This week Ali and JoDee sit down with Sage Salvo, the founder and CEO at Words Liive and a tech policy fellow at the Aspen Institute. Together, they will discuss what Words Liive is, how educators can fit into the ed tech space, and the unique skill set that benefits educators in positions outside of the classroom.
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Teachers are natural innovators, entertainers and problem solvers. They dream of growing old into the profession, teaching their kids kids. But sometimes career goals shift or change, and that makes opportunities outside of the classroom seem intangible questioning who am I, if I'm not a teacher? I'm your host, Alexandra Simon.
And I'm your co host, JoDee Scissors.
This is The Great Teacher Resignation.
Sage Salvo is the founder and CEO at Words Liive, and a tech policy fellow at the Aspen Institute. He dedicates his time to solving challenges in K-12 literacy and engagement. He is a socially minded ed tech leader, revolutionizing literacy practices through an expanded reading canon, that includes contemporary song lyrics. Welcome today, Sage.
Thank you. I appreciate it. Thanks for having me.
Sage, thanks for joining us today. So for a little background for our listeners, Sage and I were connected through the ed tech community. I knew some people at PBS. PBS connected me with Sage. And then for many years now we've been working together to be able to ensure that his work is in more schools. He's getting the funding that he needs. And if you haven't seen his product yet, we're going to talk about it. Because it really is revolutionizing the way we think about curriculum the way we think about culture.
So Sage, can you tell us what is Words Liive?
So we consider ourselves to be what I call a futuristic ed tech company. And that's because we really are looking at the year 2045, when we know that the nation is projected to be majority minority, which is going to be a lot more colorful, and it's going to be a lot more cultural intersections. And so the way we think about that is what implications does that have in the classroom. And so for us, we think that classroom practices, teaching practices need to reflect the cultures that are being brought in. Right now we just see that type of deficit in terms of allowing kids to bring in their music, their art, their culture, their food, their language, into the classroom and into the learning process. But that's not that we want to change. It is going to take a paradigm shift. We're going to take a forward looking approach. That's really where we sit. We anchored ourselves in literacy. And so what we're trying to do is expand the reading canon, open it up, bring things like song lyrics in, so that more kids have on ramps to learning those core competencies and literacy.
Can you tell us a little bit more about how you focus on regional culture, in music as well, and how that influences your product?
Yeah, so this is interesting story. You know, we call ourselves or like to think of ourselves as being truly culturally responsive. And so what that means is that you have to really check yourself on being overly prescribed as an instructor. And you have to really allow the students to kind of tell you and guide you where the lesson should go. And so one of our early pilots was in Alabama, Montgomery, Alabama, in particular. And because of the proximity to Atlanta, I'm naturally thought, hey, let me bring in a bunch of like Atlanta music. You know top 40 artists that came out of Atlanta. And help the kids learn what the unit was on, but it was an eighth grade class. Think something along the lines of like learning point of view. And I bought a bunch of music, like 10 songs, all Atlanta artists thinking that I'm gonna just like set this classroom on fire. And then like, hit with a thud. No one really enjoyed the music. And I had to sit back and say like, you got like two hours away from Atlanta. They're like, well, we don't really listen to that. So I started asking questions, well, who do you listen to? Artists I've never heard of, but they were like local Alabama artists. And that was really interesting. Because here I am supposed to be the culturally responsive guy. And I was actually being overly prescribed. I made a bunch of assumptions. And that little moment right there kind of changed the trajectory of how we built our technology. Nobody thought about being truly culturally responsive, especially in music today. It's becoming more hyper localized, which should artists that will never appear in the top 40. But if you go to that part of the city, or that part of a town, that part of the state, every one is listening to that artist. That's what it means to be a responsive. Get to know that particular region. What are they consuming? And then incorporate that into their learning.
I can totally see that. I live in New Orleans, and JoDee actually travels here for work, but what I experienced when I moved here a few years ago, was really a hyper localized music scene, right? I mean, everything from Big Frieda to like the Mardi Gras music. Like, there's such an explosion of music here. And I think to your point, like, as someone who's not from here had I come in with a prescribed notion of like, what I should teach when I was a classroom teacher, that would not have worked. And I think honestly, teaching is very localized, like the issues that we have in the schools and in the classrooms. We tried to put like a big umbrella over everything. But we need to focus on the local. So I love that. And I really appreciate you sharing, where you had to take a step back in something that you did. And you recognize that that wasn't the right move, and then you made changes. And I think a lot of times, it's hard for us to share those stories. But that was really powerful.
That's almost like a Zaretta Hammond exercise of what you did, like stopping and reflecting about your own bias and what has built you musically. And then thinking outward and looking at your audience and saying, oh, okay, like I need to change my practices to meet their needs, to meet them where they're at. That was like precisely how an exercise like go with her.
I think that process there. I think that happens in classrooms all over the country. But too often our teachers are under pressure thinking that they have to be the expert, or they have to conform to some standard that's been imposed on them. And they don't do that dialogue. They don't do that negotiation. I think that's like moment, number one, where we see just a lot of failure, and breaking down a building up a culture that wants to learn.
So I've done something like that before in my classroom. And when it's an epic fail, and you've spent so much time planning, it's like, it's hard to regroup and admit that, okay, where did I go wrong? What I found the most helpful, and I don't know if you did this in your process, was talking it out with someone. Like finding another teacher, another educator, another ed tech individual, and being like, this is what I did. This is what happened. I need help. I'm like embarrassed to say, but I need some help here.
I have to say, I have a really good partner in this space, Mr. Gabriel Atrialben, is a longtime veteran teacher in DCPS, underground hip hop artists, United States cultural ambassador. But he was that partner that I turned to. That was sort of our eureka moment together where we said, you did the exact thing that you're trying to get teachers not to do, which is to be overly prescribed, and assume that this is going to be interesting for the kids without asking them, Hey what do you listen to these days? That experience led to us designing a student cultural survey, where we asked teachers to give every couple of weeks. So that they can stay current. And make sure they're asking the questions: What are you eating at home? What movies are you watching? What shorts are you watching online? Who's your favorite artists right now? What's your favorite song right now? Just steadily building up a cultural profile of their students and getting them into a rhythm in a practice and doing that.
I think that's a really good segue into our next question, as Words Liive grows, and you build your staff, how does an educator fit into those positions?
We are almost all educators actually, oddly enough. I like to say I have a interesting mix of like songwriting background and educator background. And we've been fortunate in that our first sort of three partners Asher Rue, as well as one of our first hires, Faith Pot, have all been creative writers, and then also either mentored or had direct classroom experience. I think that characteristic of being able to do both, interact with young people, teach young people but also have your own artistic practice. I think it really helps to inform the work that we do. It doesn't matter if you're content area, and you're just focusing on annotating songs. Or if you're one of our engineers, who's focusing on building up relational databases. I think those insights help us to kind of, you know, make the product a lot better. So I look for that for partners and new hires.
You are probably familiar with the state of teacher retention right now. And how do you see your company, one, supporting teachers that are looking for positions in ed tech? Who are trying to break the mold. The trajectory of a teacher's career isn't always the same for everyone. Some people don't want to take the traditional path, and they want to break through to ed tech or other industries. And so, with those teachers out there right now who are trying to poke in there, what skills would you be looking for specifically that ed tech companies would be looking for?
I should highlight something. It's very beneficial for folks like me, and we have seen a lot of teacher interest or teachers who are looking to retire early and make sort of a career pivot. So I've had the benefit of going through a few interviews and really been able to consider teachers coming directly out of the classroom. And for us, it's been a lot of operational role. My first instinct was actually sales. And here's why. In this space, I've noticed that to really go into a new school district, the relationships are key. Yes, there's a formalized process, they do RFPs, they put proposals out on the street. But if you really look at where traction comes from, it comes from deep relationships with school leaders. And so naturally, a lot of ed tech companies want to hire teachers coming directly from the classroom, with the assumption that they have those relationships that they're bringing with them. And so that lends itself to developing sort of a sales pipeline. That was my first instinct. That went okay. We're still experimenting there. But where I really found value was on the operation side. So because education has become such a landmine administratively, and from a liability perspective, in terms of implementing new programs, a lot of us who haven't been in the classroom for a while, like just forget all the bureaucratic hoops you have to jump through. My teacher partners have been invaluable in just getting us to rethink, hey, you got your student cultural profile survey that I talked about earlier, but you asked for the student's name. You got to take that off. You know, that's PII. Like those little things, that's where teachers have been sort of like invaluable in helping us build.
That honestly reminds me a lot of my day to day job. I do like project management. And I think that teachers, we do have that experience of, we follow a lot of rules, we know the rules, we're the ones who are making sure that the students are following the rules. And so I think that translates really well into an operations role, into a project management role. And clearly, you've seen success with this with the accountability aspect.
Yeah, project management, you kind of have to have the relationships with all the stakeholders, which is the teacher. A teacher has to have a relationship with the parents, the administration, the student, the community. And so when you move into a role like that, you have to be able to collaborate with all of those individuals and make instantaneous decisions. But I also wanted to say like you bringing up sales, that term to me seems scary. I'm just gonna say it like, that seems scary to me. But you just deconstructed it in a way that doesn't seem scary to me. When you talk about relationships, like that was number one for me as a teacher. I have to have a really good rapport, really good relationship with my students and their families. I have to have a good relationship with my teammates. And so I've actually had a few teachers reach out to me and say, I really want something in sales. And I'm trying to wrap my head around, what's the connection there, but you just did that for me. So thank you.
That's been an evolution for me. And I have to say, if I have one fatal flaw, as an entrepreneur, it has been in sales. I'm just not naturally a salesperson. And that's why my first instinct was to look at sort of, like beefing up our sales operation and looking at teachers to do that. But I had to change my thinking. And I had a mentor, actually, I should say this through New School Venture Fund, and they changed my thinking on it. And instead of me thinking about, like, the slimy used car sales guy, and like having that connotation with sales, it was I'm the person that's helping educators get the tools they need. The process is called sales. But it's literally me helping them discover what can work for them. And that's all about relationships, like, what do you need, I might not be the right fit, but I may, so let's talk it out. That's building trust, building a relationship. And that's the way I begin to think a little deeply and differently about sales.
I have someone close in my life who just moved into a sales role from doing something very different. And one of the things they mentioned to me was the follow up also. Like, it's important to have those initial meetings and to create those relationships. But there's a lot of follow up required, like a lot of communication. And I think that's another teacher brain skill. Like we are trained, okay, you know, if there's a problem in class student isn't doing well contact their parent, document that. Then you know, if that method isn't working, contact them in other way. Pick up the phone, follow up. So I think that's another skill that teachers have that we're like pretty good at figuring out how to get in contact with someone. And we do our best. I mean, if they don't answer the phone or reply to our emails, it is documented. We have done our job.
I actually sent Ali this the other day, somebody on LinkedIn posted, hey, if I send you a message on LinkedIn, and you don't get back to me or you ignore me, that's okay. Because I used to be a high school teacher and I used to call parents and not get a single call back. And you know what, I persevered and I did it and I can do this. And I was like, ah, that's a really good point of view, a really good perspective to have if you're out there like hustling, trying to get a job. Like we do get denied a lot as teachers. We get denied about for funds, for projects. You know, like, we don't get called back. So it does train you well for not just like the skills and strengths, but also like being denied.
I've been saying this for a longest time, but this is quite literally one of the hardest jobs I think in the world. And if you're looking at all the different disciplines that just being a full time teacher has to interconnect, looking at all the soft skills, all of the soft skills possible. But then these very discrete operational, administrative skills, strategic skills as well. This is really a difficult job. But I think the difficulty has been compounded with so many administrative burdens and that's why I think teachers have so many extensions that they can go to once they leave.
That was honestly the best way to wrap us up today Sage. I think you really described what a teacher brain can do and all the skills that teachers have and what they can bring to new positions if they choose to leave the classroom whether that be in education, ed tech, or in another field. Really appreciate you coming on to the show today. If you want to keep in touch with Sage, you can follow him on Instagram at Words Liive spelled W o r d s l i i v e or at Sage salvo S a g e SALVO. Thank you so much again for your time today Sage.
I appreciate you guys having me.
If you liked The Great Teacher Resignation, give us a five star rating and follow us on Instagram, Facebook, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music and Audible. Today's episode was written and recorded by me Alexandra Simon and my co host JoDee Scissors. Executive produced by Teacher Brain. Produced and edited by Emily Porter. Original Music Emoji by Tubebackr. Special thanks to our sponsor, Paper Planes Ed.