February 28, 2013
This piece is the first in an occasional series about a college readiness curriculum in use at the High School for Arts and Business in Queens. Future installments will include stories produced by HSAB students through the StoryCorpsU program.
The first day of my ninth-grade English class at the High School for Arts and Business this past year was like any other: full of nerves, anxious glances around the room, and fresh notebooks. But this year would be different, I informed the class. We would be embarking on a marvelous opportunity where their voices would be heard — literally and figuratively — through a program called StoryCorpsU.
To start, I directed students to get out of their seats for an activity. I handed out index cards with questions on them and within minutes the room was abuzz with discussions about students’ vision of a perfect day, their hopes and dreams for the future, and the three objects they would bring to a space station. Thus began our first StoryCorpsU class and we were on our way.
StoryCorpsU is a college-readiness curriculum consisting of 29 lesson plans, centered on content produced by StoryCorps, the nonprofit organization that helps people across the country share their personal stories. The goals of StoryCorpsU are to improve students’ speaking and listening skills, boost their self and social awareness, and promote school connectedness, or the belief held by students that adults and peers in the school care about their learning as well as about them as individuals. My school was picked to partner with StoryCorps after being introduced through the Association of American Publishers Adopt-a-School program.
Rigorous testing schedules often don’t allow time for students and teachers to share stories and get to know one another, so my students eagerly look forward to StoryCorpsU Fridays. Having this opportunity allows for a break from test preparation, while still holding students accountable for producing a meaningful product with measurable results. StoryCorpsU also allows for building trust and respect amongst students and teachers in the classroom. It was an excellent way to start the year because the curriculum is student-centered and interactive. The activities foster sharing of experiences and I got to really know the students and they got to know each other.
If students come to school and feel isolated and unknown in their classes, will they feel driven to ask the tough questions that will allow them to reach their full academic potential? Both the research on school connectedness and my 15 years of teaching experience tell me the answer is no. Over the following months, my students shared stories about important people, places, and events from their past. They then began to reflect on how these stories impact who they are today. These stories illuminated strengths and aspirations I knew the students had but did not previous have a way to express. The StoryCorpsU lesson plans allowed me to learn that Jose wants to be a pilot, Christian’s family owns a farm in the Dominican Republic, and Jennifer has studied Jiu-Jitsu and has a green belt in karate.
The students aren’t the only ones sharing stories. I’ve shared stories reflecting on my challenges and successes as well. One story in particular stands out. I recorded a story to model an assignment that asked students to share an important event from their past. My story was about the unconventional path I took in earning my undergraduate degree. I was nervous as I cued up the recording in class. I’ve spent the past 15 years in front of students in the classroom but this was different. I was sharing a story that was personal and I felt vulnerable. I worried about what my students would think as I hit play. When the recording finished the students asked a barrage of questions about my life and journey to being the first in my family to graduate from college. I was all too happy to share in the hopes that I might inspire my students who face challenges to push past them toward their futures.
Through the curriculum we’ve created a safe space where students’ stories, families, and experiences are honored and welcomed. It’s a space I look forward to each week, just as my students do.