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Speaking together: Collaboration helps students tell their stories

Kristen B. Morales

April 25, 2019

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They spoke of food, natural beauty, architecture and towns where they lived.

They spoke of the loved ones still there, and their desires—or fears—about going back.

Most importantly, they spoke.

That's because, for the students who presented images and stories about their lives during a recent event at Cedar Shoals High School, English was not their first language. So, not only did they construct narratives, develop maps and charts, create timelines and compile collages about their lives, but they did them in a language they are still learning to master.

Each smaller piece in the narrative built off another, said Melissa Basel, an ESOL teacher at Cedar Shoals, so when it came time for students to, for example, write a timeline for their story, or construct a larger essay, the task wasn't as daunting.

"Teaching isn't just reading and writing," she explained, while encouraging her students to speak about their life stories to visitors at the event. "Teaching and learning are embedded. You do it with all of you—you speak it and act it out and talk it out."

The showcase of student work capped a yearlong project that marries literacy and language skills with leadership and arts development. Basel and her students partnered with faculty and graduate students in the University of Georgia College of Education to work with the students and help them develop their projects.

The program was modeled after an after-school program created by professor Ruth Harman, where she worked with middle schoolers to create similar narratives. This time, they are taking the project one step further with high school students by incorporating it into a class and adding in components of community leadership and art. By understanding their own identities, the educators said, the students understand more about their place in their community.

Sahar Aghasafari, a doctoral student at UGA studying art education, said she began the project with the teens by telling her own story—that of someone who grew up in another country, speaking another language, and learning how to assimilate in a new culture after moving to the United States. Her story and examples—using techniques such as timelines, hand-drawn images, collages and personal writings—helped give the students ideas for how to construct their own.

"This was a great chance for me to work with multilingual/bilingual students," said Aghasafari, who came to UGA from Iran. "It really helped me think, 'How can I help them express themselves?'"

She was one of two bilingual graduate students who assisted with the project; Maverick Zhang, a first-year doctoral student from China, also worked with the students.

The project embraced the concept of "multimodality," or the ability to do something in different ways. Creating a timeline of events in their lives, for example, helps students note key events and form an outline for a narrative. Or, when drawing a map of their home country, students would go beyond explaining, "This is a map," and begin to talk about where they were from, what their town was like, and incorporate other stories of their home country.

"Doing this leads to improvement in writing," Basel added. "We discussed genre, I cut up a paragraph and had them put it back together, we created maps, we used sentence starters."

The results of the projects gave visitors personal insights into what the students' lives were like before coming to live in Athens.

For example, Sandor Giron, 17, came to the United States from El Salvador. His presentation included images of his favorite food and a depiction of the typical architecture in the town where he lived—as well as the gang violence and other hardships that were a part of growing up there.

Another student, 16-year-old Daphne Espino, choked back tears as she explained why she lived with her godmother. Born in Athens, her parents took her back to their native Peru when she was a child. But last year, her mother decided Daphne would receive a much better education in the United States, and she flew back to Athens to finish high school.

She hopes to see her parents this summer, and said she's grateful for the opportunity. But still, it's difficult. "My mom is my everything. She's my best friend," she said. "But I came here for more opportunities and a better life."

Harman said the program is one of several new initiatives she and other faculty have started in the community, all with the focus of using art and literacy to help teens feel more connected to their community and encourage leadership. A program at Parkview Homes' Community Center in downtown Athens works with youth in the neighborhood to tell the stories of their elders, and resulted in a community mural painted last year by local artist Broderick Flanigan. And earlier this year, students in Cedar Shoals High School's Youth Leadership class received a special visit from Maisha Winn, a national expert in restorative justice practices.

These projects will continue in the fall under the umbrella of the "Community Literacies Partnership" and encourage students to take the lead in finding their passions and connection within their community. Harman said, ultimately, the students will find their own research projects, develop them throughout the year, and then take them to other schools to share with their peers.

"The objective is to put the youth at the center. The adults are just here to help with the process," said Harman. "We call them co-researchers and civic agents, and we're positioning them to be civic and artistic leaders. We're just supporting the process."