Navigating Our Way: Amplifying the Value of Multiple Post-Secondary Pathways

Voices from the Field | Insights   28 August 2018
By Elliot Washor, Big Picture Learning, The Met Center, and Chris Jackson, Big Picture Learning


Navigating Our Way imagines a (near) future when the stigma around the trades has vanished, and all educational pathways are appreciated and properly resourced.

Elliot Washor and Chris Jackson

Meet Sylvie and Seymour—best friends who grew up loving the New Orleans harbor. The big ships and majestic sounds of the water inspired Sylvie and Seymour to dream about the endless potential that laid ahead of them. As they grew up, they learned about and opted for two different pathways through learning and life.

Seymour became the first of his family to be accepted to college. Sylvie followed her passion for the trades, a passion passed down through multiple generations of family boat builders.

Theirs is the story of Navigating Our Way—a leading national initiative committed to shifting how society values career and technical education and the skilled trades, so all students may follow their interests and pursue their passions.

Sylvie and Seymour’s stories are but one part of a much larger narrative—the stories of countless youth who find themselves choosing between their interests and what others may perceive as their “destinies.” Together, these stories form a national invitation to have an open conversation about the possibilities our children believe they have access to while embarking on their learning journeys.

A recent Wall Street Journal article tells the story of Raelee Nicholson, a student from the Pittsburgh suburbs who was bound for the Ivy Leagues. Instead, going against the advice of adults from her community who feared she was wasting her potential, Raelee enrolled in a two-year technical program to become a certified diesel mechanic.

Raelee’s story is framed as a response to the rising costs of college and calls to the reader’s attention the country’s need for trades-based workers. This story is a good start. However, the co-creators of Navigating Our Way, along with our friends at FableVision Studios, have a broader desire to raise the reputation of the trades—allowing students to follow their interests and pursue their passions, whatever they may be.

Why the Need?

Over 80% of high school graduates who go into CTE-concentrated postsecondary programs depart these fields of study before earning their certifications. Why? Because many students who enroll in CTE-concentrations were never interested in those fields in the first place.

As underserved populations find themselves priced out of the traditional four-year undergraduate experience, they opt for lower-cost vocational programs. Due to their shoestring budget, the slightest hint of disinterest or a desire to switch programs forces them to walk away from the pursuit altogether. More classes and a delayed completion of the program equals more money they simply can’t afford to spend. Make no mistake, this is an equity issue.

Then there is another population of students—the Sylvies and Raelees of the world—who love to work with their hands, heads, and hearts. These students dream of a post-secondary life in the trades—often because of the joy they’ve observed from others who work in these fields. Yet, somewhere along the way, these students are steered toward a more traditional college experience due to an unfortunate social conditioning in our country that places less value on trades-based pathways.

Through cultivating and supporting learning environments that emphasize serious and deliberate, interest-based learning practices, combined with the power of mentoring relationships, the intent of Navigating Our Way is to give students a strong sense of identity, confidence, and purpose—no matter their path. If we give students the opportunity to follow their own paths, the dynamic and skilled workforce we so badly desire will be made sustainable by enthusiastic and engaged people.

Storytelling: A Tool for Change

For Navigating Our Way to be successful as a movement, we knew we needed a tool powerful enough to create dramatic social-cultural change.

We’re big fans of data, but data often gives permission to ignore the exceptions and follow the rules. We needed a tool that could make the exceptions—like an Ivy League bound diesel mechanic—be seen as unexceptional. That tool was storytelling.

With storytelling—and particularly storytelling through animation—we wanted to create an opportunity for viewers to see themselves in the characters. FableVision Studios has a long history of accomplishing this. Through film, museum exhibits, apps, websites and—perhaps most famously—through children’s literature, FableVision creates “stories that matter, stories that move.”

The desire they share with Big Picture Learning is to help all learners reach their full potential, which is on full display in books such as The Dot, Ish, Sky Color and the new New York Times bestseller, The Word Collector.

Sylvie and Seymour’s version of Navigating Our Way is just the first of several films our teams plan to create together. Each film will inspire people of all ages to rethink how they perceive and value vocational education and professions. Through these stories, we plan to challenge society’s powerful narratives around race, class, and gender. We—and our viewers—will grapple with the false notion that skills-based jobs are less important, less prestigious, and less intellectually demanding.

Designing Stories Around the Power of Community

In Navigating Our Way, Sylvie and Seymour are drawn into a community of trades people down at the Port of New Orleans—builders, carpenters, plumbers, machine and crane operators, and electricians. They are captivated by the rhythm of the docks: the smells, sounds, voices, and movements. The organic flow of work from person to person. They learn from a community of mentors who model and share how one can use “hands, heads, and heart” to navigate a successful life journey.

Choosing New Orleans as the setting for our first film was nearly as important as the story itself. The deep musical tradition, the booming industrial economy, and the communities give life to a city that is a testament to the power of the trades. In New Orleans, a career on the docks as a longshoreman is just as acceptable a life path as heading to college. It just made sense that Sylvie and Seymour would find their home in the Big Easy.

When designing Sylvie and Seymour, we knew the duo had to reflect the city’s racial diversity and make clear that higher learning opportunities—whether a four-year college or the trades—are open to all. Their designs, and the overall script for the animation were informed by a consulting team of New Orleans’ and national educators—including several from New Harmony High School, a new Big Picture Learning network school scheduled to open in Fall 2018. Indeed, the idea behind New Harmony’s “school on a barge” design serves as the basis for the project that brings Sylvie and Seymour back together—a school on the water which Sylvie proudly exclaims she and Seymour would have loved as kids!

With a city as vibrant and iconic as New Orleans, the art and design had to capture the city’s unique atmosphere. Research on New Orleans neighborhoods led the team to base the story in the 9th Ward, bordered by Bayou Bienvenue, the Mississippi River, and the Industrial Canal. Even the warm colors were directly inspired by the sunset seen from the levee.


We are excited by a growing movement among kindred spirits who are pushing for more creative and effective models of learning for students looking to pursue their own interests.

Elliot Washor and Chris Jackson

To finish things off, we recruited New Orleans’ natives Wendell Pierce and Brian Richburg, Jr. to provide the narration and musical score for the film. Many will know Wendell Pierce from his roles in The Wire and Selma. Brian Richburg, Jr, while not yet a household name, is an up-and-coming musical prodigy.

Music is a way of life in New Orleans. It’s part of the city’s very DNA, its spirit. And, to capture that spirit for Navigating Our Way, Brian created a composition that reflects the distinct percussive rhythm, sounds, and tradition of his city and its waterways.

Brian is a percussionist by trade and was recently named one of five students from underserved communities nationwide to receive a four-year, full tuition scholarship to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he currently studies. But, Brian is quick to point out the distinct difference between learning in school and learning in your community. “At Berklee, you learn from your peers. In New Orleans, you learn from your elders.”

Brian’s story is yet another example of a person who is leading a high-value lifestyle through skilled work that fits his passions and interests. Navigating Our Way wants to make Brian’s story and experience a core fiber within the fabric of learning across the nation. We want to show this fiber—a metaphorical expression of trades-based work—represents more than just making a living. It represents the opportunity for millions of learners to make a life they, their families, and their communities can be proud of and thankful for.

The Goals

Navigating Our Way imagines a (near) future when the stigma around the trades has vanished, and all educational pathways are appreciated and properly resourced. We envision an educational system that prioritizes students’ interests as pathways for navigating successful personal and professional journeys. We hope for an end to the “college-for-all” mindset, which leads many young people into academic pathways that often result in few skills, crippling debt, and disinterest.

Above all, we are excited by a growing movement among kindred spirits—including partners of ours in this effort: FableVision Studios, Harbor Freight Tools for Schools, and the Stuart Foundation—who are pushing for more creative and effective models of learning for students looking to pursue their own interests.

If this is truly to become a national movement toward evolving traditional schools, we recognize that we must collectively:

  • Expand successful models of education that leverage each student’s interests into practical and valuable skills, which help develop their sense of identity, confidence, and purpose;
  • Build one-to-one relationships between students and mentors, so that learners can acquire hands-on, collaborative working skills; and
  • Connect students to a larger community of practice through which they may develop critical networks for building social, professional, and economic capital.

If we’re successful in accomplishing these three goals, we believe that Navigating Our Way, as a movement, can reinvigorate work both in and outside of schools by:

  1. encouraging young people to follow their interests;
  2. illustrating that the trades are an equally robust and intellectually rigorous life pathway; and
  3. showing the civic value of people contributing to the growth of their own communities, as well as the value of communities contributing to the growth of their own young people.

A Call to Action

Sylvie and Seymour’s story is just the first Navigating Our Way tale to be told. As Raelee Nicholson’s experience illustrates, there are many more narratives that, when shared, will collectively raise up the notion that many different, and equal, pathways lay before our nation’s youth.

In an ambitious effort to collect these stories en masse, we want to hear your Navigating Our Way story. What is your life’s passion? How have you pursued it in ways that may be perceived as non-traditional? Who were the people who helped you navigate your path through learning? Where are you now as a result of your pursuit of learning through your own interests? What advice would you give others who are faced with a similar decision? Submit your story here.

Together, let’s help students navigate their way through multiple post-secondary paths—all different, none better.

For more information on Navigating Our Way, visit, or contact Elliot Washor at

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