curriculum guides available at www.telavision.tv, then sharing the results.
“My vision is I want kids all over the world to create Tel.A.Visions,” Johnson says. “The most important thing you can do for kids is help them discover what they want their lives to become.”
Mary Johnson Patt is a freelance writer who lives outside Sacramento, Calif.