ISAAC school partners with nonprofit to highlight area immigrants

ISAAC school social studies instructor Mike Kuczenski works with a group of sixth-graders, including Karisma Jenkins, center, 11, and Ella Ortiz, right, 12 in his classroom on Friday, June 9, 2017. Kuczenski created a module used by students studying immigration in their community. (Tim Martin/The Day)
ISAAC school social studies instructor Mike Kuczenski works with a group of sixth-graders, including Karisma Jenkins, center, 11, and Ella Ortiz, right, 12 in his classroom on Friday, June 9, 2017. Kuczenski created a module used by students studying immigration in their community. (Tim Martin/The Day)

New London — Of sixth-grade social studies teacher Mike Kuczenski’s many goals in creating projects for his students, one rises above the rest.

More than anything, the Interdistrict School for Arts and Communication teacher hopes his young students understand they already can make a difference in others’ lives.

It was with that in mind that Kuczenski this academic year launched a module that asks students to create miniature profiles of immigrants in the greater New London area.

He knew his students were more than capable. But when the projects — which feature a hand-drawn map, a professional photo and a summary of the immigrant’s story — came back, he was blown away.

"All of the kids' work from this year is professional caliber," he said.

Now, as the school year draws to a close, Kuczenski has his eyes set on something bigger: a partnership with the city’s own Immigration Advocacy & Support Center.

It’ll work like this: Mike Doyle, founder of IASC, will help Kuczenski develop a network of immigrants willing to be interviewed by his 90 or so students. Doyle also will come to ISAAC from time to time to speak about what his organization does or about current events.

Kuczenski this fall will select the best 12 profiles from the current school year and work with his new students to create a calendar. Then he'll work with his students and with Doyle to seek out area businesses willing to help them sell the calendar.

All of the proceeds will benefit IASC, which provides low-cost, high-quality immigration-related legal services and works to educate residents on immigration law and policy.

Doyle said he knew the project was "in our wheelhouse" as soon as Kuczenski told him about it. Of the belief that change starts with the education of children, Doyle jumped on board immediately.

"If I can help in that way and I don't have to just deal with damage control, I'm all in," Doyle said.

Kuczenski said he had been looking for an organization to partner with to bring even more authenticity to the project. He was surprised when he learned the closest one was about one-tenth of a mile away.

The project, which Kuczenski said was met with full support from his colleagues, exemplifies ISAAC’s mission to provide students with authentic endeavors that allow them to master skills and gain knowledge while becoming "responsible citizens of a global society." It meets state standards, too — standards Kuczenski said were challenging at times to incorporate.

But it also resonates with Kuczenski, whose grandfather immigrated to New York from Norway nearly 70 years ago, and his students, more than half of whom are immigrants or children of immigrants.

It’s an issue, too, that was thrust into the spotlight with the campaign and subsequent election of President Donald Trump, who has vowed to build a wall at the United States-Mexico border and whose controversial so-called travel ban continues to wind through the nation's courts.

In Kuczenski’s model, students learn about the factors at play when one decides whether to come to the United States. They learn about the history of immigration to the country, too, and about immigration policies that are in existence or being discussed.

They then tackle the skills they need to learn to complete the project, which include photography, design, interviewing and writing.

It isn’t always easy introducing students to skills they aren’t familiar with, Kuczenski said.

Take interviewing, for example. Kuczenski this year taught his students how to make eye contact and to pay attention enough to ask follow-up questions. He'd have them practice mock interviews with one another during class. 

Still, some would say that it was too hard and they couldn’t do it. Kuczenski would look at them and repeat their words, and then the students would add, “Yet.”

"We like to model everything we do after the professional world," Kuczenski said. "The more practice they get, the more confidence they have. I think that's my favorite part of teaching: watching them build confidence and grow."

Going forward, Kuczenski said he hopes so many immigrants volunteer to be interviewed that the ratio is one immigrant to one student, which isn't the case right now. He hopes students learn from the immigrants' struggles and learn what the immigrants contribute to the community. And he hopes they realize the calendars will make a real difference in the lives of area residents.

"Every action makes a positive or negative impact — there is no neutral," he said of his message for his students. "Make sure your actions reflect your character."

l.boyle@theday.com

Calendar page created by Grace Baxter, a sixth-grade student at the Interdistrict School for Arts and Communication. (Courtesy of Mike Kuczenski)
Calendar page created by Grace Baxter, a sixth-grade student at the Interdistrict School for Arts and Communication. (Courtesy of Mike Kuczenski)
ISAAC school social studies instructor Mike Kuczenski works with a group of sixth-graders, including Sharelle Riley, 11, in his classroom on Friday, June 9, 2017. Kuczenski created a module used by students studying immigration in their community. (Tim Martin/The Day)
ISAAC school social studies instructor Mike Kuczenski works with a group of sixth-graders, including Sharelle Riley, 11, in his classroom on Friday, June 9, 2017. Kuczenski created a module used by students studying immigration in their community. (Tim Martin/The Day)

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