How the Learning Happens: The Story of the Snow Ball by Michelle Loucas
It was a cold February night, and the school was full of anticipation. Two 14-year old students had spearheaded the first ever dance at the Philly Free School, and, after months of planning, it was finally coming to fruition. Our 60s-era skating rink was festooned with silver and blue decorations, a DJ station was set up, and the food table was loaded up with snacks and treats. At 6:00, the doors opened, and the Snow Ball began!
While the story behind the Snow Ball is one of glitter and good times, the real story goes deeper. The students who created a school-wide event out of good ideas, hard work, and perseverance illustrate how the learning happens at schools like ours. As with most endeavors at PFS, the roaring success (or failure) of the end product doesn’t always allow the learning behind it to shine through. To try to bring some of that learning to light, I interviewed the Snow Ball architects and share their story with you here.
It started with Snapchat. Nadja went to a dance at another school and reached out to Taja via Snapchat, saying, ‘We should do one at PFS!” Taja was on board right away. They began brainstorming all the possibilities. “We spent hours making lists of our ideas in the Glass Office. We had a lot of great ideas-- some of them worked and some of them didn’t,” said Taja. One of the early decisions that led to their success was the realization that they needed buy-in from a broad group of stakeholders. They held numerous focus groups to gather input. “We had people from each age group in the school come and tell us what music they listened to, what food they liked, what games they wanted to play,” said Nadja. “From their suggestions, we compiled what we would and wouldn’t do.” For example, they adopted the candy suggestions, but not the hot chocolate, because, “we didn’t want to deal with mugs.” They debated renting a smoke machine at first, but decided against it: “We vetoed it when we realized we’d rather spend the money on food,” said Taja.
Listening to a lot of opinions was important, but it also became cumbersome. At one point, there were a dozen people involved in the planning. “Everyone loved the idea of being part of the team,” said Nadja. “Some people helped, and some people thought they helped! Some meetings got nothing done at all.” The process of putting all those good ideas into action was harder than they had expected. Like leaders the world over, Nadja and Taja learned that the input of stakeholders is crucial, but is only one piece of the puzzle to getting things done.
As any entrepreneur can tell you, fundraising was important to making their dreams a reality. The Snow Ball relied upon a few individual donors, and some very active bake sales. Taja and Nadja knew that cupcakes and brownies would sell like hotcakes (hot cupcakes?) within the school, so they planned to bake some at school. But they ran into some practical obstacles. “We were stressing because we weren’t certified for the kitchen and didn’t have the ingredients,” explained Nadja. They struck a deal with some of those who had earned their kitchen certification, and before they knew it, “other people were already selling baked goods when we got upstairs one day!” They raised their targeted dollar amount in just a few days and used the funds for a variety of decorations and food.
Another powerful lesson was in the volunteer management department. While Nadja and Taja were definitely the leaders of the project, they learned about the power of many hands. “There were a lot of amazing volunteers,” they said. Even cleaning the school, before and after the event, was enthusiastically taken on by them and their peers. At the end of the night, Nadja said, “More people stayed to help than we expected, including our guests. Some things didn’t get put back where they should have been, but we figured it out.” At the same time, they experienced some disappointments. Taja explained: “People liked the idea of helping, but didn’t like to do the work. Once we were doing budgeting, the more people in the room, the harder it was to get it done.” This lead to some important take-aways: “Just because people want to help doesn’t mean you should let them!” said Nadja. They also learned some key elements of leadership. Taja realized that orchestrating a big project like this requires segmenting the work, “You should have a committee for each thing: food, decorations, School Meeting approval, etc.” As Nadja put it, “The key is… delegating! If you know what you want to get done, you can’t do it all yourself. You have to put people in charge of getting it done for you.” For more on the importance of women in leadership, and of the development of young women, specifically, as leaders, take a look at this research.
Managing others is one aspect of leadership, but collaboration within the leadership team is another. “Communication was one of the things we did wrong,” said Taja. Nadja agreed, adding, “We needed to be on the same page with each other 100% of the time. Sometimes we planned separately and sometimes together, so we didn’t know what the other was doing.” The result was some moments of great frustration, where each thought the other had handled things when they hadn’t, as well as some duplication of effort.
Attention to detail, and meeting the expectations of those in authority, were also challenges. One of the hardest parts of the process was getting School Meeting’s approval. The information sheet and permission slip went through many versions before School Meeting agreed that they met the school's standard. Nadja explained, “We thought we had it all figured out, but School Meeting said no. We messed up so much. Every single piece of paper that represents the school has to be completely correct, and I wasn’t used to that.” Taja elaborated, “We sent out the wrong flyer several times. We had to go to JC and explain that we were going to correct it.” There were times when they thought about dropping the whole idea. “I don’t know why we kept going-- maybe it was our friends or the little kids telling us how excited they were-- but we learned don’t give up,” said Nadja.
This lesson in perseverance paid off, because School Meeting did approve the final version of the plan, and the night was absolutely magical. Nadja and Taja shared some highlights, rapid fire: “It looked really beautiful. The little kids loved it. We all brought guests. There were games. We created more at the last minute, too, like limbo!” There was also some drama with the music, mid-event: “Our DJ, a student, got overwhelmed because people were suggesting music that wasn’t on the approved list. We almost fired him, but he ended up being a great DJ. It all worked out. Now people expect it to be a yearly thing!”
Their final take-aways were variations on a theme. Nadja said, “Try your best to make things work, because often they will!” Taja’s reflection on the experience was, “It takes a lot of work, stress, and communication. But you can’t succeed if you don’t try!” The determination to push through difficulties is a quality that will serve them well in many future endeavors, as articulated here and elsewhere. Calvin Coolidge expressed it thus,
Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan Press On! has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.
The Snow Ball is a testament to the many skills being developed here, including perseverance, leadership, volunteer management, entrepreneurship, attention to detail, and coalition building. The night of fun and the hours of work behind it bode well for good things to come from our unstoppable PFS students!