Youth at Heritage Explore “What it Means to Be a Human”

A final exam in an English class might consist of multiple choice questions, fill in the blanks and, most assuredly, some kind of reflective essay. Creating a sculpture, writing a restaurant menu or making a self-image collage are not usual English test components. Ellen Hawkins, an English teacher at Heritage for four years, created just such a final “exam.”

“We’ve been exploring thFile_0044e theme or question of what does it mean to be human,” Ellen said. “There’s a website called ‘Humans of New York’ where they post pictures and write blurbs about themselves. I kind of used that idea.”

Ellen calls it “Humans of AC 9” after the classroom in the Activity Center where she teaches.

“We’ve tried to copy that format where we took Polaroid pictures of all the kids,” she said. “I had them write a blurb about themselves answering the questions ‘who am I?’ or ‘what does it mean to be human?’”

Ellen said this term she had students explore those questions through videos, magazine articles and other media to get them thinking about their place in the world, where they fit in, what they believe and who they are.

She gave students a list they could choose from and were asked to complete three.

“This is a multi-genre project with a list of 30 things they could choose from,” Ellen said. “They could write a letter of apology, design a wedding invitation, design a menu, make a grocery list, create a diorama, a collage, a piece of art. We had different projects answer the questions.”

She explained it was an engaging way to assess the whole term rather than having a formal test. It was the students’ choice of what projects they wanted to do as their final assessment.

Students have been working with Ellen to set up a “museum” type atmosphere to display the students’ projects. During the week of March 6 through 10 students will be on hand to explain or discuss their projects wFile_0011ith visitors at the “museum.”

“We turned the room into a mini-museum where all projects are on display,” she said. “It really feels like a museum. We have a little café with some snacks; there will be music playing and the highlight of it is all the pictures of all the kids. You can look at every kid and read what their thoughts are.”

Julia, 17 ¾, will graduate on May 5. She explained the collage she created for one of her projects.

“These are pictures of people I care about,” she said, pointing to photos of family and friends. “I want to be a probation officer and foster parent. I want to get married. I also love doing fingernails and makeup.”

She said she struggled with this project a little but was glad she could use art over writing.

“I’m a more artsy person,” she explained. “It’s hard to write essays. The collage shows who I am.”

She said she likes Ellen’s class a lot because her teacher has a lot of creative ideas and she’s supportive. Julia was happy to explain her goals in life, something she might not have had when she entered Heritage a year ago.

“I want to be a probatioFile_0033n officer,” Julia said. “I feel like a lot of probation officers are very strict, one strike and you’re out. Everyone deserves chances. I feel I could help people that no one else wants to help.”

Mariah, 17, spoke of her family as she pointed out aspects of her collage as well.

“Family is very important to me,” she said. “Before I came here they didn’t mean anything to me. Now I know they’ll always be there for me.”

She also said education is now important to her and she wants to be a hairdresser. Her graduation date falls the week of the museum exhibits.

Her collage had four sections: family, education, work and money. She said she loves “bling” and included pictures of jewelry and pretty things because “it shows I can earn it now.”

Mariah said this project showed her what she wants for the future. It helped her see where she used to be and where she’s going and that it was helpful. She said Ellen is very supportive and takes the time to explain things.

“This project was inspiring,” she said. “I love making collages. I wrote who I am as a person –File_002 1- Copy where I was before I came to Heritage. Now leaving Heritage there is a big difference.”

She said she previously didn’t like to go to school but now she can accept things, have good relationships and manage hard times.

Ellen said there’s a lot going on in the world right now – women’s issues, racial issues, politics, etc.

“Kids are confused right now,” she explained. “They are really quite sheltered from the news so we tried to bring to light some issues in the world they need to know about and be aware of. It’s a great way to explore marginalized people in society, where do you fit in, how do you respond to racism, what if you’re a woman making less money than a man. We tried not to get into politics and to keep it neutral.”

When asked what surprised her most about the results of this project she spoke of progress.

“The students talked about how they’ve progressed from a place of depression or mental illness to a place where they’ve made some realizations about themselves, some ‘aha’ moments,” she said. “Some talked about the experience of coming from a dark place turning around to feeling better, moving on in life.”

She said some “chose to tFile_0001alk about leaving family and going to a new place and all of a sudden realize ‘I have to change if I want my life to go how I want it to go.’ They have been exploring treatments, looking out of darkness to hopeful futures, especially in essays they wrote.”

Ellen sums it up as a “coming of age project.”

“Everyone changes but they are changing at such a rapid rate,” she said. They are growing up and being a teen with all the hormones and troubles teens have but with the extra burden of dealing with the problems they have in their lives.”

–Kaye Nelson