Changing how students view the world and each other — in an instant
Educator Tracy Crowley shares her experience of using Everyday Africa’s curriculum in her classrooms in the Chicago suburbs.
It’s not often that it only takes an instant to know something you’ve done in the classroom has had a profound impact on the way your students view the world and the people in it. But this is what happened when Everyday Africa co-founders Peter DiCampo and Austin Merrill visited School District 21 in Wheeling, Illinois. In a sliver of time, our students learned they don’t have to take the negativity in the news at face value and that they can be empowered to think critically instead of accepting stereotypes often found in the media or thrown at them by bullies on the playground.
The Journey Begins
Our journey with The Everyday Projects began in 2014 through an initiative by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis reporting, a non-profit journalism organization that connects classrooms with journalists in-person or through video chat experiences, along with creating progressive curriculum, lessons and media for teachers and students.
Within minutes of Peter and Austin’s presentation, it’s clear that something special is happening. First, they ask students what they think of Africa. Their responses range from extensive animal lists to stereotypes that are hard to hear such as ‘murder,’ ‘death,’ ‘disease-ridden,’ ‘starvation’ and ‘hard life,’ with the occasional Lion King and Madagascar thrown in for good measure. We found ourselves wondering, ‘Where do young people pick up negative preconceptions?’ Perhaps from the news or from taking on the views of their parents, which most likely also come from news that focuses on negative events?
Students then search for current Africa-related stories on the internet, sharing the headline, a short summary and where they found the story. Questions we consider are: Is it from a credible source? Were the stories generally negative or positive? How does the news shape our view of the world? Students learn there is more to the story than the headline and that they should critique the information before drawing their own conclusions.
After these two exercises, students are jam-packed with negative stereotypes and misconceptions about Africa. Because the introductory activities have connected with the students emotionally, they are typically on the edge of their seats eager for more information. At this point, we introduce the Everyday Africa feed, which is a stunning array of vibrant, powerful, intriguing photographs and narratives that evoke the heart and mind. Together these images, taken by photographers living and working in Africa, tell the everyday stories that give a more balanced view of the continent than the extremes highlighted in the news.
There are often ‘ooos’ and ‘aahhhs’ as students realize there are swimming pools, nice houses, stylish clothes, current technology devices, malls and other common objects and experiences. Much of what the students notice are recognized as similar to the lives they are living in the United States. They observe other daily life scenes too, like parents caring for their children, smiling people, local elections, birthday parties and beach vacations. Students then read the comments written in response to the pictures to learn how others perceive the images.
In a short time, I notice a shift in how students see the world. Lucia, a 6th grade student, tells me, “Now I know that even though people live differently, we really are all pretty much the same inside, and that’s what matters.”
After the journalists leave, we carry on these important conversations by using the Everyday Africa curriculum as a way to transfer that learning to other regions. For example, our students love to see other students in classrooms, at roughly the same time they are, in faraway places through Everyday Education. “Now when I see on the news about ISIS attacks in Egypt or extreme poverty and beggars on the street, I know there is so much more to life in Africa,” says Patrick, a 6th grade student.
Three other accounts we often use with our students are Everyday Latin America, Everyday Asia and Everyday Everywhere, amongst others. For example, Everyday Climate Change also has an astonishing display of photography that helps students understand how our beautiful world is being affected by the actions of mankind and highlights what we can do to help stop or reverse this damage. A student excitedly points out, “Using Everyday Climate Change gets us out of boring old text books and into the world…and all of this stuff is happening now!”
Everyday Middle East helps our 8th grade students understand the complex current events happening across the region. Like other Everyday accounts, Everyday Middle East dispels the myth that only conflict and devastation exist. Maria also tells us that “seeing the photos makes a far, far away place feel really close…and then it matters more what is going on over there.” It really gives the students a sense of how diverse the region is and helps them emotionally connect to what’s happening.
Elementary and middle school students studying immigration per their social science standards find that Everyday Migration and Everyday Refugees give deep meaning to their learning. Many students strongly connect with the photos and stories of child migrants, as they begin to understand what it would be like if they were to be in a similar situation.
Some of our students have been migrants themselves and about a third of the students shyly raise their hands when asked who was born in a different country and came to live in the United States with their families. We also have a small percentage of refugee students from El Salvador. Ailee, a 4th grade student, wrote, “At first I thought refugees were bad people that had to leave because they committed a crime or something, but now I know that is very rarely true. Fifty-one percent of immigrants are children! What!? Immigrants are just trying to find a better life, and they have to be really strong and brave.”
Shifts in students’ thinking come even faster and sometimes immediately after discussing the new region. They often laugh at the way they previously thought.
The students then decide to write to the photojournalists as a way to share their learning, enthusiasm and questions. Though we tell them not to expect a response, it wasn’t long before responses pour in from Everyday Latin America.
I’ll never forget when students saw these ‘famous photographers’ and impressive humanitarians had written them back. Our students were absolutely incredulous that they were important enough for a response from people doing important work in the world.
A back-and-forth exchange occurs with in-depth narratives on the photos, driven by the students’ questions. One student exclaims, “We know all of this new stuff, and I want to DO something, so now what?”
Students Take Action
Empowered with their Instagram experiences and exchanges with photojournalists, students decide to capture everyday life in their communities. After arming them with photography basics and discussing possible stereotypes of the Chicago suburbs, they started publishing their work to a blog and created @EverydayChicagoSuburbs, which the students will start posting to soon. Another of our goals is to connect with other school-based Everyday projects such as @EverydayDC and @EverydayNorthGlenn.
The last experience of this curriculum is for students to compare their photographic narratives to the themes found in Everyday Africa, such as family, culture, love and sadness — common emotions and experiences that connect us all. They place their picture demonstrating love in Chicago, for example, next to an example of love found in an Everyday Africa photograph, writing about the commonalities and differences they see. Their work culminates in an exhibit that students, parents and community members attend to view and celebrate their photography. Everyone is always proud of the messages discovered and shared by these compassionate and creative students.
One student shared with us how his parents’ eyes were opened to other cultures after viewing the gallery. On the car ride home the family discussed how the “Everyday” concept applies across cultures and how humans experience similar emotions, even if their lives are different. I believe that the student gallery and our Everyday Chicago Suburbs Instagram feed are great ways to solidify new learning and keep the spirit of The Everyday Projects alive in our schools and communities.
Three years later the team still visits our school district multiple times a year to work with every 6th grade student — that’s in addition to the work they do in other regions of the country and abroad. Their powerful and universal curriculum works well for 3rd grade students all the way through college-age learners. Occasionally I informally survey students, sometimes up to a year or two later, who have been through the Every Africa curriculum. There is evidence that this deep and powerful learning stays with students for a long time, and I often wonder if this learning just becomes a part of who they are.
Since Peter and Austin visited our schools three years ago, The Everyday Projects has expanded at lightening speed, which is great news for us. Because the Everyday curriculum fits so smoothly with subject standards, more and more teachers are adopting these teaching practices as they catch wind of how it instantly engages our students and brings the world into the classroom with the click of a button.
Students also have the possibility of creating their own content and sharing it with the world via Instagram, connecting with others around the globe on important topics. Students often choose to follow many of these accounts and take the initiative to find other Everyday accounts they are interested in, sharing with family, friends and classmates.
I believe we have only scratched the surface of the potential The Everyday Projects can impart in schools. Modern learners highly value social connections and want to collaborate while they are learning — The Everyday Projects puts these tools in their hands to do exactly that.
Tracy Crowley is an instructional leader, curriculum writer, educational consultant, speaker and photographer with a passion for global education, student directed learning and innovative instructional practices. Currently Tracy is a district-wide Information Literacy Specialist in Wheeling School District 21, integrating technology and curriculum for pre-k through 8th grade students and teachers.