By Frank Wells
The entire AP Literature class at Village Academy that created the video "Is Anybody Listening?"
Imagine your class produced a video called “Is Anybody Listening?” and it turned out the president of the United States was doing just that.
That’s what happened to Associated Pomona Teachers member Michael Steinman and his Village Academy High School AP Literature students on March 10 when President Obama spoke at length about their class project in a major speech on education policy before the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
As the president began to close his remarks, he spoke of the chance for success his own teachers, parents and America had given him. Then he said: “I want children like Yvonne Bojorquez to have that chance. Yvonne is a student at Village Academy High School in California. ...
“A couple of months ago, Yvonne and her class made a video talking about the impact that our struggling economy was having on their lives. Some of them spoke about their parents being laid off, or their homes facing foreclosure, or their inability to focus on school with everything that was happening at home. When it was her turn to speak, Yvonne said: ‘We’ve all been affected by this economic crisis. [We] are all college-bound students. …We’re all businessmen and doctors and lawyers and all this great stuff. And we have all this potential, but the way things are going, we’re not going to be able to [fulfill it].’ 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?’”
The video the president spoke of originally started as a discussion and then a writing assignment. Steinman was leading a discussion on the American Dream and today’s economy, when he asked how the economic downturn was affecting students’ lives. He was shocked when nearly every class member raised a hand and had something powerful to say. The discussion was so moving that Steinman had them and his other classes write journal entries on the topic, with some students becoming so emotional that they were unable to read their own words aloud.
With encouragement from their teacher, the class of juniors and seniors worked after school to film and edit the video. In addition to Bojorquez’s concerns, student Evelyn Aguilar speaks of the heartbreak of her parents losing their home to rising interest rates, forcing the family to move in with an aunt and putting 12 people under one roof. Before waving the camera away in tears, Carlos Martinez expresses his worries about having to leave the country. Sonya Steward asks bluntly, “You just wonder, do people even care anymore?”
Steinman’s class released the nine-minute video in January, in which 14 other students also spoke candidly, unscripted, and often very emotionally about the impact of the economic crisis on their lives and on their dreams for the future. In addition to posting the video on YouTube (where it has since been viewed over 50,000 times), Steinman sent the project to local and national news agencies. The response was overwhelming, with local network and PBS stations broadcasting segments about the class, leading to a major segment on ABC’s “20/20.”
“The timing of the ‘20/20’ crew being here couldn’t have been better,” said Steinman. “because it was during that same period that I got the call from the White House.”
The class was stunned and then elated when Steinman held up a faxed copy of the speech which had just been given and Bojorquez told the class the news. “He saw it,” she said of the president and their video, to an eruption of applause and boisterous high fives. Then “20/20” correspondent David Muir pointed out where her name was mentioned in the text and had her read the words aloud for the class. While ABC cameras rolled, students in turn thanked Steinman for taking them this far.
A week after he had thrust them into the national spotlight, President Obama invited the class to meet with him and hear his speech on energy at the Edison International Vehicle Electrics Plant, which just happens to be across the street from the Village Academy.
“It was surreal,” said Steinman. “We took a short walk from school to sit in the front row of a speech given by the president of the United States.”
After the speech Steinman and the class were given a Secret Service escort to the area where the president would be exiting the facility. There they privately met face to face with the man whose attention they had dreamed of getting when he was a candidate just five months earlier.
Steinman was impressed with both the president and with his students. “He shook everyone’s hand and actually answered some pretty substantial policy questions from the kids.”
Steinman saw the entire experience as the ultimate learning opportunity. “I teach my kids about democracy and freedom of speech, and I wanted to show them if they have the courage to do something outside the box, they could be heroes themselves. I knew what they had to say was powerful. I wanted the people on Wall Street and the people in government who had caused all this damage to see that tape.”
“These kids just want a chance, an opportunity to work hard and make something special happen,” added Steinman. “And this experience has taught them that at least that version of the American Dream is still alive. They have the ability to dream, to make something of themselves, whatever that is. You can talk to the president, you can even be the president, but you have to have a dream.”
Student Chris Schultz concurs: “This made me believe that when one person puts their mind to it, they can do anything.”
Steinman, an eight-year veteran who fortunately didn’t get a pink slip this year, hopes society will change so that more students like his will have the opportunity to live out their dreams. And maybe it is changing. In his March 10 speech as he ended his remarks about their project, President Obama said, “There’s something I want to say to Yvonne and her class at Village Academy. I am listening. We are listening. America is listening.”
To view the Village Academy video, go to www.youtube.com and enter into the search “Is Anybody Listening?”