ISAAC's immigration project selected for national award

New London — The students at the Interdistrict School for Arts and Communication this year are meeting strangers and mastering the art of the interview.

They’re taking powerful photographs, compiling video clips and building web pages.

They’re putting together a book and a traveling, interactive art gallery, both intended to highlight the region’s immigrants.

And they’re in the sixth grade.

It’s all part of a project dreamed up by social studies teacher Mike Kuczenski that has changed substantially since The Day wrote about it last summer.

At first, the students, working in groups, were going to turn their 40-minute interviews with community immigrants into 12 calendar pages.

Now they've taken photos to be turned into 20-by-30-inch canvases, each featuring scan-able links to web pages about 16 immigrants. The students are creating the websites, too, each including a summary and a short video.

“Sometimes you forget these are 11- and 12-year-olds doing this work that’s going to make a difference,” said Jen Mitchell, a sixth-grade team leader and math teacher at ISAAC.

Mitchell last week sat down with The Day and two of the involved students, Natalie Acosta and Jose Rivera. As they reflected on the past several weeks of work, Acosta and Rivera were equal parts ecstatic to have been involved with the project and nervous about the looming March 1 deadline.

First, the students studied immigration in general — past and present — and discussed the stereotypes and hardships immigrants can face.

From Mandy Bonano, a professional photographer and ISAAC staffer, the students learned about lighting, composition and angles. They learned, too, that talking to their subjects during a photo shoot can evoke more realistic emotions.

The students also heard from Dr. Leon Fay, who teaches interviewing techniques to first-year medical students at Yale and Tufts universities.

Then all 90 or so students headed out into the city, putting their newfound skills to use as they interviewed and shot photos of immigrants from all corners of the world.

Victoria, the immigrant from England who was interviewed by Natalie Acosta's group
Victoria, the immigrant from England who was interviewed by Natalie Acosta's group.

Acosta said she was nervous before her interview with Victoria — Acosta had never interviewed someone before. But then she realized Victoria was nervous, too, and quickly settled in.

Editor's note: ISAAC officials opted not to use the last names of the immigrants for various reasons.

By the end of the interview, Acosta realized Victoria's faraway country of England wasn’t so different from southeastern Connecticut — four seasons, horseback riding, farms.

“The most important thing I learned was to listen to other people,” Acosta said. “Some people just take a look and create judgment. But you should listen. It can change your perspective.”

Rivera, too, found himself relating to the immigrant he interviewed: Joslaire from Haiti.

They both identify with warm climates, for example — Rivera was born in Rhode Island but his parents are from Puerto Rico, and he strongly relates to the island's  culture.

Joslaire, the immigrant from Haiti who was interviewed by Jose Rivera's group
Joslaire, the immigrant from Haiti who was interviewed by Jose Rivera's group.

“I’m excited for this opportunity to show these community faces to other people in the community,” Rivera said, “so they can realize (immigrants) are human like them.”

Rivera said he hopes community members see the immigrants for more than just the country they represent. He wants people to learn what the immigrants love doing, he said, and what they gave up to come here.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned is that we all have connections with one another,” he said.

The Better World Project

Kuczenski said a $5,000 award from EL Education helped make the hefty project possible. According to its website, EL Education is an organization that “challenges students to think critically and take active roles in their classrooms and communities.”

The award is part of an inaugural initiative EL Education has dubbed the Better World Project. ISAAC is one of just 18 schools across the country selected to participate.

So far, Kuczenski said, ISAAC officials have used the money to:

  • take students to see Rags: The Musical as a learning experience,
  • purchase an audio recorder,
  • partially pay for photography lessons,
  • help pay for the stretched canvas prints to be used in the exhibit, and
  • contribute to the purchase of booklets featuring the students’ work.

Kuczenski said more than 100 hours of volunteer work and discounts through community partners helped the school maximize the award.

Throughout most of February, the project has been multidisciplinary. In math, students were working on coordinate planes, determining how far their immigrant’s hometown is from the respective country’s capital. In science, they compared climates and animal species. In language arts, they crafted the stories of their immigrants, keeping common narrative constructs in mind.

Through the month of April, the students will host guided tours of the traveling gallery featuring their photos of area immigrants.

Venues will include but aren't limited to Connecticut College and the Immigration Advocacy and Support Center, and IASC will receive all proceeds from the sale of the book version of the exhibit.

All of it was designed to provide students with realistic endeavors, as championed by ISAAC’s mission, while still meeting state standards.

“That’s the idea,” Kuczenski said. “To do something authentic that makes a difference."

Staring down the March 1 deadline, Acosta said she and her peers “are serious about the minutes we waste” but still are having fun.

“It’s pretty cool to know we’re doing something that no one’s ever done,” Acosta said of the project. “We get to actually make a difference.”


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