There’s tons of talk about the vast gulf between school districts in Connecticut. Westport and Bridgeport — just a few miles apart — offer particularly stark differences.
Much of the time, it’s only talk.
But a collaboration involving 2 schools, 4 English teachers, and 95 students this year showed what happens when people try to bridge the gap.
The project began with Staples High School librarian Colin Neenan. He thought The Hate U Give — a popular young adult novel about a girl who becomes an activist after witnessing the police shooting of her unarmed friend, and exists in both her urban neighborhood and a wealthy private school — would be a great vehicle to bring suburban and city students together.
Danielle Spies and Barb Robbins — who teach 3A and 2 Honors English respectively at Staples — were selected from among several volunteers. Neenan and co-librarian Tamara Weinberg connected with Fola Sumpter and Ashley LaQuesse, Harding High teachers who were enthusiastic about the collaboration.
First, Westport students went to the Bridgeport school. They met their counterparts, and discussed the first 26 pages of the novel.
One of Robbins’ students was nervous about meeting new, “different” people, the teacher says.
After the first session though, she told Robbins, “They’re just like me. We had so much to talk about.”
Staples literacy coach Rebecca Marsick — who was also involved in the project — adds, “They’re all teenagers!”
A dramatic reaction came from a Westport girl. She was stunned to hear Bridgeporters say that nearly every day they heard of a friend treated unfairly by police — and at least once a month, someone they knew was shot by an officer.
“I couldn’t think of even one person who had a really negative interaction with the police,” she said.
“I never doubted that people of color constantly face racism. I just never heard about it face to face. It’s crazy to me that I can live a town away from them, and have such a different life experience.”
The next step involved Flipgrid, a video education platform. For 6 weeks the teenagers exchanged videos, posted questions about the novel, and shared responses.
They also read articles about race relations throughout history, explored current events, and studied pop culture and poetry. The common thread was themes that both unite and divide communities.
After 6 weeks, the Harding students came to Staples. They gathered in the library for lunch, free-wheeling discussions, and a special activity.
They created “body biographies”: mapping out what various characters from the novel held in their heart and backbone, for example, and what their eyes focused on.
They dug deep — and shared their own lives and experiences too.
“The book is not easy. There are some hefty topics,” Robbins says. “But the interactions were sensitive, and very respectful.”
Then they all posed for a group photo.
The final project was to write stories about current events, and share them with everyone.
Some students said the project was the most important experience they’d ever had in high school. One called it “the most important event of my life.”
“It opened our kids’ eyes to their opportunities here,” Robbins says. “But they also saw how much they have in common with the Bridgeport kids.”
Last fall, two Staples girls wrote research papers on inequality in educational opportunities. To actually see that gap with their own eyes, they told Robbins, was “really compelling.”
The Staples instructor echoes her students’ reactions.
“It took a lot of work. There were logistical issues, and tons of preparation. But this is one of the best things I’ve ever done as a teacher. I learned so much!”
Fola Sumpter — one of the Harding teachers — adds, “This project gave my students confidence as readers, writers and collaborators. They have a new perspective on people, and I am seeing them operate as thinkers on a whole new level.”
The collaboration may not end. Among other ideas, students from both schools talked about forming a book club.
That’s a great idea. But it’s not as easy as it sounds.
“In Westport, if we want to add a book to our curriculum, we pretty much can,” Robbins says.
“In Bridgeport, they have a tough time even funding the books they already study.”