A strange kind of spotlight
In 2014, New Richmond native Jessica Stovall was awarded a Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching grant. She used that grant to conduct research in New Zealand on racial predictability of student achievement. As amazing as her experience in New Zealand was, she was not prepared for what was in store for her when she returned to teaching at Oak Park and River Forest High School in Oak Park, Ill.
"A few months after I returned from this incredibly transformative experience abroad, Steve James, an Academy Award nominated documentary film director, proposed to the school board to film a major documentary at my school. Suddenly there were film crews to get used to, and it was a year where I really learned about who I was through the reflective lens of the cameras," Stovall said.
"America to Me" by Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Steve James ("Hoop Dreams" and "Life Itself"), was a 10-episode series, which premiered Aug. 26, 2018, on STARZ and ran through Oct. 21. The documentary followed students, teachers and administrators over the course of a year as they grapple with racial and educational inequities. Stovall said she was an early proponent of the documentary from the beginning.
"Our achievement gap between black and white students was only growing, and it was clear that our current ways of being were not best practice. I thought that a documentary would be a good mirror for us to look into, that having an outsider give us perspective that we might not have been able to have otherwise would be a good tool for growth," Stovall said. "And so, I stood up at the board meeting where they were hearing public arguments about the possibility of a documentary, and I spoke candidly about why I thought we should allow the cameras in the building. I did this even though the administration was adamantly against the documentary, which felt like a risk at the time. But it shows just how much I believed in the project. And ultimately, the project was approved by the school board even without administrative support."
From there, Stovall sat down with James and told her story over a burger about growing up in New Richmond and feeling isolated as a woman of color teacher.
"I initially allowed filming in two of my classes, with the understanding that he'd come in just for a couple of weeks. Little did I know that I'd end up working with three of the four directors, and they'd be in my classroom nearly every week of the school year. But I don't regret the decision to be open and vulnerable, and I am so appreciative of the new family I gained from working with such an amazing team," Stovall said.
According to Stovall, there were a few different components to the documentary, first of which was filming in the classroom. The documentary followed 12 students throughout the school year with four, three-person film crews.
"They would always let me know when they would come in, and I had a lot of say of when that would happen. By the end though, they were in there sometimes days at a time because, as well as my own storyline which was done by Steve James, they were following two of my students, Diane and Ke'Shawn," Stovall said. "Because there were so many storylines in my room, it just so happened I had more filming in my room than most teachers. Besides the filming in my classroom, I also had 'on the fly' interviews, where they would surprise interview me before class started or right after."
Stovall also participated in longer, formal interviews, the first one lasting over seven hours. In addition, Stovall was filmed outside of school a few times, including at local restaurants and with her family in New Richmond.
"It was pretty wild having a film crew in the car for the six-hour drive from Chicago to New Richmond! Overall, it is really, really strange. I haven't met one teacher who has said to me, 'You know what, I want to be famous.' Our lives are pretty much the opposite of that. We have a very selfless job—pretty much everything we do is for other people, and we rarely get any sort of accolades for it," Stovall said. "But that's fine because that's not why we throw ourselves into this position. We are here for our students!
"So it's really strange to suddenly be in a spotlight, with people you don't know writing you emails or stopping you on the street. I think that's been the most interesting part of this whole experience."
The biggest thing Stovall took away from the documentary was the power of the counter narrative and how important it is to question and interrupt the problematic ideas about "our young black and brown students."
"We may think we know why there are gaps in achievement between black students, but this documentary provides such a nuanced and intimate look at the problem, it helps to dispel a lot of those notions. I also appreciated that they valued my voice as a teacher of color, as that is not a perspective that is often celebrated and respected in mainstream media, as 80 percent of our teaching force is white women," Stovall said.
Once the documentary hit the airwaves, Stovall said it was strange to see herself on TV, especially since she had just moved to California to start her Ph.D.
"It was strange to be away from everyone who knows and supports me while my story was being played for viewers all across the United States. But I ended up calling up some people who I had met during admissions weekend and invited them over, and these people have become my beloved friends at Stanford," Stovall said. "I still shake my head at some of my outfit choices and how high my voice gets when I'm nervous. There are definitely some beautiful things about growing up in New Richmond — which makes an appearance in the documentary — but it's really hard for me to watch where I talk about some of the harder parts of racism and isolation."
Although it was hard for her, Stovall said she was proud of herself for being so open and vulnerable, especially since so many people have reached out to her to say that they are going through the same things.
"It is so nice to know that I am not alone, but at the same time I am angry that so many teachers of color are experiencing the same thing in their schools. I hope this documentary helps to change that," Stovall said.
Stovall was accepted into Stanford — as a Ph.D. student in Race, Inequality, and Language in Education — well before the documentary premiered on STARZ and is glad that she got out when she did, since things only got worse at her school after the documentary finished filming three years ago.
"I needed to get out of this unhealthy working environment. I sometimes wonder if I would be in graduate school if the documentary had come out while I was still teaching — the support I have gotten as a result of the documentary has been overwhelming and impactful," Stovall said. "But I now want to make change on a national scale, and I think taking the time to really learn and grow through graduate study will help me get there.
"I actually have no idea what I want to be when I grow up. I'm just open to listening to what happens. All I know is what I want to have a wide scale impact on helping to eliminate racial predictabilities of student academic achievement. If I can do that, leaving the classroom was worth it."