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CA Curious

Changing how we Change the World

August 22, 2019

On August 21, Scott Phillips, director of the NC Field Office for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, came to speak to seventh graders to kick off a new interdisciplinary design thinking project: Migration Collaboration.

Dr. Phillips gave an overview of who refugees are, the various countries they come from, and the kind of services and programs his organization offers in our local area: “For people whose lives have been uprooted, we offer a path to independence, safety, hope, opportunity, and empowerment.”

His presentation marked only the very beginning of what will ultimately be a year-long deep dive into the topic of migration in our local area—a journey where students will ultimately be in the driver’s seat.

Speaking of small and incremental steps: like so many innovative, collaborative projects, Migration Collaboration has gone through many iterations over the last five years.

Originally called “Change the World,” this unit was initially a Math-Language Arts project that combined graph interpretation with persuasive writing. Students chose a real-world problem they cared about, researched it, and then made a website that persuaded others to take action.

Middle School math teacher and Change the World originator Leslie Williams had always dreamed of merging it with seventh-grade service learning and expanding it to other subjects. So, last spring, several members of the seventh-grade team—Lucy Dawson, Matt Koerner, Allison McCoppin, Leslie Williams and Service Learning Coordinator Maggie Grant—came together and started to dream big . . . really big.

We knew we wanted the project to span disciplines, connect to service learning, get students out into the local community, and give them a chance to effect actionable change. When we took our idea to CA’s Dean of Faculty, Martina Greene, she immediately suggested that we attend the design thinking Institute at the Nueva School in California.

With Martina’s enthusiastic response, our team decided not only to go to California, but to apply for one of CA’s Innovative Teaching Grants. Awarded the grant, we were able to devote a week this summer to apply design thinking principles to our project and then align them with project-based learning teaching techniques (an approach that the seventh-grade math teachers had begun implementing last year). By combining these two pedagogical approaches we hope that Migration Collaboration deepens student empathy and provides for meaningful and authentic involvement in an exploration of human migration.

And why the topic of human migration? It was selected during our time together at Nueva. We all agreed it was a topic of great relevance in today’s world—one that beautifully spans disciplines and offers opportunities for our kids to get to know their community better.

In the classroom, students would study human migration in World History, read Alan Gratz’s Refugee in Language Arts, and learn how to both interpret and create graphs in math to enhance their research. The most exciting parts of the project, however, would be what kids could learn outside of CA’s walls.

A major goal of Migration Collaboration is to get students to interact with the diverse population of the greater-Triangle in multiple and authentic ways over the year—through personal interviews with members of local organizations, hands-on experiences working side-by-side with community partners, and brainstorming/getting feedback from these partners.

The first hands-on experience will take place in September, when seventh-graders will set out in small groups to serve various organizations that work with immigrants in the area. Then in October, in conjunction with our study of migrant farm workers, the grade will take a class trip to glean crops on community farms through the Society of St. Andrew. Students will later be required to interview someone in our local community related to their specific research topic and to follow up with that person during later phases of the project.

Through these multiple, meaningful interactions with our local partners, we hope to avoid the “one and done” approach to service. Instead, we hope to cultivate a substantial, lasting relationships with people in communities outside of CA. By providing opportunities for our students to interact with people of different backgrounds and different experiences, students will develop a sense of empathy and reflect on the way privilege works in our world.

After immersing themselves in the topic of migration in our community, students will choose a “need” or “problem” related to migration in our community that they are interested in addressing personaly. In small groups, they will brainstorm potential solutions, prototyping and tweaking their ideas using processes we learned at the Design Thinking Institute. Students will also utilize TinkerCAD software, which they will learn about in math classes, to create initial prototypes of their solutions.

Importantly, students will not only collaborate with each other in designing ways to address local issues, but will work with their community partners to solicit feedback and input on their ideas and proposed solutions.  Finally, students will have time during their Language Arts classes to act on their final idea and make their plan a reality.

We didn’t want to neglect a major opportunity that this project offered–a chance for us to not only look outside of our CA walls but to also look within, to discover the myriad migration stories originating from our own CA community.

To that end, by interviewing parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, students will connect in the most personal way to what we are learning by exploring their own migration stories. A map in the seventh-grade hall will have threads from all the countries where our students’ families come from, all tracing their connection to our home here in Cary, NC.

Ultimately, our ambitions are lofty. We want students to learn a lot academically… a whole lot. But we’re equally excited about the learning that will extend outside classroom, as we explore the ethics of changemaking, build empathy and develop cultural competencies, and discover what it means to be part of a community, both local and global.

After all, when teaching empathy, we must remember the words of writer John Steinbeck: “You can only understand people if you feel them in yourself.”

Written by Lucy Dawson, MS Language Arts and Social Studies Teacher

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