Sonoma students learn the art of the interview with Noun2Learn

Both Prestwood and Sassarini students interviewed California State Sen. Bill Dodd, KRON-TV news anchor Ken Wayne, Sonoma City Council candidates and Sonoma Valley Unified School District Board of Trustees candidates in the 2022 election, along with a wide variety of other people.|

Prestwood Elementary School students were wrapping up an online interview with a guest from Ireland at about 8:50 a.m. as part of a pilot program, and as they said their goodbyes, he said he was off to dinner. The students looked at each other, perplexed, wondering why dinner was served so early in Ireland.

Dave Sickert, who was offering the pilot program, said he then realized “we were on to something,” given the students’ curiosity and active engagement.

“COVID advanced the opportunity,” he added. “Nearly every elementary student knows how to engage with others in an online environment.”

The pilot program marked the beginning of Noun, a free student interview program from Sonoma-based educational media company Noun2Learn. It has been offered to fourth- and fifth-graders at Prestwood and Sassarini elementary schools in Sonoma for the past several years.

Students interview guests from many different fields; the interviews are recorded and edited, and the students appear as animated figures in the final production.

“In addition to learning about the subject matter — such as maps, space, civics and sports — educators tell us they use Noun to teach writing skills, critical analysis, public speaking skills and to add fun to the classroom experience,” said Sickert, the chief envisionary officer for Noun2Learn.

He said that the program’s name stems from the simple definition of the word “noun.” When he was in elementary school learning to read and write, a noun was simply defined as a person, place or thing.

“Noun (the program) introduces students to interesting and inspiring people, places and things,” he said.

Both Prestwood and Sassarini students interviewed California State Sen. Bill Dodd, KRON-TV news anchor Ken Wayne, Sonoma City Council candidates and Sonoma Valley Unified School District Board of Trustees candidates in the 2022 election, along with a wide variety of other people.

Prestwood students also interviewed Cindy Lawrence, executive director of the National Museum of Mathematics in New York City. Sassarini students interviewed Aaron Rhodes, project manager for Evil Eye/Future Stage, which enables artists and makers to improvise in real-life animation, on March 1.

“The benefit that I have seen for my students is that they have been able to engage with people in fields that they may not have had access to otherwise,” said Maggie Jansen Pat, a fourth-grade teacher at Sassarini.

Prestwood fifth-grade students Selena Creech and Callen Mahoney as well as fourth-grade students Liam Dean and Melania Guzman served as panelists for the interview with Rhodes.

“I liked being able to be a part of the interview and learning about something new,” Callen said. “I learned that no matter what education or degree you get, you can become an animator.”

Dean added, “I was nervous about getting the words wrong and messing up with the interviewee, but I got help from Mr. Sickert and Ms. Pat, and ended up enjoying being a part of it. I would do it again if I could.”

The process begins when Sickert or Heidi Cowles, Noun2Learn’s project manager adviser, present an idea for an interview subject. Then students are polled, and interviewers are selected from among those who are most interested.

Teachers tell the students about the person or people they will be interviewing and help brainstorm the questions they will ask. The interview then takes place, and Noun2Learn steps in to handle postproduction, using students’ voices and cartoon aliases to protect their privacy before the interviews are posted for public viewing.

“Typically, educational resources are produced outside the classroom and sold inside — textbooks, library books, Chromebooks and Scholastic’s books, for example,” Sickert said. “Working with students and educators, Noun creates learning inside the classroom or library, and monetizes the programming outside the classroom online, on broadcast TV and in CTV placement.”

Sickert said that initially, videos produced from the interviews were not animated.

“After a few months of interviews, we recognized the benefits of animation, including student anonymity, the option to create a unique context — a space lab setting, for example — and enhanced options to edit video segments in postproduction that otherwise would be challenging to piece together,” he said.

Stefani Jordan, principal of Sassarini, says that the students’ engagement with the program indicates that it has been successful.

“My favorite part of the interviews is when students ask the interviewees about their college path and other training required to get to where they are today,” she said. “This gets students thinking about their future education, which is very impactful.”

She recalled that when students interviewed a Google executive, it led to a discussion about her earning an MBA from Harvard University. The students then asked plenty of questions, such as, “What is an MBA?” and “What did you have to do to get into Harvard?”

“It was great to see young fourth- and fifth-graders so intrigued by the possibilities,” Jordan said.

Pat noticed that students were very energized when brainstorming about questions and then interviewing candidates for the SVUSD school board.

“Every student who was involved in the project actively followed the local election and felt they were a part of the political process. It was very gratifying as a teacher for me to see them feel like they contributed to the political discussion through their interview,” Pat said.

Noun is also offered at McDowell Elementary School in Petaluma, Ingenuity Elementary School in San Antonio and Crestview Elementary School in Lompoc, California. It is pending at McKinley Elementary School in Petaluma and McCornack Elementary School in Eugene, Oregon.

Sickert says plans to continue expanding its clients and services.

“Noun’s programming is available online to any elementary school in the US today,” he said. “As we move forward into our next launch phase, schools in the Valley and across the US are eligible to host a live interview, with an agreement to feature Noun programming in their school’s newsletter, email, social media and on their website. They also need to be technically capable — through internet connectivity, for example.”

Reach the reporter, Dan Johnson, at

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