Prisma is a locally-rooted, globally connected co-learning network for kids in grades 4-8. Although we’re not a school or a traditional education company, the Prisma team is full of educators with rich, diverse experience developing curriculum, training teachers, and leading schools. In our Meet the Team blog series, you’ll get to read more about the innovative thinkers behind Prisma.
Next up is Emily Veno, one of two founding learning experience designers for Prisma.
Tell us a little bit about your background in education and the arts.
I never even considered a career in teaching or education until after my undergrad degree. I studied theater in Chicago, and was working as an actress and director. But when I started taking jobs as a teaching artist in the city, I discovered how fun and rewarding it was to watch young people develop their confidence and creativity through performing. That led me to a full-time role at Imagination Stage in DC, where I spent several years creating arts programs and camps, training teachers, and designing arts integration curriculum used in hundreds of DC and Maryland public school classrooms.
I left to pursue my Masters in Education at Harvard, where I studied interdisciplinary and hands-on learning. From my work designing arts integration curriculum, I had discovered that often the most exciting learning experiences aren’t easily categorized into one “subject.” I also believed that the skills I saw kids develop through theater (confidence, creativity, and empathy) could be developed through other subjects if kids were encouraged to learn by doing, making, and creating. After graduating, I spent some time doing research at Harvard with Reach Every Reader and the Creative Computing Lab, as well as doing a lot of freelance curriculum design work for all kinds of companies from Sesame Workshop to the Freedom Trail.
How does your work at the Creative Computing Lab influence your thinking about learning experience design at Prisma?
A lot of people will tell you now that all kids should learn to code—and I definitely agree. Unfortunately, computer science is still an afterthought in many schools. It was important to me that Prisma incorporate Tech & Design as one of its core seven disciplines, rather than making it an “extra” or “special.” Beyond that, though, my work at the Creative Computing Lab and with the team behind it pushed my thinking as to why kids should learn to code. Although working with computers is an important career skill, I don’t think job preparation is the reason kids should learn computer science. Kids should learn to code because they are living in a world that is increasingly technologically mediated, and we owe it to them to help them participate in technology, not just consume it. When algorithms determine the news they see, the products they are advertised, and the entertainment they absorb, I think it’s an ethical imperative that we teach kids how to create algorithms of their own. We wouldn’t teach kids to read English but not to write it! We should think of computers the same way, as a necessary tool of expression and empowerment.
You’re leading the charge on blog posts (besides this one!) and have done a lot of work on the content and language for our website. Has writing always been an interest and strength of yours, or has it been something you’ve worked to hone and develop?
I’ve always loved to write. When I was little, my mom was a reporter at our local newspaper. I used to love going into the newsroom with her and talking to all the writers. “The Elements of Style” was a common sight on the kitchen table in our house. I also always loved reading out loud, which I think is the absolute best way to become a better writer. If you hear something you’ve written out loud, you’ll always discover what you need to do to fix it.
Which Prisma badge are you most excited about?
I’m most excited about the first Life Skills & Worldview Badges, where learners and coaches collaborate to tackle topics not typically focused on in schools. In Life Skills, learners will explore how to thrive within Prisma: how to manage their own schedule, how to give and get feedback on work, and how to think like a designer. And in Worldview, learners will be discussing big questions about education: Whose responsibility is it? What should kids learn? How should kids learn? And the best part is that they’ll share their thoughts with us on the design team at Prisma, so we can make their experience even better.
What was middle school like for you?
It was tough! I went to a giant public school in suburban Indiana where if you didn’t play basketball or cheerlead it was easy to get lost in the shuffle. And the awkwardness is real! I think the beauty of that time, for me and for many of the middle schoolers I’ve worked with, is all of the new possibilities that can emerge from every messy, awkward discovery. Middle school was when I first got to experiment in a real way with so many of the interests that sustain me today: theater and the arts, writing, working with kids. I’ll never forget the amazing teachers who supported me in developing each of those skills. I also (fun fact) met my current significant other in our 7th grade Honors English class. So you never know!
Looking forward to our official launch in September, what are you most excited about?
I’m most excited to see the projects kids create when engaging with the Prisma curriculum! I know from reviewing the applications that have been coming in that we are going to be awash in talented kids. I think if you check our website again in November, you’ll see some incredible examples of hands-on learning.
What do you love to learn about? Or, what’s something new you learned recently?
One of the greatest things about the Arts in Education Masters program at Harvard was getting to study alongside artists of every medium, from performance to visual art to music. I had spent years convincing myself I wasn’t “good” at visual art, even though I’d never really tried it. That’s exactly the kind of insecure thinking I discourage in my students, so I’ve been challenging myself to learn to express myself that way. I’ve been teaching myself how to paint (mostly still lifes, using acrylics) during quarantine. I tend to be a very distractible person who loves to do a million things at once, so it’s been nice to work on a skill that involves long periods of deep focus, close observation, and patience. Painting with acrylics is also really fun because if you mess up, you can just add another layer!