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'You give kids that freedom, powerful things happen'

Some students will easily respond to reading a book or writing a narrative. Others may balk.

Jason Mizell, a doctoral student in language and literacy education, kept this in mind when he heard the protests of a 13-year-old who didn't want to reflect on a book assignment.

At the time, Mizell was in his very first month in Athens, teaching literacy to middle schoolers at the first Camp DIVE in 2016. Mizell and the student were paired together, and at first she was so quiet she refused to say her name to the class. When they read the book "Tar Beach," she confided in Mizell that she didn't want to do the reflective writing like everyone else. Mizell rolled with it.

"She asked to borrow a digital recorder and took it home with her," he says. That night, she recorded her thoughts and brought it in the next day. "So, talk about being reflective—she did it. ... It was freedom, and I believe when you give kids that freedom, powerful things happen."

The student also opened up to Mizell about the community center in her neighborhood. Once a hub of activity, it now sat empty. Mizell mentioned this to College of Education faculty members Ruth Harman and Kevin Burke. A little more than a year later, they are spearheading an initiative to bring new life to the center through UGA programs that involve residents.

And as a result of opening up to Mizell, the quiet middle-schooler has now gained access to a new level of experiences. She and Mizell recently presented their story—specifically, on the topic of black youth and multiple modalities—to an audience at the American Association of Applied Linguistics. Mizell also told the story to an Athens TEDxUGA audience last fall.

The experience simply reinforces what he believes to be the best gift a teacher can give a student—a connection.

"On the last day, she made origami hearts at home with each student's name, and she made a game out of it for the class. For her, it was a massive step," says Mizell. "When we first started, she wouldn't talk. She went through massive growth, and a lot of this is attributed to the fact that we were able to connect to each other."