Five Days at Sundance

The air just feels different in Park City at the Sundance Film Festival. Maybe it is the mountains of Utah, but it is also a mood: clear, energizing and optimistic. Liz and I were complete “newbies”--with no expectations but plenty of anticipation for each experience and corner turned (including the age old question: what to wear?). We kept looking around in wonderment: How did we get here? Suffice it to say that Sundance 2015 has been a unique experience, landing us in the midst of creative, socially-minded, and passionate people all interested in the power of film to tell stories, provoke conversations and illuminate issues that, if not important when we arrived, were important to us when we left. I’d love to tell tales embracing our entire festival experience--but that’s for another post.

Our real focus at Sundance: the documentary Most Likely to Succeed, a project that became a calling for Liz and me as education advisors. Guided by Ted Dintersmith (Executive Producer and educational visionary) and Harvard’s Tony WagnerOne Potato Productions filmmaker Greg Whiteley and his team (the two Adams as we call them) have given life to the issues and questions we confront every day in our work with schools. GLP has been collaborating with the team for more than two years and now seeing the film anew through the audience’s eyes has been a powerful validation of our efforts.

We could not help but have high expectations as we arrived in Utah, but we also could not imagine that those expectations could be exceeded. They were. The reception at Sundance was stunning--with people lingering long after the allotted thirty minute Q&A sessions to talk about their schools and experiences; press coveragewas detailed and understanding; wait lines were long and winding to see the film; and an unprecedented number of community screenings lifted the project’s profile. Festival goers were exuberant in support (they loved the Most Likely to Succeed buttons our team designed and we saw them everyone on Main Street), but the most compelling response came from students whose enthusiasm and appreciation underscored the essence of the film. 

The day after our premiere we screened the film for about 500 local high school students and teachers. The kids burst into the theater with high energy--happy for the break in routine and not caring why. As Most Likely began to roll, the entire theater went still, almost hushed, but as the boys and girls watched the film, you could feel the lid came off the jar as their awe swirled around like fireflies let free. 90 minutes later when the credits began, the auditorium came to full life again, erupting with applause, cheers, hoots and hollers! Better still, our director and members from the school we profiled in the film, High Tech High, (CEO Larry Rosenstock and teachers Scott Swaaley and Mike Strong) took the stage and we video-conferenced in a classroom of High Tech High students with the help of the company Blue Jeans--a first for a Sundance screening! When that classroom of students appeared on the screen, the students and teachers in Salt Lake City moved from experiencing the film to interacting with that experience and feeling deeply connected to the people in the film.

Students were given time for Q&A and hands flew in the air, but they didn’t want to talk to the film maker, they wanted to talk to the other kids on the screen! Questions ranged from “do you feel well prepared for college” to “what’s it like to learn without textbooks” and “how do you know how you are doing without traditional tests and grades” to one of the teachers asking “what’s it like to teach like that”. The energy and curiosity illuminated how engaged and intrigued they were with the possibilities of learning in new and different ways. Predictably, they also got down to essential questions of high school life (“how’s the food?!”) and everyone burst out laughing with the response--Five Guys in San Diego rules! We ran beyond the allotted twenty minutes and kids from all areas of the theater--front row to balcony--were straining to get called on by our enthusiastic moderator (and director) Greg Whiteley. The screening was a powerful reminder of how essential the student voice is to changing education--and how much we miss unless we pursue what great learning really looks and feels like for and to students. You can find a lot of great photos on the film’s Facebook page

All of us involved in this project have been overwhelmed by the response we seem to hear from everyone--how can we bring this to our school? We are in the early days of the film yet, but are looking forward to offering many ways to engage with the movement to reimagine school and bringing Most Likely to Succeed to a wider audience. 

Our Utah days are over, but stay tuned because Sundance was just the beginning. We will be screening the film with thought leaders during the NAIS conference in Boston on the evening of February 25th. If you’d like to attend, please let us know. Details will be announced mid week! 

You can follow the film here:


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