Creating diverse learning environments: What We Learned from Project Citizen

As an educator in an urban high school in Bridgeport, Connecticut, I see firsthand that race continues to be a divisive force in our society. At the same time, I am optimistic that we can change this by bringing our communities together, starting in our public schools. There is a need for more collaboration among schools and communities in the most socioeconomically diverse areas of our nation that intentionally challenge the existing zip-code divide.

I live and work in Fairfield County, Connecticut, where wealthy suburbs surround a poverty-stricken urban landscape. The City of Bridgeport is no different from many of our cities across the nation. In only a few short miles, the dollars we spend on American children greatly differ, and while I know there will be opposition from both sides, I fear that if we don’t embrace one another’s humanity, we cannot progress as a society.  

In recent years, my colleagues and I have been fortunate to work toward improving this collaboration by increasing diversity in student groups and their learning experiences. One example that can be a model for other educators doing this work is Project Citizen, a summer writing literacy lab at Fairfield University that brings together students with different backgrounds from across the country to share their ideas and experiences with one another while enhancing their writing skills. 

Project Citizen

In the summer of 2014, I worked as a youth writing instructor for the Connecticut Writing Project (CWP), one of 180 National Writing Project sites. The site director, Dr. Bryan Ripley-Crandall, encouraged us to think of new and exciting week-long courses to teach. I thought of the Young Adult Literacy Labs at Fairfield University, which help kids continue to write and stay engaged during the summer to prevent literacy loss and promote excellence in reading and writing. With Dr. Crandall’s task in mind, I designed a week-long literacy lab aimed at tackling the social and political issues affecting our common humanity through writing. We initially focused on local issues in Connecticut and then devoted a second day to discussing national issues. The third day centered on global issues and by Thursday, students drafted, peer edited and conferenced about their writing. Our last day was spent presenting our work to family, friends and university staff.

At first, Project Citizen was slow to gain traction. We began with eight students each year, and they were all from wealthy, suburban schools. The discussions we had were illuminating and I found much hope and promise in the next generation. The students’ writing was amazing, too, but there was still something missing from the equation. The problem was that we were sitting in an echo chamber. Those in attendance were all the same: liberal, white, and middle to upper class in a room with zero diversity. The following year, Dr. Crandall wrote a grant with the National Writing Project and secured funding to provide scholarships to Bridgeport youth. In addition, he invited Lakota youth from the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota to bring new voices and perspectives to Project Citizen. We had one major goal: to unite different communities – not just locally, but nationally.

For the past two summers, with support from the National Writing Project and rife with the political and social turmoil of the 21stcentury, we extended Project Citizen to two weeks. We had students from rural, urban, and suburban settings represented across multiple races, genders, sexualities, and political party lines. You could say the Project Citizen Young Adult Literacy Lab at Fairfield University was a representative slice of the diverse American Pie. 

“There is a need for more collaboration among schools and communities in the most socioeconomically diverse areas of our nation that intentionally challenge the existing zip-code divide.”

Diversifying communities can be difficult, as I learned from co-teaching during the program.  Meeting the needs of each student—urban, suburban, and rural, all of whom had very different learning styles—and getting them on the same page was an immense challenge. We also had students, grades 8–12, representing more than a dozen nationalities. The maturity difference and cultural divide only added to the challenge. However, we experienced great success with this endeavor. Students, regardless of prior knowledge or skills, were able to write in a variety of genres over the two weeks and participate in important discussions about issues affecting their daily lives.  

Students worked in small, medium and large group instructional settings, which allowed for various types of cultural and personal knowledge to be shared. This cultural osmosis broadened the discussions, informed the writing, and brought to light perspectives many of us had not previously considered because we are always in our own cultural, social, and educational bubbles. This eclectic group of students tackled extremely tricky issues and were able to write about them without egregious disagreements. 

This representation caused the discussions and student writing to flourish and include diverse perspectives that enabled students to reflect on opinions different from their own. Taking this idea from Project Citizen and applying it on a broader level could have a largely beneficial impact on our education system as it prepares students for college and careers. 

What We Learned

We diversified groups of students from multiple grades/ages, multiple cultures from different areas of Connecticut and South Dakota, and multiple writing levels, and we walked away with a 100 percent success rate where students wrote in at least two genres on political topics of their choice. The conclusion: if we can do this on a small scale, we can do this on a larger scale. By seeking opportunities to bring together students from different backgrounds and communities, we can prepare them for real-world scenarios and teach them the necessary communication skills to succeed.

Achieving this goal is dependent on teachers adapting their classrooms to create environments where students with different voices, skin colors and backgrounds can have frank discussions about the state of the world. In order to do this, we need to make a conscious effort to encourage our students to see one another as citizens of the planet, not just citizens of their own neighborhoods.

My colleagues and I at the Connecticut Writing Project achieved success and I know we’re not the only ones. This wasn’t an accident. This was carefully constructed pedagogy during a time of a national identity crisis. Hopefully, this is just the beginning of the revolution, because our students deserve to graduate high school being fully prepared to tackle the challenges of college and career that await them. 

Shaun Mitchell is an English teacher at Central High School in Bridgeport, CT. He currently teaches AP Literature and African-American Literature. Shaun was Bridgeport’s 2015 Teacher of the Year and went on to be a Finalist for Connecticut State Teacher of the Year in 2016. In 2017, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation recognized him with the O’Toole Leadership Award. 

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