Bringing Out Student Voices in the Time of the Pandemic

Our School Programs (Offered Virtually in this Time of Pandemic)

As young people in Long Island’s and New York City’s poorer neighborhoods reach the age where opportunities should be expanding, they face the consequence of segregation, racism, and economic inequality. School officials often slate them for failure; the systems set up to serve them, the schools, courts, jails, too often break what little spirit they have left. Yet somehow, if asked to reveal who they are and given the tools to convey this so that others can hear, they are ripe for transformation, empowerment and personal growth.

At a time when all students are suffering from the lack of in-person learning, we have come up with an innovative model that is being used by the Westbury, Hempstead, Central Islip and Long Beach school districts to creatively combat the coldness and impersonal nature of zoom. In the Hempstead school district, we offer Herstory Across the Curriculum in partnership with teachers of Mathematics and Social Studies, where students who are writing for justice gather the statistics, current and historical facts which their personal stories support.  In all of the districts,we continue to gather the stories of newcomer students, who are hardest hit as they try to learn English remotely, in an ever-growing programming, using our bilingual, student-created volume, Brave Journeys/Pasos Valientes, as a text. 

“At the heart of teaching lies relationships,” writes Susanne Marcus, twice president of NYS TESOL (Teachers of English for Speakers of Other Languages), who has been charged to help Herstory bring our virtual Brave Journeys Study Guide to teachers and school counselors seeking new tools.

“English Language Learners represent a student cohort that has been deeply impacted by the pandemic.  In addition to loss of learning necessary English skills, many students lost their connections to trusted adults at school, thus, the social-emotional aspect of relationships weakened. Beyond the academic benefits of the four language skills, the Herstory Writing approach fulfills the need to connect with caring adults. Many of the Herstory techniques used to draw out students’ stories pivot on relationships of deep trust. It is only when students feel safe and connected to caring adults that they engage in the learning process and cope with life’s adversities.” 

 

To receive a free introductory bundle of sample lessons plans and stories, click here.

In-School and After-School Workshops

Herstory’s 11-year-old Youth Writing for Justice program engages middle and high school students whose lives have been impacted by discrimination, poverty, and inequality of opportunity in intensive memoir writing workshops conducted by carefully trained facilitators, offered through afterschool programming or incorporated into the ongoing school curriculum.   Following Herstory’s portable and flexible model, semester-long workshops conducted in English and Spanish, participants are asked to write about an issue they care deeply about, something that happened to them or that they witnessed. They learn a new way of looking at narrative structure, based on what creates empathy in a reading stranger, as they help one another develop strategies to enable a reader to care.  

As participants learn how to weave their own stories into powerful pieces of writing exploring racial justice, police

practices, discrimination against immigrants, and the impact of mass incarceration on families and communities, they develop shared actions around the policies that affect their communities the most. It is a game all can play, that is not dependent on previous academic performance or mastery of the mechanics of reading and writing. Participating school districts have reported enormous gains in school performance, social emotional literacy, and college preparedness among the students who have worked with our facilitator teams.

 

As these semester-long workshops progress, the students slowly began to realize that their stories are not isolated, and that many of their lived experiences are the result of systems failure rather than personal failure. As a result, not only are their feelings of helplessness and vulnerability reduced, but many of them become interested in trying to change the systems that are affecting their lives, taking on leadership roles. Some of our students, who started our program in high school, have continued through their college years and have gone on to become Herstory facilitators.

 

In the words of Kelly Das, a teacher/escort from Long Beach High School, “I have witnessed transformation. I have witnessed lives being saved. I always felt so alone in my quest to inspire young minds and build bridges of motivation and hope for the younger generation. I felt like my efforts were never making a big enough impact. Through my involvement with Herstory I feel like I am beginning to make more strides in my quest to help my students.  For that I am eternally grateful.”

 

Middle and High School Writing Workshops Taking Place on College Campuses

When middle school, high school and college students write together, side by side, the college students acquire new lenses through which to experience the needs of the populations they are studying and will eventually serve, while the middle and high school students-- many representing the first generation in their families for whom college is an option—begin to imagine new educational and career possibilities.  

 

High school and college students who have come through the Youth Writing for Justice have taken on leadership roles in using their stories to help to raise the age of juvenile incarceration in adult facilities, to stop the practice of isolated confinement especially for teens, to raise awareness at public and targeted readings of the issues faced by youth living in disadvantaged communities, of abuse, discrimination, incarceration, addiction, violence and more. They have played a key role in the movement for immigrant rights. The majority of participating students come back semester after semester, as their schedules allow.

 

​This ongoing project was voted among the top programs in community-based learning funded by the Arts Education panel for the New York State Council on the Arts in 2014 and again in 2017, when our funding was renewed. It was featured in the April 2014 newsletter and yearly journal of best practices by NYSUT (New York State Union of Teachers).

 

Additional Background

In 2011, with support from the Ben and Jerry Foundation and the Ms Foundation, Herstory began an experiment in education, bringing at-risk high school students to college campuses to learn the Herstory pedagogy, writing side by side with undergraduate students for a semester-long afterschool program. Meeting for 2 hours each week, the students were asked to write about something they had either witnessed or experienced, and by which they had been deeply affected.  Using their own life experiences, they learn to compellingly tell and write their stories even if more conventional approaches to writing have failed to build proficiency or ignite a spark. They also learn to feel empathy and compassion for others, reducing the likelihood to harass, bully or discriminate.

 

They discover that their stories are not unique, and that many of their lived experiences illustrate systems failure rather than personal failure. Not only are their feelings of helplessness and vulnerability reduced but, once their eyes are opened to the bigger picture, many of them become interested in trying to change the systems affecting their lives.  As their stories, told in their own voices, are heard by their teachers, counselors, school and government officials and neighborhood stakeholders, the systems often do begin to change. Additionally, teachers report that as they learn to put their stories together, students show improvement in their regular classes across the board, and are better able to understand narrative questions on standardized tests.

 

This program has continued to expand and thrive over the years, with support from the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) since 2012.  During the past year, before COVID19, we were at last given the opportunity to incorporate many of our existing afterschool programs into the regular school day.  We entered the 2019/20 school year, with 8 contracted weekly in-school workshops (4 at Hempstead High School, 2 at Central Islip High School, 1 at South Ocean Middle School and 1 at Patchogue/Medford High School), serving over 200 students. By the end of 2019, we had an additional 3 contracted in-school workshops in place (2 at Westbury High School, and 1 at Long Beach High School), slated to start by March of 2020. Our afterschool programs continued to thrive at Long Beach, Westbury and Queens High Schools, with a new one at Hicksville High School through Nassau BOCES, that had just run for 3 sessions as COVID 19 struck.  We worked with New York Edge to bring 75 middle school students from Harlem, Jamaica, and Brownsville to the campus of Adelphi University for retreats to enable them to write side by side with college students as they reconstructed their stories.  We worked with Erase Racism to deliver a daylong retreat for students from 5 schools in the Sewanhaka School District.

 

We published two books of student stories Brave Journeys, a bilingual collection of stories by young people (ages 14-17) who crossed the border by themselves, selling over 7000 copies, locally to school districts and nationally through First Book, an organization of 450,000 educators dedicated to bringing books to students in communities where people are too poor to own books. All I ever wanted… Stories of Children of the Incarcerated, has sold over 1000 copies, again nationwide.  

 

In March of 2021 when the schools on Long Island shut down because of the pandemic, we began to convert our in-school and after-school workshops into an online model, experiencing enormous success.   As of this writing, in addition to our online workshops for new language learners and students with disabilities, the groups hardest hit by the conversion to online learning, who are thriving in our program, we are offering special workshops to elevate Black Students Voices, Immigrant Student Voices, and LGBTQ Student Voices through free online workshops across a wide geographical range. Through a large-scale innovative program at Hempstead High School, we are working online within the ongoing school curriculum to generate stories with teachers of mathematics, social studies and science, offering 6 hours a week of programming to 5 classroom teachers with the goal of giving voice to community realities and needs to be shared with legislators, school officials and other community stakeholder. This work is coupled with a growing collection of online resource materials, including process videos, video interviews and readings by student authors and curricular study guides. In Westbury High School we are working with 4 classes of newcomer students and their classroom teachers, helping the students to write their stories in the language of their memories and dreams. We are working with Long Beach and Central Islip High School as well.  

 

To quote Felicia Prince of the Hempstead School district. “When they are first asked to write a story that would dare others to care about their problems, most sound like victims at the start. But it works out that they complete that task and they take on the challenge to care about others. The end result, a community of victors.”