Faculty Become Students as BU Hosts Institute for Youth Justice | BU today

All eyes are on students since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020, as reports from all countries show that the well-being of school children is decreasing .

“It’s more difficult for [students] make new friends now,” said Chris Watkins, who teaches high school English in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Photo courtesy of Karen Harris

For educators like Karen Harris (Wheelock’92), it didn’t take a diagnosis to realize that students need more professional support as they move into their lives in- that’s what he did in his mission as an English teacher at Brookline High School’s School Within a School Program. Her class, Friendship and Literature, looked at the bonds of young people with each other by looking at texts such as The great gatsby and Toni Morrison Sula. He said the curriculum was designed to give students the tools to open up their emotions.

“We only had one conversation about boys crying, and how they felt they weren’t allowed to cry except at these very specific ‘bro’ times,” Harris said. “And we were able to open it up and look at the source of that.”

The program’s growing popularity among students, Harris revealed one thing; After leaving his teaching position in 2019 to write full-time — and seeing the ravages of cancer on his high school kids — he felt the urge to give his developed with colleagues at BU and at Brookline High School.

In 2020, Harris was awarded $168,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities to hold a summer office at BU, which he named, Friendship and Identity in Literature, Film, and Adolescence. Harris teamed up with Stephan Ellenwood, a Wheelock associate professor emeritus and, in his words, a “mentor-slash-pseudo-dad,” to curate the project.

“In light of my background and my reasons for applying, I really believe in this course,” Harris said.

On July 10, 25 high school English teachers, including Tennessee’s Watkins, arrived at BU for a two-week field trip. The attendees, who stayed on campus for the duration of the program, included a wide variety of English teachers—from first-year teachers to 25-year veterans in public, private, and private schools. charter schools across the country.

“You couldn’t ask for a better team,” said Alexandra Patterson, a program attendee from Mercersburg, Pa.

With a lesson from Sula to Aristotle, and a list of visiting teachers, such as Niobe Way (author of Angry Angry) and Lashon Daley (author of Black Girl Lit), the project was, according to Ellenwood, a testament to Harris’ genius.

“Karen’s lessons are based on stories that give students a vocabulary for creating and maintaining important relationships and friendships,” she said. “He’s got a lot of anxiety among the youth.”

Teachers quickly realized that the program wasn’t just designed to hurt students — it benefited them, too. For some, it’s the first time they’ve had meaningful professional development since pre-diagnosis, or the ability to discuss texts and share skills.

“There’s a lot of business development going on online and a lot of learning,” Patterson said. “It’s more like ‘Here are some resources,’ and there’s less interaction and communication. Here we’re getting ideas from each other and collaborating, and that’s what we wealth now.

Instructors Alexandra Patterson, from left, Michele Hettinger, and Stella Lehane during the National Endowment of the Humanities-funded summer institute July 13 at COM.  The program will run from July 10-22 and will focus on youth friendships as viewed through popular media such as books, TV, and movies.  Photo by Cydney Scott for Boston University Photography
Instructors Alexandra Patterson, from left, Michele Hettinger, and Stella Lehane during the National Endowment of the Humanities-funded summer institute July 13 at COM. The program will run from July 10-22 and will focus on youth friendships as viewed through popular media such as books, TV, and movies. Photo by Cydney Scott

For others, it’s a relief to leave teaching and become a new student. “Things like this [institute] very strong, because we’re going to be students for two weeks,” said Lindsey Thompson of Kansas City, Mo.

On July 13, Robert Pinsky, America’s first poet laureate, visited William Fairfield Warren English professor and professor of English. When it comes to teaching the mind to students, his words are simple: “You don’t start with what it is – you start with how it feels.”

He told an anecdote about his grandson, who recited the songs of Wallace Stevens while the young man was in COVID quarantine. Pinsky said his grandson had a hard time recording the song, “The Pleasures of Merely Circulating,” but the patience, encouragement, and power of their relationship, he said, “made Wallace Stevens fan” from him.

Harris said the school was built so that visiting speakers like Pinsky could provide a framework for “friendship lessons,” while his role was to help guide the model into action.

“I’m not a relationship expert, which is why these students come,” he said. “But I know how to plan classes. I’m giving [attendees] first, and with the amount of my research I read, edit and share things with them, hoping they dig what works for them.

At the beginning of the program, the participants gathered in small groups with the goal of planning a lesson about love and literature. On the last day of the program, the teams present them to their peers. Each provides learning objectives and provides reading materials and facilitates group work, again allowing teachers to see things through the eyes of their students.

In each group lesson presentation, the teachers turn to each other and share the times they have created a relationship breakdown; they have created golden rules for a rational society; they share life lessons; they presented a document that changed them.

According to Harris, these conversations were among the most important in their short time.

“You can’t get away from that, especially in the human experience: you’re the leader,” he said. “I don’t want teachers to forget that they are part of the curriculum.”

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