by Mitchell Bickman
In the 2019-2020 school year, the Uniondale and Oceanside School Districts on Long Island entered the fourth year of a unique and innovative program that is designed to grow in all students a stronger awareness and understanding of issues facing our communities and our nation. The Bridges program fosters empathy, and collaboration amongst students. It is our belief that engaging students in the evaluation of contemporary issues related to race, economics, and politics will lead to well-rounded, active, and engaged citizens. In Bridges, we encourage difficult conversations and ask challenging questions, and we welcome different points of view with the understanding that we can agree to disagree with civility. We tell students to get beyond your comfort zone, to get to know people different from yourselves. It’s in that space beyond comfort that true education occurs.
We believe that in education there is not one set formula for success. This reality makes teaching one of the most exciting yet challenging professions that exists. Over the past two decades I have been extremely fortunate to work with a group of educators and leaders that are amongst the most passionate and inspiring individuals in this profession today. What sets them apart from others is that they shifted their instructional focus from student engagement to student empowerment, carving out time and space for students to explore their passions. In order to truly empower students, two major shifts have to take place. The first being a focus on student agency, where students are given ownership over the direction of their learning. The second and perhaps most important is that teachers have had to gradually shift their role from that of the expert (or sage on a stage) to that of lead learner, acting in a role that on the surface may appear as more of a moderator or facilitator. Through this approach to teaching student learning no longer exists in a vacuum, but rather it connects to other disciplines in a meaningful and authentic way, allowing teachers to create a more cohesive narrative for students. While there is not a singular pathway towards fostering empowered students, a hallmark of Oceanside’s program is taking informed action.
Due to the demands placed upon K-12 curricula, and the subsequent time constraints it engenders, taking informed action happens least often in classrooms across the country. Our work flips this model with the belief that taking informed action needs to be at the heart of curriculum development and instructional practices. This work is built on the premise that it is critical to provide students with thoughtful and deliberate opportunities to critically and deeply evaluate issues that impact them on a local, national, and global level. As we continue to orient our lessons and units to promote divergent thought and foster argumentative skills, it is more important than ever that we provide students the opportunity to take their new knowledge, skills, and understanding to the world. One of the most common examples that comes to mind would be for students to engage in writing letters to elected officials. However, this is just one of many actions that can be taken by students as they begin to assess their world and take action. Other actions can include:
- organizing a book club to dig more deeply into an issue
- organizing a fundraising event for a cause related to an issue
- Inviting community stakeholders to a classroom forum
- inviting guest speakers to debate an issue
- presenting to elementary school classes
- creating an advocacy campaign (morning announcements, Edmodo, lobby presentation during lunch periods)
- working collaboratively to create a class or team resolution
- organizing a community service project
- interviewing an expert or activist
These ideas are often starting points for larger more meaningful experiences that students can engage in, which is the purpose of Bridges.
The Bridges program began in the Fall of the 2016-2017 school year with a cohort of sixty diverse middle school students. It has been designed to unfold over the course of six years (currently in year four), extending through a student’s senior year in high school. It is our hope that as students move through their high school years, they will take ownership over the direction of a shared service-learning project that will take learning out of the classroom walls, into students’ lives, their community, and perhaps the world.
The Bridges program was born out of a conversation held between Oceanside and Uniondale High School seniors centered on Race in America. At the time of this conversation the news cycle was dominated by Michael Brown, an eighteen-year old teenager from Ferguson, Missouri. Our schools came together via a shared connection we had from a Hofstra University professor, Dr. Alan Singer. Long Island is one of the most racially and economically segregated regions in our nation. The demographics of the Oceanside School District and Uniondale exemplify this reality as Oceanside’s student body is close to 85% Caucasian, while Uniondale a ten-minute bus ride away is almost 100% Latino and African American. Our districts rarely interact beyond the world of sports, so we believed a conversation on Race in America between seniors who were at the time about the same age as Michael Brown would be worthwhile for everyone involved. In addition, many of these students would soon be leaving their segregated communities, and entering college in the fall, a broader world with others different from themselves. Over the course of this hour-long conversation, students shared raw, powerful, and at times emotional experiences about what it was like growing up white, black, Latino in their respective communities while at the same time discussing police culture, racial profiling, and other related topics.
While this conversation was a powerful one, we recognized that one discussion like this is not going to change the world or even these communities. Hopefully it helped students think about issues that are often in the background but never up front, especially in an interracial setting. As they go off to college, maybe these young people will have a new sense of possibility for the future. The desire to extend the conversation and start it at an earlier age led to the creation of the Bridges program an ongoing relationship between Oceanside and Uniondale Middle Schools (and now high schools) where teachers and students come together to make this vision a reality.
Bridges serves as an opportunity to address the growing racial, religious, and ethnic divide on Long Island, where communities remain isolated despite often being very close to one another.
Starting in seventh grade, students at Lawrence Road Middle School (Uniondale) and Oceanside Middle School apply to Bridges via an essay asking which societal issues they wish to see addressed by the government and which they would like to address themselves. Each year of the program is broken up into several meetings. These meetings are designed to first develop trust between the students, then inform them on a topic, allow them to discuss it, and ultimately take informed action regarding the subject.
Bridges students (“builders”) meet to discuss the present events of the day in an environment designed to foster alternative opinions to their own. The project is a six-year journey, with each year organized around a shared theme. Year One focused on immigration and how it affects us on both a personal and national level. Year Two and three has focused on the Age of Protest, the idea of protest, what a “worthy” cause may be, and when it is “right’ to voice protest as a private citizen, public official, or even a celebrity. As students grow and mature, more complicated issues can be addressed, and deeper action taken.
The long term goal of the program is for students to develop lasting relationships with others who on the surface may look different from one another, but have more in common than they initially thought, and while they may not always agree, we look to foster the tools for civil discourse, leading to individuals working together to take informed action. It is our hope that students can garner a shared perspective and mutual respect in a time of intense difference, experience cultural events together, bond, learn new things, and have the opportunity to go on trips to explore their college options as the program grows.
The Bridges program was also briefly profiled in Teaching Tolerance (link: https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/fall-2017/big-ideas-for-social-studies-learners). Since the national magazine came out we have been contacted by teachers in Louisiana, Texas, Missouri, and New Jersey and have helped them to lay the foundation for similar programs in their schools. We also believe that this program can be a national model for schools that we can help build through presentations and publications to inform districts/states of this work.
Too often teachers shy away from issues because they are deemed sensitive or controversial. This program will show teachers that they can embrace these issues head on regardless of resources at their disposal. The program presents a unique opportunity for schools to bridge racial, religious, and class divide that often exists between suburban and urban school districts in a manner that is cost effective regardless of budget. It also presents a flexibility that would allow schools which adopt the program to tailor it based upon the needs of their respective communities or in response to current events and world news of the moment.
The ultimate legacy of Bridges will be the relationships it creates between adults and children who likely would have never interacted were it not for the program despite living in neighboring communities. A more powerful impact Bridges will have is in shaping an enlightened student who is capable of seeing civic issues from the other side of the spectrum as well as mobilizing their views in a way that takes informed action.
From a social-emotional standpoint the program has met its intended goal from conception – creating relationships between students from different backgrounds through discussion and debate, and by creating lasting out of school relationships between students who often had not met someone unlike themselves before. Students socialize outside the program, and within the program find a voice for their growing identities, developing leadership roles, getting a chance to have a voice where in other forums they may feel “drowned out”, and planting the seed of activism by creating change in their own communities.
While Bridges is still in its infancy, the program has expanded with our second cohort of middle school students who began this work last year. Our first cohort are now high school sophomores and have begun to suggest ideas about what they can do to frame out and address issues in their local communities and beyond.
Bridges is no doubt ambitious in its scope and length of time until completion, so we have created several other district wide experiences that exemplify taking informed action. Several other examples of student activism in the Oceanside School District include “A Day Without,” a Driver and Pedestrian Safety Campaign, and the upcoming “World We Want Fair.”
At the heart of Bridges and these other programs is student voice and choice. When student agency becomes the central focus and/or integral to one’s instructional practice students become empowered as change agents who actively seek out problems to solve, not waiting for someone (often adults) to tell them what to do.