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.
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.
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 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.
(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."
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.
"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.
"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 ISAAC, students are encouraged to live by the school’s motto, to become CREW, not passengers. And according to the students at ISAAC, it’s not just lip service.
"Every other school, they just act like 'we’re the teachers, you’re the student, we teach you and that’s it.' Here, we’re a family, we do this together. We are CREW, not passengers. They say that all the time because they really mean it, which is amazing," Gashi says.
Being able to work toward and meet state standards, while also incorporating unique and innovative approaches to learning, is part of what makes public charter schools like ISAAC such a desirable option for so many families. Kuczenski shared that he has colleagues who work both in traditional district schools as well as schools of choice like charters. What he really enjoys about the charter environment, he says, is being treated both as an educator and as an intellectual.
"At a charter school like ISAAC, we are able to be creative, innovative, and plan authentic projects for the kids," he says. He notes that while ISAAC must meet state standards just like any other public school, educators are not "handcuffed" when it comes to rethinking the way students can learn a particular subject or topic. "Being in a smaller, charter school setting gives us the flexibility to take control of what we see as being our strengths, areas to improve, truly work on those areas together as a crew."
Standing in the Spotlight
It didn’t take long for folks outside of ISAAC to take notice of the project and to recognize the students for their hard work. The project has been highlighted several times in The Day newspaper, and ISAAC students recently visited the State Capitol in Hartford to be recognized as part of Connecticut Immigrant Day. Students were honored with the Angela R. Andersen Memorial Award, which "recognizes young people who are passionate about the issues impacting immigrants and refugees."
Kuczenski (top, l) and ISAAC students (including Gashi) with Sen. Paul Formica of East Lyme at Connecticut Immigrant Day
But according to McCoy, Gashi and Gortner, it won’t stop there. Once completed, their photographs will go into a hardcover book, the proceeds of which will go to the Immigration Advocacy Support Center in downtown New London. The final project will also be presented at galleries throughout the state, beginning at Connecticut College and hopefully eventually in high-traffic areas such as Bradley International Airport and at the statehouse. There are even plans to try and get the attention of high-profile celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and Malala Yousafzai.
But even more important than accolades and recognition, ISAAC students hope their project will convince people to unlearn any negative stereotypes associated with the word "immigrant," and recognize that we are all more alike than we realize.
"I hope they learn we are all human and there’s no difference," Gashi says.
"You shouldn’t treat somebody different just because they’re not the same as you. This country would not be a country if it was not for immigrants," Gortner added.
"What I think people will learn (from the project) is to treat us all equal. We’re all humans, we all were created the same, nothing different," said McCoy. "Our skin color may be different but it doesn’t mean that you should treat us differently. I hope that they will learn to treat us all equal because we are all the same."
We are so incredibly proud of these amazing students! You can see even more of this awesome project by visiting their interactive art exhibit on Tuesday, April 24 from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the Cummings Art Center at Connecticut College, located at 270 Mohegan Avenue in New London! The event is free and open to the public!
Here's a sneak preview:
'ISAAC students recognized at 21st Connecticut Immigrant Day' via The Day
'ISAAC's immigration project selected for national award' via The Day
NECSN's Yam Menon: 'As examples in Norwich and New London show, charter schools work and deserve support' via The Day