This post is written by members Christine McCartney and Jacqueline Hesse.
What is it you are passionate about as an educator? As a person?
Is it social justice? Civic engagement? Making the world a kinder place?
Teachers’ passions are often situated within big ideas that extend far beyond the walls of our classrooms and the confines of curriculum. The challenge we face is to create spaces for our work and our students’ work to transcend those boundaries.
As English teachers at Excelsior Academy, a New York state P-TECH school, our dream was to help our students carve a space for themselves as global citizens, while also considering their own capacity to impact our local community. Over the last three years, our vision has evolved as we invite our students to consider local issues of social justice and equity.
Once a flourishing city on the Hudson River, Newburgh has been experiencing the decades-long effects of deindustrialization. The loss of industry and its impact on the local economy have left our city with an increasing juvenile incarceration rate, entrenched drug and gang issues, and high poverty levels. However, local businesses, community leaders, and organizations in Newburgh have been working diligently to better our city. While we wholeheartedly support the needed revitalization efforts, we worry about gentrification pushing out our students and their families, who may not be able to remain in a city where rents are steadily increasing. We also fear that efforts to improve the city might overlook the interests and voices of the residents who are already here. We need to invite our students to learn about the changes our city is experiencing and find a way to insert their voices in the ongoing conversations about the future of Newburgh.
To do so, we knew we needed to dream big. We created a global service learning program that provides students with the leadership skills they need in order to act as project managers for local community impact projects in Newburgh. Before implementing their projects, students in Global to Local will travel to a foreign country to study grassroots organizations working to better their communities. This June , our first cohort will travel to Ecuador to volunteer at Casa Victoria, an organization that provides after-school homework help and hot meals to under-served youth in San Roque, a struggling section of Quito. Our students will work with young students, teaching them basic robotics, bringing books for their library, and building an outdoor learning center. When they return to Newburgh, they will research issues and build partnerships to create their own grassroots change in our city. The program, which blends project-based learning and inquiry with volunteer work and occurs both inside and outside of the ELA classroom, is an opportunity for us to re-position ourselves as learners alongside our students, who are already seeing the impact of this work before even stepping foot on a plane:
Brendin: Rather than taking a passive role in our lives, we make an effort to change our community for the better and improve our lives and the lives of those around us.
Jason: Through any experience in life, we learn new perspectives from others which shift our thinking.
Maribel: As students, we often find that volunteering creates a sense of empowerment because it allows people to influence and motivate others to do something about their issue of interest.
The process of making this dream a reality hasn’t been simple. We have written countless grant applications and waited two years to take our first research trip until we could secure the funding through Fund for Teachers. We cried with a student who was one of the strongest and most dedicated leaders in our program as we faced the fact that she couldn’t come to Ecuador because she was undocumented and therefore unable to obtain a passport. We have struggled, at times, to manage the complicated logistics of fundraising for and planning an overseas trip while teaching full-time. We know we will have to help our students navigate the roadblocks they will encounter as they take on roles as change agents in our city, but we hope that we serve as role models of persistence and optimism.
We have learned that the best ideas are continually evolving, involve inviting students to the table, and require the tenacity to tackle difficult and sometimes controversial issues that affect our students and our city. When we think about the work we have undertaken to make this a reality, we often come back to the amazingly resilient young people with whom we work. They are the reason we have the courage to dream big.
Christine McCartney, NCTE member since 2013, started her teaching career by volunteering to teach writing in an all-male maximum security prison in New York through the Bard Prison Initiative; that experience was the beginning of her journey as a social justice educator. As a high school English teacher for over a decade in Newburgh, a Fulbright alumni, and a codirector of the Hudson Valley Writing Project, Christine is wedded to working to make her community a better place.
Jacqueline Hesse, NCTE member since 2005, teaches ninth- and tenth-grade ELA at Excelsior Academy, a New York State P-TECH school, in Newburgh. She enjoys volunteering alongside her students and admires their devotion to their community. Jackie is also a teacher consultant with the Hudson Valley Writing Project.