Tumblr, a microblogging website, is often synonymous with hipster blogs covered in aesthetically pleasing photos. Many people use Tumblr either to procrastinate or to entertain themselves on a laid back night. However, for Henry M. Gunn High School students, Tumblr plays another, even more significant role in their high school lives; it is a way to share their voices when their community makes false assumptions about students and their school lives.
Following two student suicides in Nov. 2014 and Jan. 2015, the Palo Alto community has been swamping the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) Board of Education and the Gunn administration with concerns that pressures from school are becoming too overwhelming for students. Some parents believe that students have lost a sense of community. This angered many Titans, especially Gunn junior Sarah Reich.
“I was at a school board meeting [in early February], and a parent got up and said, ‘What even is a Gunn Titan anymore?’” Reich said. “Having people think there was some sort of confusion on the identity of our school made me really frustrated. So, I decided instead of letting people ask questions about what it was like to be at Gunn or tell us what our problems were, we could show our school unity and show how strong of a community we are.”
Inspired, Reich came up with the idea to solve the issue of people thinking Gunn has lost a sense of community by taking photos of her peers holding a whiteboard that stated what they envision a Titan to be and post them online for everyone to see. She recruited her fellow Titan, Gunn senior Dylan Huang, to take the photos and work with her to pilot this project.
“The main thing we are trying to portray to the community is that not everyone at Gunn is the cookie cutter student and has the same values and has the same goals,” Reich said. “Our school body is diverse, and filled with a lot of different people. It gives the community a message that you can’t use one explanation or give Gunn one stereotype because we are a really large community of awesome people.”
Reich and Huang titled their movement, “A Titan is,” and got various definitions of what a Titan is from their peers. Some responses included, “my second family,” “a fighter” or “not alone.” Students also gave light hearted answers like “a babe,” “an old sport” or “spunky and radical.” After capturing what a Titan is from their fellow students, Reich and Huang were faced with the decision of where to post their photos of their peers.
“I thought that a Tumblr was easier than other forms of picture sharing,” Reich said. “Instagram is really hard to get people to get notifications. Facebook is harder to use because you have to post more steadily. I wanted to post more quickly. I used Tumblr because it has a rolling feed and people can look at it like a website but follow it like a blog.”
Adhering to the title of their movement, Reich and Huang created aTitanis.tumblr.com, which quickly skyrocketed to success with the help of students who started changing their profile pictures on Facebook to pictures of the project.
“The feedback that we got was very positive,” Reich said. “Everyone really wanted to be involved with the project, and I remember during those few weeks where we took a majority of the pictures after school when I was holding my camera and the clipboard people constantly stopped me. Students have been very thankful. They said [things] like, ‘Thank you so much for doing this. You really helped our school.’ I think people are really glad that we found a way to share what it was like to be at Gunn without all the negativity.”
As “A Titan is” has shown, pictures are really worth a thousand words. Unlike other Tumblrs, which are filled with photos of sunsets and inspiring text posts, atitanis.tumblr.com is filled with simple photos of smiling teens holding a whiteboard. The reason that such straightforward photos have the power to be so motivating is the thought behind them. These one or two word answers have shown students’ love for their community and the people that surround them everyday.
“A Titan is” even sparked another Tumblr movement with the similar motive of fighting against community members who are making false assumptions about Gunn students: gunnvoicesmatter.tumblr.com. The idea for the movement titled “My Voice Matters” stemmed from an idea that was a long time coming. Following the recent suicides, Gunn students felt as though decisions attempting to reduce student stress were being made without their input, including banning the decoration of graduation caps, changing Gunn to a block schedule and eliminating academic zero period.
“I think there was an increasing feeling among the student body that our voices aren’t really being heard by administration and school board,” Gunn sophomore Chloe Sorensen said. “Our voices are not necessarily involved in the decision making process, and that has escalated a lot because of the decision about zero period.” School board member Ken Dauber started his campaign to end academic zero period at Gunn because he believed it was heightening stress and a lack of sleep among students. He brought pediatricians to the Gunn administration and the school board who said zero period was harmful to students since students do not operate before 8:30 a.m. and advised cessation of the classes.
“Kids are angry at Ken Dauber because he didn’t really talk to any kids and kids are also mad because they are very annoyed at the pediatrians,” Sorensen said. “They are giving us all these statistics that don’t really apply to us and they don’t really understand anything about the issue. They have misconceptions like zero period means you are taking eight classes, or zero period means that you go bed at 2 [a.m.] and wake up at 6 [a.m.].” Over 300 students at Gunn are currently enrolled in zero period, many of whom take the classes that are taught before school so they can pursue their outside of school passions. Students strongly opposed the proposal to end zero period and hoped to get an opportunity persuade the school board to not go through with the proposal. However, on April 10, Superintendent Dr. Max McGee announced in a letter to the Palo Alto community that academic zero period classes were to be eliminated at Gunn and Palo Alto High School. This decision applied primarily to Gunn, since Paly only teaches Physical Education during zero period. Gunn students felt almost voiceless due to how unwilling the school board and administration were to adjust their decisions according to what the student body wanted. After seeing the uproar of student frustration, Sorensen and Gunn senior Michelle Zhang decided to make a movement based on the success of “A Titan is.”
“I had lunch with [Zhang] one day, and she brought up [the frustration of not having a voice in essential school decisions],” Sorensen said. “I asked her, ‘Don’t you think we could start a campaign that is just like ‘A Titan is?’ We started thinking of ways that we could make a similar campaign but with a different message. She came up with the sentiment ‘My voice matters,’ and I came up with writing on your hand and covering your mouth because our voices our being silenced right now. It was a powerful way to spread that message.”
“My Voice Matters” has a very slim chance of changing the school board’s decision, the ultimate goal is to pave the way for greater student voice in decisions that affect them
“We won’t be able to reverse [the zero period decision], but I think we are using it as a stepping stone for the future good,” Sorensen said. “We are showing them that we arent going to give up, and that we aren’t going to let our voices be silenced by adults just because we are kids. We just want to show the community that we have a voice, and our voice matters.”
Gunn students are quickly replacing their “A Titan is” profile pictures with their “My Voice Matters” photo, spreading the movement even faster. Profile pictures on Facebook are usually just an image for people to show themselves across social media. However, with the Gunn Tumblr movements, profile pictures now have the power to spread a message; the more people who change their profile pictures, the bigger the conversation becomes.
“What it really comes down to is exposure of [‘My Voice Matters],” Gunn senior Josh Wilson said. “The more photos we post, the more we talk about it, the more students will get behind it and the more force we will have going into trying to get the administration from pushing on our own agenda.”
The power of the “My Voice Matters” was shown when 40 Gunn students attended the school board meeting on April 21 to speak their opinions. Seventeen students spoke, showing that students are using the sentiment my voice matters to show that zero period is an issue they will not back down from. Students are able to make the effortless shift from the “A Titan is” movement to “My Voice Matters” because of the similarities the movements have.
“‘A Titan is’ showed people that your voice does matter,” Reich said. “‘My Voice Matters’ is people recognizing that we aren’t being heard.”
Posting photos of students behind a movement, instead of posting a long message on Facebook, allows the community to connect with the faces they are seeing in the photos and see the students behind these movements.
“From the outside it is easier to say all these things without seeing how it affects kids,” Sorensen said. “But seeing the faces of kids, and even their kids and their kids’ friends, has an effect. The ‘My Voice Matters’ photos are mugshots, they aren’t smiling kids because its a serious thing and we want parents to know that it affects us negatively and you can’t keep doing things that will make stress worse when they are trying to make stress better.”
With an influx of support all at once, it is easy to believe these movements brought out the best of the Gunn community. However, the two Tumblrs didn’t magically bring Gunn students together, rather they showed the Palo Alto community the unity that Gunn has on a day-to-day basis
“Part of me does think that [‘A Titan is’] united our school, but I think that it takes on the appearance of uniting our school when in fact our school is already united and used it as a way to share that message,” Reich said.
Gunn students have been attacked by outlandish suggestions coming from parents, the school board and pediatricians the last few months, and the support of the Tumblrs have shown how much every Titan cares about one another.
“We are all really supportive, and we have been uniting against the outside,” Sorensen said. “The outside has been attacking us a little bit, it is important for us to sit there in solidarity so that we stay sane. It is a very hard time for us and if we didn’t have each other, I think it would be much much worse.”
Students from Gunn’s neighboring school, Paly, have noticed their cross town school’s effective use of social media to advocate for what they believe in and disseminate an impactful message. “It is pretty cool that the students are advocating for issues that they think are very important to them, especially using social media to really get their point across,” junior Dorothy Han said. “It intrigues other students, especially for me as a student from Paly, I definitely wish Paly could do something like that. It unites the student body as a whole and it also reminds us of important issues that we deal with in our community.” Paly students should not just watch Gunn students unite over the issue of student voice, rather join them too, according to Sorensen.
“I think Paly students should care about this because it’s not justa Gunn issue,” Sorensen said. “The board oversees both of our schools, and although they’re more focused on Gunn right now, there will definitely be issues or conflicts with Paly in the future. I think the students have to make sure we are all in this together and really make sure we stand up for each other and make our voices heard. If they are unwilling to listen to Gunn kids, they will not listen to Paly kids either.” The Tumblrs have proven that students, whether at Gunn or not, have the power to create a movement to command that their voices are heard.
“I have a unique perspective because I have been doing so much over the past few months,” Sorensen said. “[Creating a movement] is not something I would have ever saw myself doing before. I really think anyone can make an impact. I didn’t consider myself to be some special kid or some hero, but that has been how I have been preserved and it has been an amazing experience for me to be so involved and have so many kids be grateful in me speaking out. Anybody can be that person. More people should step up and take that risk, because it was worth it for me. The community needs to see more kids like that.”
If a student does want to start a project, on Tumblr or not, a simple message to better his or her community can get one a long way.
“My advice would be to keep [the movement] simple and let your community shine in it, instead of making it super complex,” Reich said. “Keep it basic and then the message will come through itself.”