“The Hate U Give” Brings Schools Together

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!”

Staples and Harding High School students work easily together.

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.

Collaborating on a “body biography.”

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.”

A group shot, in the Staples library.

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.”

12 responses to ““The Hate U Give” Brings Schools Together

  1. Maggie Moffitt Rahe

    Kudos to the Staples High English department and the Harding High English teachers.
    The idea sparked by the book bridged a gap. Yes they are all teenagers, however, without the wonderful idea of bringing them to each others’ schools, no one would have met! I’m sure friendships were forming that may endure forever.
    Thank you to the teachers who have insight and courage to communicate and make real life connections.
    Maggie Moffitt Southport, CT

  2. What a great initiative! So glad to see us bridging the gap with the next generation!

  3. Karen Howes

    Wow, what an amazing project, beautiful. So rewarding to all those involved.

  4. Mark Yurkiw

    Brilliant! & Wonderfull. This gets to the heart of the matter. Kudo’s to the teachers who are embracing this !!!

  5. Julie Van Norden

    This is a beautiful and inspiring story, filling me with hope for the future. I hope the program not only continues but expands!

  6. My daughter was was of the Staples students involved in this exchange. Initially reluctant, she was worried that the Bridgeport kids would think she and her friends were shallow and clueless and worse, uncaring. She knew all about the disparities between our neighbors lives and ours, and her teenage sense of justice is daily outraged. But what she learned was that despite the differences in advantages, the kids from Bridgeport are more like her than unlike her. They bonded over their love of books, the Avenger movies, and their fear of gun violence, in their homes, neighborhood and schools, in places where they should feel safe. The first visit to the school in Bridgeport, with its metal detectors at the door, was an eye-opener. But the pride that the students there felt in their community and their school was also an eye opener. And that was something else they all had in common. Some adults thought maybe the kids should not come to Staples, that they’d be angry about the wealth of resources here in Westport, and be uncomfortable by the ease and openness of our campus. The kids wanted them to come, so they could know what is possible and be stengthened to demand more resources and responsiveness from their communities. But they also thought perhaps those metal detectors back in Bridgeport weren’t so scary, if the idea is to protect those young students within the walls, working hard and growing our future. This program which seems so simple, is actually an amazing idea which functions on a lot of levels, and reminds us all that we have things to learn from each other, and many things that we share together. Against abackdrop of national violence and division, this was incredibly powerful to watch happening. We must keep it going, and do more. And if our families need to sponsor books or other materials to keep these dialogues happening, I for one am happy to contribute, fundraise or support however needed.

  7. Susan Ellis

    Kudos to the Bridgeport and Westport teachers who planned and carried out this important project so thoughtfully.

    The last two sentences made me very sad: “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.”

    Why do we accept such disparities in school funding in towns in our state?

    • William Strittmatter

      Obviously, it’s all about money. Bridgeport doesn’t have the tax base and the state is already running a deficit, so not a lot of places to go to for the cash. Of course, if you feel strongly about it, you might suggest to the Board of Education that they divert some of Westport’s education budget to Bridgeport’s schools. Like that’s gonna happen.

  8. Daniel Katz

    Ms Kaplan’s throw away line: “We must keep going…” is at once the most important admonition and the caveat in the whole concept of the program.
    Experience tells us that such programs in elementary, middle or high school,
    rarely, if ever, lead to the integration of residential, social or professional ADULT lives.

  9. Kerstin Rao

    I vote for more of this kind of collaboration. I’ve seen exactly this level of insight and understanding develop in 2004, when the Connecticut Association for the Gifted awarded a grant to 8th grade teacher Bonnie Hole at Longfellow School in Bridgeport and me to bring our students together to study archaeology. We took field trips to the Yale Archaeology Lab and the Pequot Museum, but the trip which left the greatest impact was visiting each others’ schools. Every single one of the student comments and feelings in this article was also what our students expressed. It’s a LOT of work to make this happen, so I heartily congratulate the teachers in both districts for arranging this life-altering experience!

  10. Daniel Katz

    Wow! Ms Rao. Ten years ago.
    Please ask yourself how many of your students or the Bridgeport students are NOW involved, in any way, with interracial socializing (I don’t mean the office picnic), residing or professional interaction?
    Then see comment above.

  11. Daniel Katz

    My bad: 14 years ago.
    😦