When Carlos Velazquez Vega was in the eighth grade, he started his own lawn care business. By the summer prior to his senior year of high school, he owned three push mowers, three weed whackers, a riding lawn mower and had enough business from doing his own marketing that he had to hire a friend to help him out.
“One day I was cutting the lawns and I realized that I didn’t want to do this for the rest of my life, work this hard for the rest of my life,” said Vega, who pointed to another pivotal moment in his eighth-grade year – the first time he created a video for a class. “I was able to help my group bring to life something that you couldn’t see. Filmmaking was a part of me. So, I told myself I was going to express myself with filmmaking, no matter what.”
Vega was supported in his efforts to make connections between what he loved – filmmaking – and his high school experiences because his school district, Kenowa Hills Public Schools in Grand Rapids, Michigan, practices a form of personalized learning that they call personal mastery. Students show what they’ve learned in a variety of ways, rather than just taking a test or writing a paper, and are provided opportunities to know themselves deeply as learners through collaboration, reflection and a focus on relationship-building with their educators and peers. This type of deeply collaborative learning not only encourages students to make meaningful connections between what they’re learning and what they’re passionate about, but also gives them ample practice in critically thinking about and applying their learning in partnership with their teachers.
And Vega’s relationships extended all the way to the school board.
Inspiration in the classroom, inspiration in the district.
In Vega’s film and literature class during his senior year, their first assignment was to make a two- to three-minute video on anything they wanted.
“We got into a group and I told them that I wanted to make a video that wouldn’t die in this classroom,” said Vega. “I wanted everyone to see it – I wanted to make something that would be shared, that would inspire people.”
So, at Vega’s suggestion, he and his group developed an anti-bullying video, which was shared first by their teacher with other teachers, and then with the principal, the superintendent and the school board.
“I felt like I was no longer hiding from what I loved to do,” said Vega, who reflects on the moment he was walking down the hallway in his high school and could hear all the teachers playing the video for their students during advisory time. “It gave me the biggest inspiration, bringing something I envisioned into reality.”
How a student’s perspective helped contribute to school improvements.
The anti-bullying video Vega created with his group also caught the attention of the individual responsible for district marketing. She came to visit Vega at school and asked him to create a video for Teacher Appreciation Week. A few weeks after the overwhelming positive reception of that video, she returned again. This time, she asked for Vega’s help in creating a video to support a $55 million dollar bond the district was working to pass to make essential school improvements and meet identified and ongoing needs within the district. Vega recalls capturing footage of aging areas in the schools, and the feeling that it made a lot of sense to him to have a student perspective on the need for the bond to pass. And, thanks to Vega’s efforts and those of many others, it did.
“When the video was done I was called into the office. They had a whole bunch of gift cards for me from teachers, the superintendent. There was maybe $300 in gift cards,” Vega explained. “It was my first payment for a video. I’d never gotten paid. It inspired me more – I could do what I loved and make money.”
“The kid with the video camera” goes to college.
Vega graduated from Kenowa Hills High School in 2016, and is currently pursuing a degree in film and media at Compass College of Cinematic Arts in Grand Rapids. When he returns to the district, he is still recognized by educators and district leaders, is still “the kid with the video camera.” Kenowa Hills’ investment in personalized learning provided the structure Vega needed to know himself, to make meaningful connections between his passions and his learning experiences and to imagine a professional future that involved something that he loved.
Vega was also able to see, through the community he participated in within the district, how his work could transcend his own immediate sphere of influence.
“I still get comments on my videos on YouTube,” Vega said. “The anti-bullying video opened all of those doors for me, helping me find myself, find opportunities.”