In quest to use technology to help at-risk youth, Texas school earns Microsoft WE Are One grant.

By Zoe Demarco

 

A group of teenagers toting video cameras descends on a local fire station, their faces disguised by wolf masks. A dark-haired woman with a large grey-and-black dog leads the pack as they tiptoe up to the entrance. Anyone watching would suspect mischief. But it’s not Halloween and these are no vandals.

Students from the nearby Pathfinder Achievement Center—and their emotional support dog, Herschel—are filming the outing for their peers. Some of their friends can’t leave campus, so the pack acts as their proxy.

The neighbourhood around Pathfinder, in downtown Garland, Texas, is bursting with life. In less than a kilometre you can find a performing arts centre, museums, historic buildings and manicured parks. It’s the perfect place to take a walk, but that’s not something all Pathfinder kids can effortlessly do.

The 60 students at Pathfinder have had adverse childhood experiences. Some have suffered a life crisis. Others are living with mental health conditions. The majority are in the care of Child Protective Services. Some aren’t allowed to use social media, or speak on the phone without supervision. The only place they are able to visit—beyond their sanctioned home residence—is Pathfinder.

Pathfinder students visit the local fire station.

Finding their angles

For students who aren’t ready to have social interactions, or whose public outings are restricted for their safety, watching videos is the only way to experience the world outside Pathfinder. It can also help them become more comfortable with the idea of one day exploring it themselves. Virtually experiencing the sounds they’ll hear, the places they’ll see and the people they’ll meet helps to ease their social anxiety for a real-life trip.

For students who can leave, these video outings offer the chance to build social skills by interacting with new people and places. So far, they’ve visited the aforementioned fire station and a pet adoption centre, with plans to go to a local church and library in the coming months.

They wear the wolf masks—the school’s mascot—on excursions to hide their faces in photos and videos, and to help them feel more at ease around strangers. They call themselves a “pack family.”

“The videos are pretty important, especially because we don’t really go out of the school unless we have a fieldtrip,” said one 15-year-old boy in ninth grade. “It’s important to me because I’m able to get away from being in the school, and I get to spend time with other people.”

For their safety, student’s names cannot be printed (we can’t know the specific details of their situations). But that hasn’t stopped them from gaining recognition.

Quote. They just get very excited about sharing their stories. It gives them a voice when sometimes they feel like they haven't had one. Unquote.

This ingenious use of technology as a tool for social good has earned Pathfinder a Microsoft WE Are One grant to help their project grow. Each year, Microsoft and WE provide grants to WE Schools groups across North America to support their plans to use technology to make their school or community more accessible and inclusive. Pathfinder was awarded $2,500 as a first place winner. This year, five $1,000 prizes are up for grabs.

“These videos represent the student’s own work,” says Marcie Adame, the school’s PE teacher. Though the project was her idea, she says the students made it their own.

“It’s a really important part of building their self-esteem. They have so much pride in what they’ve created.”

Storyboarding

Marcie, now in her fourth year at Pathfinder, was searching for a way to incorporate purposeful physical activity into her student’s lives. They don’t get out to play very often. After she noticed how much Herschel put her students at ease—the canine companion acts as a natural icebreaker and takes people’s focus off the children—she began to take the pack on short walks around the perimeter of the school.

The idea to film the outings followed. At a conference, Marcie discovered how virtual reality can prepare autistic children for new experiences. Research proves that practice tours can lessen anxiety before visiting unfamiliar places in real life. Her younger students were already doing something similar, watching short videos about people’s ordinary lives: what jobs they had, where they lived, where they worked.

Marcie gathered old cameras and presented them to her students, giving them the freedom to create what they pleased.

“Any time I can put technology or equipment in their hands, they have that level of control that they often are searching for,” she says. “They just get very excited about sharing their stories. It gives them a voice when sometimes they feel like they haven’t had one.”

Since they began creating the videos, Marcie says her students have come out of their shells and warmed up to the idea of going beyond the walls of Pathfinder. In addition to the longer recordings that depict their field trips, students have created hundreds of shorter clips that showcase their own lives. These videos can be a form of communication when words fail them, says Marcie. Quote. Technology is absolutely a tool for social change. It's making our world so much more accessible. Unquote.

The aforementioned ninth grade student said that the videos have made it easier for him to communicate with his peers who have different abilities. He says that some of his classmates who have autism aren’t able to say what they think of the videos, but can point to their favourite parts and laugh when they think something is funny. He doesn’t get the same excited reaction when he describes the outings verbally.

Plot twist

Winning the WE Are One grant came as a huge surprise. Pathfinder is small, and the competing schools’ technical projects were impressive. But the wolf pack’s innovative, inclusionary idea helped them emerge victorious.

Pathfinder will use the grant money to invest in newer, more portable equipment, like smaller cameras and tablets. Purchasing editing software and training students to properly use it will eliminate the need to outsource that step of the video-making process (currently, the task is given to AV clubs at other schools in the district). These new skills will also help the students become more self-reliant—something that Pathfinder strives to do. A camera stabilizer will be a key purchase as well. These tools will increase production quality, helping students turn out better videos for their classmates. They’ll be able to film and cut their own stories in a way that makes them proud. Marcie also plans to create webinars to show other educators how they can use technology to create more inclusive classrooms.

“Technology is absolutely a tool for social change. It’s making our world so much more accessible,” says Marcie. “I feel like the more experiences our students have with the world around them gives them the opportunity to see how wonderful life can be for them, because it often hasn’t started that way.”