CMU project records thousands of students as they talk about what matters to them
Kaylee Kendrick, 10, a fourth-grader of Homeville Elementary in West Mifflin, reacts after recording for the "Hear Me Project" at school while classmate Samantha Smidansky, 10, listens.
Jeff Baron, right, director of Education & Outreach of SLB Radio Productions, gives a high-five to Jaden Black, 10, a fourth-grader of Homeville Elementary in West Mifflin after recording for the "Hear Me Project."
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Students at Homeville Elementary School in West Mifflin have big plans for their futures. They want to become inventors, scientists, soldiers, dance teachers, school teachers, singers, veterinarians, professional athletes -- even a female wrestler.
Last week, the Homeville students got to talk about those plans and have them recorded for posterity through a project called "Hear Me," an effort of the Carnegie Mellon University's Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment lab.
The goal is to record children as they talk about what is important in their lives in the hopes of effecting change based on their comments.
Heide Waldbaum, director of Hear Me, said so far more than 3,000 stories have been recorded in the past year from children in southwestern Pennsylvania who range from preschool to 12th grade.
"Nine times out of 10, when you ask kids about things, they are shocked that you care what they think," Ms. Waldbaum said.
While younger children may talk about topics such as career choices, older students have broached issues including bullying, anxiety about the transition from middle school to high school, dating violence, personal safety and concern about the cost of college.
Among the school districts that have participated so far are Elizabeth Forward, Pittsburgh Public, Brownsville Area, Clairton, Gateway, Greensburg Salem, McKeesport Area. South Allegheny, Steel Valley, Monessen, Propel charter schools and some private schools, including the Waldorf School of Pittsburgh, Ms. Waldbaum said.
Other schools, libraries and early education and child care centers are scheduled to participate in Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Greene, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland counties.
The 2-year-old project is funded through the Grable, Pittsburgh, Benedum and Buhl foundations along with a fifth anonymous donor. The first year was dedicated to organization and fundraising, with recording starting in the second year. This summer, video recordings will be added.
Other partners are the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children, which is providing preschool-age children for the project, and Carnegie Library, which has recording areas set up at some branches. The project also hopes to travel to county fairs and other community gatherings this summer.
With younger students, the interviewers use prompts. Older students, however, often speak about what's on their minds.
The interviewers try to focus on themes such as health and wellness, environment, education, technology, media, and inspiration and growth.
"A lot of the interviews in the schools focus on how teachers can be more involved with students, and bullying is a big topic along with cyberbullying," Ms. Waldbaum said.
The recorded messages are available at www.tell-port.net.
Plans call for having listening stations throughout the community at such places as libraries and community centers. One is at the Children's Museum on the North Side.
Among the recordings on the website is one from a 13-year-old girl in the Monessen City School District who talked about how she let her grades fall in seventh grade because teachers didn't continually check on her as they did in elementary school.
A 9-year-old girl from Barrett Elementary in the Steel Valley School District spoke of being bullied in third grade and advised other students who are being bullied to report it to an adult.
A 14-year-old boy from the University Prep at Pittsburgh Milliones spoke of how he and his brother were outside playing in their neighborhood on a bright sunny day in 2004 when they were forced inside by gunfire.
When the Hear Me project visited the Greensburg Salem School District, the topic was middle school students' concerns about going to high school, said Brian Barca, program assistant with the Consortium for Public Education, another partner in the project.
One student was particularly worried and overwhelmed, and Mr. Barca said that student's comments were played for the high school principal and guidance counselor. The student was invited to the school for a tour and to meet with staff to allay his fears.
Ms. Waldbaum said another student talked about her family's move from Pittsburgh to Texas and back to Pittsburgh and the fact they had to live in a homeless shelter for a while.
"There was also a girl who says she doesn't feel like the teachers really care about students but are just going through the motions, not paying attention to them as individuals," she said.
At Homeville Elementary, the students prepared for their interviews by writing and illustrating books on the professions they'd like to pursue when they grow up. The topic was chosen by the school's administration and teachers. Eight classrooms participated, with second-grade teacher Jill Jakub working as coordinator for the project.
A classroom was turned into a makeshift recording studio and students sat across from interviewer Jeff Baron, director of education and outreach for Saturday Light Brigade Radio Productions Inc., a technical partner in Hear Me, providing audio resources.
Mr. Baron recorded the students' comments, and Mr. Barca, of the Consortium for Public Education, helped him with the interviews. The Consortium, through its contacts with school districts, has helped to gather students to participate in the project.
"The consortium's involvement is about connecting all of these different school districts and students in different areas for the benefit of education as a whole," Mr. Barca said.
At Homeville, Jayda Thompson, 8, decided she'd like to be a female wrestler after watching the sport on television. "I will win and lose and probably become a champion," she said.
Hands-on science experiments at school have convinced classmate Dominic Timko, 9, that he'd like to be a scientist. "I have to get good grades and go to college and maybe someday I will make cures for sicknesses," Dominic said.
Olivia Bost, 8, wants to turn her love of Hawaiian dance into a career as a professional dance teacher. She demonstrated how to tell a story through Hawaiian dance with specific movements representing the ocean, sun and shore.
Alaysia Poindexter, 9, wants to be an artist "because you can express yourself." Vincent Colclough, also 9, wants to be a marine biologist so he can "protect sea animals." Sydney Tichon, 8, said she wants to be a professional singer like her father, Matt.
Kindergartner Nathan Ezykowsly, 6, wants to be a cop "to protect the neighborhood," and Zack Shaffer, 10, wants to be a police officer "so bad things don't happen and people don't die."
Katrina Muha, 10, wants to race horses, while Hayden Wilson, 9, wants to drive race cars.
Some of the students stuck strictly to the scripts they had prepared. But others conversed with their interviewers on other topics such as their favorite animals, colors and sports and a few sang into the microphone upon request.
Mr. Barca said in the school districts where he has been involved in the Hear Me sessions, the students' comments are always played for school officials so they can hear what is on the students' minds.
"When teachers hear this, they realize this isn't just another project. This is a project that's going to help build relationships and, even more, build trust in your classrooms, and it's really going to allow you to adapt to overcome obstacles and reach kids on a whole new level," Mr. Barca said.
"This project is about opening our ears and listening -- and not just listening but responding."
Correction/Clarification: (Published May 26, 2011) Children's stories recorded through the Hear Me project are available at www.tell-port.net. The web address was incorrect last Thursday in a story about the project.
First Published May 19, 2011 12:00 am