October 27, 2021

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‘The Found Project’: How We Built Community With the Coming of Age Unit

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Students discussed a range of possible directions and definitions for the term “found,” including realizations about themselves, their interests, their values and their strengths. This invited them to reflect honestly on their experiences during the pandemic, but also encouraged them to take what we think of as an “asset-based approach” by considering not only what was challenging, or “lost,” but also what was inspiring and enlightening, or “found.”

Adapting some of the ideas in the Learning Network guide, students then did a series of reflective exercises that required them to examine personal artifacts from the previous 18 months, including pictures on their camera rolls, diaries and journal entries, and correspondence via text chains and email. Once they had found artifacts that sparked ideas and emotions for them, they started to interpret their experiences and discern themes in what they found.

Together, these introductory activities signaled to students that their voices mattered, that they brought wisdom and insight to school and beyond, and that, while not typical in any sense, the previous months had still provided opportunities for learning and growth.

But, of course, the project also asked students to mine their experiences and share them with others. This could yield great benefits in terms of building community, but it would require students to be vulnerable with their classmates, some of whom they had only known a short time. To set the stage for this, it was essential for teachers to model by completing the project themselves.

The staff at Nowell Academy, whose mission is “preparing pregnant, parenting and underserved youth for success in college, careers and in family life,” did this as part of their back-to-school professional development in August.

In reflecting on the process, Carly Stearnborne, an English teacher known as Ms. Carly to her students, said, “My own insights around Covid were pretty personal, and as a teacher, I tend to be very careful about maintaining appropriate boundaries. But I also knew that letting my students into my experiences would help us build trust and would help them take risks as they developed their own pieces.”

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