Just Add…Common Purpose

photoLate last year, there was a student-led protest in front of Burlington High School. If you live in the area, you are probably aware of this. I remember watching the protest and feeling very confused, among other emotions (sadness…anger…helplessness), as BHS students, most of them of African descent, marched and chanted in protest of testing policies and a school culture that they believed were racist against them. In the wake of the protest, I pretty much stopped teaching for a week, scrapped our scheduled curriculum and whatever I’d planned, and turned my classes into a conversing and processing space for the students, many of whom had been involved, and marching, in the protest. I let the students speak freely, tried to cultivate an atmosphere where they could say what they felt, even if it was painful to hear.

A little backstory here is that at the time I taught three different classes, two sections of junior honors American Literature, two sections of “College Prep” freshmen, and one section of Bridging English, which is an all-ELL (English Language Learner) class meant to “bridge” students transition from ELL classes to mainstream classes. I had always felt aware of how my honors class was basically all white students and my Bridging class was all students of color (students in the class represented five different native countries, including Nepal, Congo, Kenya, Vietnam, and Puerto Rico). My freshman “College Prep” class was a “middle” level class, between “foundations” and “honors” and, in theory, should have been the most racially diverse. It was, though, also largely white.

As my students reacted to the protests, spoke their minds, found their voices, I was struck by many things (their confusion, anger, and fear), but the dominant feeling I have a year later, the one that lingers, is the intense realization of the extent to which my students from different classes and of different backgrounds did NOT know each other. I was with them all the time and because I worked with them, I knew them, and I think I had projected my knowing across the classes. But it wasn’t there. My white honors students and my ELL students spoke about the protests with equal honesty, but revealed two very different sides of the story of how race, diversity, and equity are felt and perceived in the hallways of BHS. They also revealed to me the extent to which different students could go through four years of high school without their paths ever crossing. If groups of people are never brought together by common purpose, they can end up ships passing in the night.

This is a long way of segueing into one of the core ideas which drove the planning and execution of the Partnership’s recent Student Leadership and Engagement trip to see innovative programming in Providence, Rhode Island. Which was, largely, founded on the belief that if you bring different  types of people into contact with each other, and give them a common purpose behind which to unite, they will come together, no matter how different they may seem.

And they did.

The twelve students who went to Providence represented nearly all parts of the Winooski and Burlington communities. The student and adult planners invested early in the idea of community building, of making the Providence trip not just a “info” trip to see innovative educational and community programming, but a “retreat” for the students involved. Here was a unique opportunity for different types of students to KNOW each other. We knew that we could probably “see” more than we’d arranged to see (another school or community center), but we set aside a large portion of our time together, nearly a third, to simply BE together. We did focused listening activities which prioritized story telling and being heard. We did a “privilege walk,” an activity was has participants take a step forward or back in reaction to prompts that touch on racial and economic themes. We also got silly. We sang and danced and told jokes. We ate meals together. We also learned. We learned a lot. About student-centered learning. About proficiency based education. About trends in school transformation and how we can get involved in the Partnership’s efforts. But we made sure that the learning came within the context, even after, relationships had been formed. After stories had been told. After assumptions had been challenged. After we’d all had to do some soul searching about our own lives and experiences.

Though the trip was now nearly a month ago, the students who went are all still feeling the buzz of the experience. Just two nights ago, a group of five who went to Providence spoke at the recent Partnership Steering Committee meeting and when they spoke of their time together, of the things they saw, they glowed, were abuzz with their experiences. They told the story of the amazing school environment they saw at The MET school. Of the amazing youth-led community organization Youth in Action. Those stories have amazing power and resonance, in part, because they are shared experiences that the whole group went through. They united us behind a common purpose (school transformation). And that common purpose grew on a firm foundation of trust and friendship, which makes all the difference in the world.

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