Multilingual Learners

The Ubuntu Academy: An Immigrant and Refugee Youth Writing Camp

CT Connecticut’s Ubuntu Academy was a two-week literacy lab designed to invite immigrant and refugee youth into writing spaces that honor their heritage and promote academic success. Additionally, they extended this work into digital projects and a Writing Our Lives Conference.

CWP-Fairfield is committed to providing summer enrichment programming to immigrant and refugee youth in southern Connecticut. With the success of Young Adult Literacy Labs, a decision was made to provide a literacy lab for new Americans as a means to counter summer literacy loss and to introduce educators attending the Invitational Summer Institute to the changing demographics of our region. In 2014, CWP-Fairfield welcomed 12 youth to Ubuntu Academy, a two-week literacy lab that resulted through a partnership between Bridgeport Public Schools, Fairfield University, and CWP-Fairfield. This year, though, CWP-Fairfield hosted 26 young people into the program. Ubuntu, a Bantu word that translates as “I am, because we are,” was used as a philosophy to unite all of our literacy labs and the 2015 summer institute for teachers. Our first year, participants in Ubuntu Academy were somewhat isolated from CWP-Fairfield’s other programming. In year, two, however, we viewed the arrival of young people from Congo, Benin, Tansania, Honduras, Ecuador, Haiti, Bangladesh, and Mexico as a means to promote the importance of community in all writing communities. For two weeks, youth in Ubuntu Academy were given opportunities to teach American-born students and teachers about their lived experiences while practicing oral and written language skills.

Interestingly, educators in Greenwich contacted CWP-Fairfield in 2014 and shared that their town was using Outcasts United as part of its Everyone Reads initiative. The book shares the story of Luma Mufleh and her soccer team of relocated refugees outside Atlanta, Georgia. The Greenwich educators learned of Ubuntu Academy through a teacher attending our ISI. As a result, they asked several youth from our first year of Ubuntu Academy to their schools where each presented their life stories with middle and high school American-born kids.

This year, Ubuntu Academy featured Warren St. John’s Outcasts United as a touchtone text for students to read, and copies of the book were given all teachers attending our ISI. A shared text offered a location for teachers in the ISI to bond with the immigrant and refugee youth who attended. The young people were empowered, rather than being seen as a deficit.

A large portion of the 2014-2015 academic year was spent with a focus on the LRNG Innovation Challenge grant received by CWP-Fairfield last December. The LRNG Innovation Challenge is a partnership between NWP, the John Legend Show Me Campaign, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Teachers from six high schools collaborated to unite students in writing projects that responded to a prompt of why youth matter in the Nutmeg state. All written pieces were turned into digital projects and, in May, 130 representatives from 6 high schools congregated at Fairfield University for a Writing Our Lives, Digital Ubuntu conference.

The idea for the yearlong work resulted from teacher collaboration with the CT Mirror and through writing the Op-Eds. The teachers wanted students at their schools to have similar experiences. Kate Bedard (Bassick High School, Bridgeport), Jennifer von Wahlde (Darien High School, Darien), Paula Fortuna (Global Studies Magnet High School, Norwalk), Kim Herzog (Staples High School, Westport), Shaun Mitchell (Central High School, Bridgeport), and Megan Zabilansky (Joel Barlow High School, Redding) had students collaborate beyond the boundaries of individual classrooms. During the ISI teachers read Troy Hick’s Crafting Digital Writing and before receiving the LRNG Innovation Challenge grant, they partnered to discuss possible ways to have students share work across schools. The grant, however, allowed these teachers to take their dreams to a whole new level.

Each high school was provided copies of Matt de la Peña’s We Were Here, a young adult novel about three young men finding their purpose in life after they run away from a group home. The reading was paired with the movement at Harvard University, “I, Too, Am Harvard,” where marginalized students voiced a desire to be heard and recognized as unique individuals. CWP-Fairfield’s LRNG work brought the voices of young people into Connecticut conversations through asking them, “Why are you here?” Two high schools responded to the prompt through blogs (n=120), two others responded with TedX talks (n=80), one of the schools created radio plays (n=30) and another conducting a digital map narrative (n=60).

The LRNG Innovation Challenge grant provided funds to hire TedXTeen coach, Robert Galinsky, to visit schools. In addition, Matt de la Peña, author of We Were Here, arrived as a keynote during the Writing Our Lives-Digital Ubuntu conference. Other guests included Attallah Sheppard (spoken word poet, Writer’s Block Ink) and Caryn Sullivan (motivational speaker, Pretty Wellness). Unique to the culminating event, too, was that students from each school led conference sessions for the other schools. Students who attended were given choice over which workshops they would attend.

Another once-in-a-lifetime opportunity arriving from the LRNG Innovation Challenge grant was an invitation to participate a NYC event that celebrated the work. Megan Zabilansky, teacher from Joel Barlow, was invited to take the stage with John Legend at the event. There, she spoke about the importance of letting teachers and students shine. In addition, John Legend announced further support for innovation in education after being introduced by Megan Zabilansky of CWP-Fairfield.

At the time of this report, too, CWP-Fairfield is sifting through the data collected from the six high schools and analyzing materials (written outcomes) that resulted from the partnership. The project included three urban schools, two suburban schools, and one rural school. Youth voices were promoted and teacher excellence was celebrated.