As far back as Herodotus and the ancient Greeks, anthropologists have documented cultures, creating a historical record of societies.
Today, cultural anthropologists try to make sense of the way lived experience creates culture and, in turn, culture creates lived experience. In a small way Jackson Hole High School Principal Scott Crisp is adding to that sprawling canon.
Crisp has had a busy year. In addition to simply maintaining student achievement in a hybrid model that has never been done before, he has racked up notoriety. The Wyoming Association of Secondary School Principals, which represents middle and high school administrators, named Crisp the state’s top administrator this year.
That puts him in the running for national Principal of the Year, an honor bestowed by the National Association of Secondary School Principals. He’ll have to wait until National Principal Month (October) to find out if he will be given the award.
Crisp is also part of a prestigious U.S. Department of Education fellowship program for the second time, and is working on a capstone project that he is obviously passionate about. He’s brushing up on his oral history chops for it, interviewing students to create a compendium of their experiences growing up in rural Wyoming.
The work “will not only benefit our students and educators at the local Teton County level, but it’ll also be bridged to the state and national level,” Crisp said.
Like everything, COVID-19 impacted the fellowship program. In a normal year Crisp would have traveled every few weeks to Washington, D.C., to talk with policymakers and other fellows, some of whom work full time in the nation’s capital during the program.
They would have worked on education policy, strategy and a host of other topics to benefit students across the country, but the pandemic disrupted things. That gives Crisp more time to work on his capstone, which he thinks will be a first step toward documenting the struggles and successes of rural education and upbringing.
“I really would like to expand the project into different regions and have these student narratives be like a tool that educators at all levels can search for, to inform their decision-making,” he said. “That’s one of the long-term goals.”
In some ways, the project uses skills that tie in with Crisp’s early postsecondary education. Hailing from South Carolina, he earned a bachelor’s degree in history before embarking on his career in teaching.
He taught history across the United States — Jackson, Oregon and his native South Carolina — before finishing his doctorate and moving into an administrator role, which he has held since 2008.
History education is rooted in the ethnographic and anthropological work that has created our historical knowledge. Much of that work is done through interviews and observation.
Twelve years of being principal at Jackson Hole High School, with a year at Summit Innovations School as well, has given Crisp plenty of observations, but he dove into the interviewing side this year to gain a better understanding of his students.
According to experts, good anthropologists go into their work without preconceived notions of what they’ll find.
“Anthropology demands the open-mindedness with which one must look and listen, record in astonishment and wonder that which one would not have been able to guess,” anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote.
So far Crisp has done about 35 interviews. He’s had to learn the particulars of audio production and technology, though it helps that the high school has a recording studio.
He’s also learning how to interview, a skill he finds akin to teaching.
“To be able to sit down one on one with a variety of different students from all backgrounds and ask them a very common set of questions, that’s been really energizing for me,” he said.
Participating in the fellowship for a second time is great professional development, Crisp said, but he also wanted to highlight Teton County School District No. 1 on a national level. Kids come from a variety of backgrounds — Mexican immigrants, ranchers and wealthy transplants, to name a few — and the school has created systems that support each of their needs and maintain high standards of graduation and life readiness.
“When you have that kind of diverse belief system it leads to a very rich school environment,” Crisp said.
Serving that diverse population in a rural setting could provide insight for other districts, which is where the expansion of the project comes in. At the conclusion of the fellowship Crisp will share his findings about Teton County students to officials at the Education Department.
That’s just the beginning, he hopes, for the project. To return to the long-term goal, he thinks this ethnographic work can provide a template for compiling student narratives from across the country.
He isn’t sure yet what the format will be. Podcasts are all the rage right now, but Crisp isn’t sure he wants to jump on that bandwagon. Instead he hopes to find a website layout or something similar that can combine audio and visual elements to highlight the narratives.
Once step one is done, he hopes presenting it will be the springboard the project needs to expand across the country.
“I really am searching and inquiring with people on how this particular project can take on wings and grow into almost a searchable audio database of students stories where it can inform schools and teachers at all levels,” he said. “So I’m excited about that.”