Particularly in the teenage years, it’s a really amazing thing for students to express themselves in a really positive and creative way.
This past April, Education Reimagined had the pleasure of catching up with four seniors from Bellevue Big Picture in Washington state. Their ambitious project, H.E.ART. Gallery, caught our attention in March at SXSW EDU.
In short, H.E.ART. (High-schoolers Expressing ART) Gallery was a charity project featuring a short-term pop-up gallery showcasing curated student artwork, with a culminating period where art was available for purchase. All proceeds have been donated through the Bellevue Schools Foundation to support Bellevue School District art programs.
When we heard about this work at SXSW EDU, we knew there was an even more powerful story beneath what they had time to present.
The story begins all the way back in 2011, when the four learners—Bella, Victoria, Joey, and Anjali—first walked through the doors of a Big Picture learning environment. The school had just been opened by the district, so the first cohort of young people were in many ways the creators of what it would become. And, as they entered this bold new experiment within their Seattle suburban school district, they began to immediately experience the power of what learner-centered education offers:
Joey: Starting as early as sixth grade, we were giving presentations to hundreds of people. Building that personal confidence and public speaking ability has been crucial in my development. It’s provided me with an advantage over traditional high school students because I can handle myself in a more professional manner and share my ideas in a way that is heard.
In sixth grade Advisory, we did what’s called the “Who am I?” project. We developed a collage of our lives. We then presented our collage to both the kids in our Advisory and their parents. As an introduction to public speaking, it’s virtually impossible to fail because you’re talking about yourself. I think that was a very good way to push us to presenting and public speaking.
Anjali: I grew up in a household with two very different cultures. My mom is Indian, but she was born in Jamaica and my dad is from Washington. As a result, I’ve always had this life of self-reflection. The collage project became the first opportunity for me to comfortably show people this is who I am and explain more about myself, instead of feeling like I was living a double life. Big Picture has really taught me how to be comfortable with who I am and not be afraid.
Bella: We also did a career presentation in sixth grade. I was obsessed with the Food Network and Cupcake Wars at this time. As such, I had convinced myself that I was going to be a baker. I carried this interest all the way to my first ninth grade internship.
I interned at a chocolate shop, which sounded like a dream—every Thursday, making chocolate for seven hours. Unfortunately, it wasn’t what I thought it would be. It became monotonous. However, that sixth grade presentation acted as a big catalyst in getting me to think about my future and the interests I wanted to explore.
Victoria: For me, The most significant part of the collage project was the public speaking component. It was my first experience doing anything like that. It gave me the opportunity to be vulnerable with my peers. My experience in Big Picture overall has had me focus on self-reflection. One of the best opportunities for this reflection came in the form of Restorative Circles.
If our advisor or teacher felt there was an issue in the class that needed to be addressed, they would host a Restorative Circle so that everyone in the room was seen and heard on the same level—whether we were all sitting in chairs or on the floor. Everyone was at eye-level with one another. I think those circles were a huge part of setting the culture at the school and making everyone reflective, inclusive, and honest with one another.
Thinking back, we were just getting the ball rolling in sixth grade. As the first group of students at the school, we didn’t have a mascot, school colors, school pride, or a student government. We’ve had to build all of that, and it’s been a big struggle figuring out who we are as a school.
After seven years, I think we’re on a really good track. As the school continues to progress, I think we’ll become the most in-demand school in the district. Today, I know there is a waiting list for the middle school. It shows how we just needed time to cultivate a culture within the school and the community overall.
It’s so rewarding when it’s all said and done—the feedback you get from attendees and the money raised for the nonprofit. It’s so good for my soul.
From our experience in the field, Education Reimagined has seen this culture of collaboration, honesty, independence, and inclusion permeating every community in the middle of a transformational learner-centered journey. Without fail, when we speak to learners in these environments, they echo similar sentiments to the one’s above. The most common of which are freedom and self-direction. And, Bellevue is no exception; each learner’s interests drove their growth and development as lifelong learners.
Joey: I developed an interest in web design through one of my Big Picture internships. I was a social media manager for a neurodevelopmental clinic in the Bellevue area. One of the tasks they wanted me to complete was to build them a website. I had done something similar for my parents a few years earlier, so I knew the basics, but for six months, I spent my time learning how to make a website so that it could be the best it could be for my internship mentor.
Throughout this process, I learned the structure of a website is very much like developing a physical business. Like a business, you have things operating in the background that make things run smoothly, and in the foreground, you have the aesthetics that make the experience enjoyable to the consumer. Through that interest, I began making websites as a consultant and started my own commercial business and have been generating revenue for myself.
Anjali: My first internship was with Voicebox Technologies—a company that works with speech recognition and natural language technologies. Overall, I was really interested in seeing the innovations coming through the tech world and how I could have my own input in how these technologies are developed. I’ve carried this interest in innovation with me. This fall, I’ll be studying chemistry at the University of Hawai’i. I’m really interested in pioneering some new methods in the chemical and natural sciences field.
Beyond that specific interest, no matter what business I go into, there are three key things I need—finance, marketing, and management skills. Let’s say I’m working in a lab. I need to be able to finance my research, market that research to potential investors, and manage my own time and my research team. That’s how those elements play into my future career goals.
Bella: It was a bittersweet moment when my dream as a baker fell through. I’m a bit of a future thinker, so I was already looking into Le Cordon Bleu and planning my future education. But, having the opportunity to learn well in advance that this might not be my passion has allowed me to explore other things I may not have explored otherwise. I probably wouldn’t be talking with you right now had I not experienced that internship. Figuring that out in advance was really helpful, and at the same time, I had to let go of a really large part of my past. That culinary love is still there, but it’s taken a different shape.
Right after I left my baking internship, I was trying to figure out where to go next. I began by simply exploring things that I liked. I loved Instagram, so I thought about getting an internship around social media. I ended up contacting the Bellevue Art Museum and became their Social Media Marketing Intern. It was my first step into the art, marketing, and nonprofit worlds. That’s when I started developing my love for business. I liked the creative freedom and interacting with people who were on the receiving end of what I created.
Following that internship, I did social media strategy for a company on Mercer Island. Working on strategy allowed me to see why the things I was creating were successful—this was really eye-opening. While interning there, I got to work with two bloggers who had been witness to the rise of social media marketing and the impacts it had on their work. As much fun as the social media side of things was, I wanted to do more. I wanted to create a platform and following, like those bloggers had—that’s where the entrepreneurship side of things came into play.
Victoria: My first internship was love at first sight. I interned with the Bellevue Schools Foundation—which now serves as our fiscal agent for the H.E.ART. Gallery project. It’s really all come full circle for me. When I interned there, I was involved with event planning. I helped plan their largest annual fundraiser—a 1,000-person lunch. I got to sit on their planning committee and learn about donor cultivation and fundraising. Throughout the planning process, I learned how to work with caterers and other vendors—I loved it. My entire career at Big Picture has been going from nonprofit to nonprofit and switching between marketing, business, and branding.
In general, I’m a really organized person, so event planning really suits my personality. I can keep track of things really well, I’m good at managing, and I love how fast-paced it is. When I was little, I would volunteer at an auction my mom helped with. I would always be asked to do these oddball tasks, and I would be running around all day—I had so much fun doing it.
It’s interesting. I spend four-months planning this single event and after one night, it’s all over. It’s so rewarding when it’s all said and done—the feedback you get from attendees and the money raised for the nonprofit. It’s so good for my soul.
Being on a project where we’re talking about design and color schemes, that’s so outside what I’m used to doing. Getting to work in these areas and broaden my skills has been the biggest benefit for me while working on this project.
As the four learners pursued their own paths and built on their unique strengths, an unexpected opportunity arose their senior year to come together behind something new. All thanks to the encouragement and push of one of their advisors.
Bella: Victoria and I share the same advisor, Kaarina, and she is absolutely amazing. Going into my senior year, I originally wanted to stay at the internship I’d had my junior year, but she encouraged me to do something more outside the box. With that encouragement, I saw an opportunity to take on something more entrepreneurial. With Victoria as an extremely close friend of mine, I knew she might have a similar interest.
Victoria: I hopped on board with Bella’s idea immediately, and we began thinking of people in our grade who we could work well with and who would bring different skills to the table that we didn’t have. For example, we knew Bella had the social media skills and I had developed skills in event planning. We then came up with Joey and Anjali. Joey could do the web design side of things, and Anjali had an interest in taking on the financial side.
After we established the team, we had to sell this idea to our school. The school wasn’t on board with the idea at first because they weren’t sure about four people working on the same project. We didn’t have a space to work on Thursdays (when we would typically be out at our internship), and we didn’t have a mentor for the project. This was so outside the box that they weren’t sure it could be successful. We had to create a business plan, propose possible mentors, and discover where we would do the work. We had to sell it to the principals and advisors.
Encouraging the creation of more of spaces where kids can be creative and express their emotions is paramount.
The team’s passion and preparedness were undeniable, and with the school’s eventual sign-off, they were quickly off and running with their newfound project. During their seven-month journey, they learned many important lessons—through failures and successes alike.
Victoria: One of my biggest takeaways has been developing my networking skills. Throughout all of our internships here, we build a fantastic network of mentors and teachers. With H.E.ART., those networks have helped us get really far.
I had connections in the nonprofit sector. And, Anjali had connections in the news and media sectors. I never understood the power of that network and how influential it could be to our success. If we had started from scratch without access to these networks, I don’t think it would have been as successful.
Anjali: The biggest thing for me has been trying new things. This entire project has been so outside the realm of things I normally choose to participate in—data analytics or STEM studies. Being on a project where we’re talking about design and color schemes, that’s so outside what I’m used to doing. Getting to work in these areas and broaden my skills has been the biggest benefit for me while working on this project.
Bella: My biggest struggle throughout the project was understanding where I should dedicate my time and recognizing when my ideas were too big. There’s so much we want to do as a team and so many directions we want to take the project in. But, understanding we only had seven hours a week to work together, we couldn’t talk to every student or teacher and tell them why they should be a part of the gallery.
So, I’ve learned a lot about prioritization. I want to do everything and having other people on my team who can be my check in that area has been a great learning experience. If I hadn’t learned that skill, the gallery would have suffered. If I would have tried everything at once, the project would have been too thin and wouldn’t have been as powerful as it turned out to be.
From the beginning, the H.E.ART. team wanted to elevate and amplify the importance of art education. At the end of our conversation with the team, we wanted to know why this topic was so important to them. Their words are more powerful than anything we could write.
Bella: Encouraging the creation of more of spaces where kids can be creative and express their emotions is paramount. Art education funding is shockingly low. Only 1% of the $300 million budget our district allocates every year goes to art education. We, as students, see how important it is, so showing others its importance is pivotal.
We asked our artists: “Why is H.E.ART. Gallery important to you?” In more traditional schools, art classes are often the only place you get to make something that’s completely your own, and nobody is telling you how you should do it. Particularly in the teenage years, it’s a really amazing thing for students to express themselves in a really positive and creative way.
Victoria: I think H.E.ART. Gallery is about showing artists it’s a suitable career for them. We’re trying to say, “Here’s a platform for your artwork, and people are willing to buy it. It’s something you should stick with because it does have a positive influence on so many people’s lives.” It’s so important that we show them their creative outlet matters, even if it simply remains a hobby for them.