ISAAC students humanize the immigrant label through immersive project

Think back on every middle school book report, term paper and research project you’ve ever done. Are there any you can honestly say changed your life? Better yet, can you say there were any that helped improve the lives of others? I know I certainly can’t, but the sixth graders at the Interdistrict School for Arts and Communication (ISAAC) in New London are making their mark on the world through an immersive, cross-disciplinary project that’s changing hearts and minds by putting a human face on the immigration story.

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The multi-disciplinary project is spearheaded by Mike Kuczenski, a passionate ISAAC educator. Kuczenski says the project was made possible in part by a generous $5,000 grant from the Expeditionary Learning (EL) Education group through its inaugural Better World Project. ISAAC, a public charter middle school serving grades 6-8, is one of more than 150 EL Education model schools nationwide, but one of only 18 chosen to be a part of the project.

The project is aimed at taking current issues and allowing students to explore those issues in a real and tangible way, and to conceptualize ways to make the world a better place.

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Portraits taken by ISAAC students

"Currently in politics, the word 'immigrant' brings up a lot of emotions," Kuczenski says. "It’s very easy for stereotypes to take over the fact that there are real people being impacted by these labels."

To get people to rethink some of those stereotypes, the students at ISAAC have embarked on a months-long journey of humanizing the immigrant experience through the arts, social sciences, math and more. Students began the project by learning more about immigration through traditional textbook means. But soon, those lessons became deeply personal as students were paired with real immigrants from the greater New London community.

Students were tasked with telling the authentic, human story of each of these individuals through interviewing and photography, learning the fundamental concepts of lighting and composition, as well as storytelling. In math, students worked hard at creating maps and coordinate planes of the hometown’s of their subjects, while in science class, they studied the climate and native animal species from the country their subject hailed from. Upon completion, the photographs will be shared in an exhibit where onlookers can scan a QR code that will direct them to a website featuring the stories of each immigrant, and it’s all being created by the students themselves.

"The ultimate goal of the project is really to teach the kids how to listen. To be better citizens," Kuczenski says.

ISAAC_students_math.JPGISAAC students working hard to finalize their maps in math class

Shaping Hearts, Broadening Minds

ISAAC sixth-graders Prishtina Gashi, Delaney Gortner and Tirike McCoy shared that while getting through the project has involved a lot of early mornings and late afternoons (made easier by the fact that Kuczenski usually springs for pizza), they know that what they’re working on has the potential to change the way a lot of people think. It also helped them to realize very quickly how much they actually had in common with their subjects.

Gashi explained that her subject hails from Peru, and while their backgrounds may be different, those differences actually created a lot of learning opportunities people should be open to.

ISAAC_interviewees.JPG(from l to r) Gashi, Gortner and McCoy in the ISAAC hallway

"You’re a person just like me," Gashi says she realized about her interview subject. "You just came from a different country, which is amazing because you’ve had way more experience than I did with traveling and stuff like that, which is cool. I don’t know why people would think, she came from a different country, so we don’t like her because she’s not like us."

Gortner says, "The biggest lesson I hope people learn from this project is we’re all the same AND different, if that makes any sense. We all can have different skin tones, ethnicities and backgrounds… (but) you shouldn’t treat somebody different because they’re not the same as you."

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Gortner said she feels a personal connection to the project because many people in her family are immigrants. "Nowadays, there are a lot of stereotypes going around about different people, and our mission here is to change them and broaden people’s minds," she said.

McCoy added, "I’ve never done anything like this. Ever! It’s just really different having one particular topic affect every class."

Kuczenski says that students have expressed a range of emotions from excitement to anxiousness, but that the level of accountability the students feel for getting the project right has made a real impact.

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"I heard one kid say, I love this project because we’re not just doing a project, we’re actually making something that the community is going to see. I feel important," he says. "Others have said, I’m anxious and scared because my work is going to be shown to so many people. I want to make sure that I share this person’s story well."

Gortner expressed that upon first receiving her canvas of the photograph she took of her subject, the first thing she noticed were scuffed edges.

"The picture itself was beautiful and gorgeous, but all I could see were those edges," she lamented. It took four extra days to get a new canvas, but all of the students agreed on the importance of getting everything right, not just for a good grade but to honor the story of the individuals they’re profiling.

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"One mistake about their story could lead to them saying 'oh, that’s not right, that didn’t happen.' We have to make sure we get everything precise and to have high quality because (we’re) representing someone, (we) care about it that much more," Gashi adds.

The general consensus, Kuczenski shares, is that each student feels personally invested in one way or another, making this project incredibly unique and special.

CREW, Not Passengers

As an EL school, ISAAC benefits from sharing best practices with fellow EL schools across the country, encouraging kids to seek success not just in the classroom, but to be good citizens, devoted to good character and stewardship with an eye for social justice. At