It’s not normal for a podcast producer to step in as the host. Then again, it’s not normal for students to interview their principals. In the season finale of The Hummingbird Stories, hosted by Donnell Cannon and Jenny O’Meara, that’s exactly what happened.
The Hummingbird Stories launched in October 2020. After a tumultuous few months of educators having to adapt to teaching during a pandemic, Cannon and O’Meara thought there was no better time to have big conversations about changing education for good.
The description of the show is also its mission — a mission that both principals seek to live every single day. It reads:
Children deserve great childhoods. This is a story of those who believe the same. Two principals — Donnell Cannon and Jenny O’Meara — interview school designers, community organizers, learning engineers, and education activists to learn what we should be thinking about when it comes to reimagining the future and the steps we can take today to create better schools, better childhoods, and better people tomorrow.
Cannon and O’Meara are no strangers to reimagining education. For the past four to five years both have been principals in Edgecombe County — Cannon at North Edgecombe High School and O’Meara at Phillips Middle School. They co-lead the North Phillips School of Innovation, a new innovative school model with the goal of self-actualization for students.
Both Cannon and O’Meara have their own hummingbird stories or origin story of why they are so passionate about their work in education. Ke’Mylah Shaw, a rising junior at North Edgecombe and a Phillips Middle graduate, and I sat down with them in the season finale of the show.
Left to chance
“No child’s life should ever be left to chance,” Cannon said.
When he was a child himself, his life was left to chance. He was born to a teenage single mother, and there were times as he was growing up when they went without water or electricity. Cannon makes sure to note that even though there were a lot of challenges, his family was “rich in love.”
That love didn’t translate to the classroom, though, or the classrooms he was in, at least. Cannon struggled to find his place in school. He was suspended several times and often wanted to be anywhere but school.
It wasn’t until he realized that school was his way to a better life that he found the focus and motivation to do well.
“I started using learning as a means of creating a good life for myself, right? It’s like if I learned how to do school, if I retained this, this could lead to this, which leads to the next step,” Cannon said. “So, like, I got really good at it, because I knew that it was a means of survival.”
Now it’s Cannon’s mission to make sure that no child ends up a statistic or is left to chance.
Liberation through education
Cannon’s story demonstrates the power of education. O’Meara’s story is one of fighting to deepen that transformative power for all people.
“I believe that no one will be liberated until we all are,” O’Meara said.
For her, education has the unique ability to transform the lives of students, families, and communities. When it comes to achieving this dream of liberation, the classroom can be where it starts.
“I really believe that the way we achieve that [liberation] is by phenomenal childhoods and phenomenal education,” she said.
O’Meara dreams of a day when school is a joyful place that is full of hope. For other educators who share that dream, she encourages them to “perceive themselves as a designer of school and learning experiences.”
As a self-identified school designer, O’Meara says she believes that “deeply listening to community and designing with community” is the way to change school for the better.
The power of storytelling
For the past seven months, Cannon and O’Meara have expanded their view of reimagining education with the conversations they’ve had through The Hummingbird Stories. They’ve talked to education leaders from across the state, from superintendents and nonprofit leaders, to parents in their own community.
This last episode was done a little differently. The tables were turned on O’Meara and Cannon. Instead of hosts, they became the interviewees, and Shaw and I became the hosts. It was special for them to get to sit down with one of their students and dig deep.
They’d love for you to listen to the stories from this first season and hope that you’ll find them as motivation to keep showing up to make school better for kids everywhere.