We Hope You’ll Visit: Lilla G. Frederick Students Invite You to Dorchester

By Shannon Slocum, K-8 Publishing and Programs Specialist, AmeriCorps VISTA

Students from the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School

For fifty students from the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School, the academic year started with an introduction to a year-long project. Huddled inside the second floor of the Grove Hall Public Library, they learned they would be writing a book.

As many adults know, writing a book is no easy feat; in fact, many have tried and failed or tried and decided to take a break to pursue smaller projects. Writing a book isn’t for the faint-hearted, so it was fitting for a group of middle schoolers (a notoriously defiant age range) to tackle such a challenge.

One of the sixth-graders, Saul, would later reflect that upon hearing about the Young Authors’ Book Project, “I was very nervous…because when Ms. Shannon came [I thought]…we need to do the book today.”

It was evident early on that this was a conscientious group of English Language Learners and Special Education students who would work to perfect a language that puzzles even highly skilled speakers.

“Writing our paragraphs was hard. We had to put in a lot of effort because we wanted everything to be perfect,” wrote the Student Editorial Board in their foreword to the book. Their drive also confirmed that they’d be able to handle the frankness of nonfiction.

In the past, nonfiction projects have been reserved for older students as they begin to navigate the power of persuasive and personal essays. Seven years ago, eleventh-grade students from Boston International High school published I Want You To Have This, a collection of essays about meaningful objects they immigrated with to Boston. After the city mayor called for a high school redesign in 2017, the first graduating class of the Margarita Muñiz High School responded with Attendance Would Be 100%: Student Proposals for High School ReDesign Boston. This year’s group of young authors reached beyond the traditional subjects for middle schoolers to research and write reports about meaningful locations in their community.

Grove Hall hums with a history of activism, serving as a hub for community leaders like Otto and Muriel Snowden, Melnea Cass, and Lilla G. Frederick, for whom the school is named after. The Young Authors’ Book Project stayed in line with this mission, starting the process with a list of locations that weren’t just important for their past (like Dorchester North Burying Ground), but significant for their actions towards the future (like Found in Translation, Dorchester Youth Collaborative, and All Dorchester Sports & Leadership). Many of the students were already familiar with a few of the resources, like Freedom House, a nonprofit community-based organization dedicated to youth development, specifically college prep programming and VietAID, a community center in Fields Corner for Vietnamese Americans. “I think VietAID makes the most important contribution to the community because it helps support Vietnamese [people] living in the United States,” says Yen, a thirteen-year-old in Jennifer Dines’s ESL class. “It can help Vietnamese-American development, helping [people] understand the traditions and history of Vietnam.”

In the months that followed, the students became researchers, writers, and explorers of Dorchester, interviewing and meeting experts of their chosen landmarks. The streets surrounding their school sprung to life with history, thanks to touring organizations like Boston Women’s Heritage Trail and Boston by Foot. When the field trips ended and it was time to translate their experiences into paragraphs, the students were encouraged by 826 Boston volunteers to fill the pages with their words, not anyone else’s. Will Marshall, the Publishing and Programs Manager for 826 Boston, expanded, “The project will give students the chance to author an asset-based exploration instead of being the recipients of a legacy written by others.”

Emmy, an eighth-grader in Jennifer Dines’s ESL class, connected with Dorchester Art Project, a community-driven art space in Fields Corner. In her report, she focused on one of the resident artist’s videos:

Joanna Tam is an artist at Dorchester Art Project. At the beginning of her video called ‘Reduction Study (Ping Pong),’ you can see the ping pong balls fall and see a black background…There is silence for up to thirty seconds…Then…you can hear the rhythm of the ping pong balls…Then we can see Joanna Tam in a black dress and a plastic blouse full of ping pong balls…Joanna Tam talks about her feelings when she arrived in the United States and what her language was like.

The final weeks of writing were also an opportunity for reflection, specifically how the students saw themselves as writers. We asked them to write down the easiest and hardest parts of the project, what their writing was like at the beginning and end, and how they had changed as writers. “Their selected artifacts and self-reflections were then assessed by Northeastern University graduate students,” said Carolyn Navikonis, Director of Programs and Community Engagement. “They found that 81% of students demonstrated improved writing skills and/or increased confidence and persistence with challenging writing assignments.”

The seedlings of these findings began to sprout in the middle of the school year when the English Language Learners had to take the WIDA Consortium’s English language proficiency assessment. Jennifer Dines, the ESL 1 teacher, recently received the WIDA results and reported to us that 30% of students increased from ESL 1 to ESL 3 in one year, compared to 5% the previous year. She attributes this jump to the volunteer support from the Young Authors’ Book Project.

Towards the end of the project, students who finished the final drafts of their reports and portfolios shifted their attention back to their classwork, drawing scenes of their home countries. Buckets of markers and crayons brightened the pencil-sketched cities in Vietnam and beaches in the Dominican Republic. Students became more animated as they described what their houses were like “back home.”

Whether students are new or lifelong residents of Dorchester, 826 Boston and Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School hope that the project will spark a similar sense of pride for their current neighborhoods. Lisa Bartlett, the partnering Special Education teacher, asserted, “We are immensely proud of this final product — Dorchester from the point of view of our students on behalf of everyone who is part of this vibrant community.”

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826 Boston

826 Boston is a nonprofit writing organization where students can share their stories, amplify their voices, and develop as leaders in school and in life.