Exclusive Preview: How Twister, Holograms Play Into a Futuristic High School

‘The First Class,’ a new documentary about groundbreaking Crosstown High in Memphis, shows how adults and teens can rethink high school.

Students at Crosstown High in Memphis are deeply engaged in their work as they learn through projects. The school is the subject of the new feature-length documentary, “The First Class.” (Photo courtesy of “The First Class”)

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About midway through “The First Class,” a new documentary about a groundbreaking Memphis high school, a student, Rachel, struggles with how to present her research to her community. She’s been interviewing local refugees for a class combining English and world history when she has an idea: What if she makes an interactive game inspired by “Twister” for the presentation before her peers, teachers and families?

Rachel isn’t the only one challenged by this and other projects at Crosstown High. In the film, available for 74 readers here, we see a teacher stumped by a student’s idea for making a hologram as well as candid conversations about the relevance of an interdisciplinary math and science project exploring how to sustain life on Mars.

This student-led, creative approach to teaching and learning is the goal at Crosstown High — a public high school built by parents, educators, teens and community members in Memphis as part of the XQ Super School Challenge in 2015. This challenge spurred communities to create innovative high schools, by building new ones and redesigning existing models, that depart from the rigid, century-old model that’s no longer suited to today’s learners. 

As part of the challenge, dozens of community members came together and gathered input from more than 200 students to design and open Crosstown High. They wanted to create a school that would engage students in real-world, motivating projects that would make a difference and reflect the diversity of their historically-segregated city with equitable learning opportunities for all.

Years in the making, “The First Class” follows the founding cohort of students and educators from ninth grade to the triumph of their graduation — and all the challenges in between. Directed by award-winning documentary maker Lee Hirsch (of “Bully”), we see learning in a way that’s rarely captured on film. No single principal or teacher is the sole superhero who “saves” the students. Instead, we see learning as it really happens: through ideas, collaboration, committed educators who genuinely care about students and “aha” moments.

As we watch the students and teachers at Crosstown High work through the school’s growing pains in the film, we see them taking obvious delight in their progress and personal growth.  “The First Class” shows what’s possible when we put our heads together to create a new type of high school. Crosstown High’s journey will inspire educators and communities everywhere to look at the challenges facing students in their own high schools and start the conversation about how they, too, can rethink learning for teachers and students. 

XQ Institute is proud of Crosstown High’s story, and the incredible progress this community made since responding to our challenge almost a decade ago. We’re thrilled to provide this exciting documentary and related materials free of charge for educators, families, students, policymakers and other community members. Find everything you need to be among the first to watch the film, lead discussions, host screenings and get inspired to rethink high school at TheFirstClass.org.  

Want to learn how to create innovative high school experiences like those at Crosstown High? Check out The XQ Xtra, a newsletter for educators that comes out twice a month. Sign up here.

Disclosure: The XQ Institute is a financial supporter of The 74.

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