Rich, stuck up, crackheads, hippies. That’s how Charles Sanderson’s students in rural Oregon regarded city life. Racist, trailer trash, guns, swamps is how Bryan Chu’s students viewed the country landscape. How do you bridge that divide? Read what happens when middle students from rural and urban Oregon take the risk of writing someone else’s life story—a stranger from another school—in poetry form. This is Charles’ story.
As a rural educator at St. Helens Middle School in northwest Oregon, I find myself constantly fighting two battles against prejudice—people’s preconceived notions of rural America, and my rural students’ often unwarranted fear and trepidation of a world beyond their community.
I got to know Bryan Chu through the Oregon Writer’s Project. He teaches at Lane Middle School in southeast Portland, Oregon—about an hour drive from St. Helens, but galaxies apart. Think Rascal Flatts and Wiz Khalifa, and you’ve got the picture.
With nearly 450 students, Lane Middle School sees its diversity as its biggest asset. Its student population, broken down by race, is 17.3% Asian, 8.8% African American, 28.9% Hispanic, 2.0% Native American, 38.9% White, and 4.0% Multiple Races.
Ninety-six percent of students at St. Helens Middle School are white. The largest civic event in St. Helens is the annual County Fair and Rodeo.
All about me
Bryan and I decided to use poetry to help our students turn their unwarranted ignorance into understanding, and, most importantly, empathy. A poem would tell a complete stranger’s life story. Starting this project was a lot like jumping off a cliff and hoping to figure out how to fly before we hit the ground.
We began by unpacking our students’ preconceived notions of one another. My students’ brainstorms filled the chalkboard to describe the urban landscape: gangs, drugs, rich, stuck up, hippies, and the Jonas Brothers. Equally prolific were Lane students’ list on rural communities: rednecks, racists, accents, guns, trailer trash, and Taylor Swift.
Students put together information packets for the person who would write their story. They completed identity surveys—including basic likes and dislikes—Legend of the Seeker and Scrubs, Paul Rodriguez Nikes, and Flaming Hot Cheetos—as well as questions about ethnicity, religious practices, and hopes and dreams.
Students also selected four images that represented themselves: friends bouncing on a trampoline, oodles of University of Oregon and Oregon State paraphernalia, family, video game systems, and for some reason—lots and lots of shoes.
Then we traded. Each student received a folder with four images and a survey, and that’s when some students balked.
“Why do I have to write about her? She sounds stuck up."
“Can’t you give me someone more like me? I don’t want to write about no white girl.”
Risk and responsibility
Bryan and I wanted our students to take the risk of creating more than a simple list poem: I like chocolate/I love playing basketball/etc. We wanted them to honor and celebrate the life of a stranger. That wouldn’t happen without taking significant chances. Trying to understand the way someone else views her absent father requires risk.
Throughout the process, I hoped to uncover the deeper reasoning behind my students’ extra effort, but I mostly got shrugs when I asked. DJ rarely turned in assignments the bulk of the year. For some reason, that changed when he was writing a poem for a student he had never met in his life. After repeated prodding, DJ just said, “Mr. Sanderson, I don’t want them to think I’m a douche.”
It was scary to drop off my students’ poems at Lane. Like my students, I hoped that the recipients would feel valued and celebrated. I was also nervous about the poetic cargo that Bryan’s students delivered. Would the hours at Stumptown Coffee working on this project with Bryan blow up in our faces, or blow us away?
One by one, my students walked to the front of the room and read their poems aloud.
There were plenty of awkward moments, but most students smiled or even beamed with pride. Courtney got upset because her partner described her as stuck up. Lots of students immediately focused on the one or two factual inaccuracies in their poem, and it took constant prodding to have them recognize the wealth of uncovered truths.
Thankfully, every student included a reflection about the process, as well as their brainstorms and drafts. When Savannah read Maddie’s reflection “ …I don’t even know if you like guitar that much (I hope you do). I hope I got this right. I hope you like it ☺” She admitted to me that Maddie had “gotten it all wrong,” but she was OK with it because she knew Maddie had tried to understand her.
Soon enough, students began to realize that these “strangers” knew them better than the students they’ve shared classrooms with for the last eight years. They began to look at one another through a brand new lens.
For example, when Shasta read his poem, his peers and I realized that we hadn’t taken the time to see beneath the awkward, uncomfortable exterior that left Shasta often ostracized. I felt shame as I listened to the last stanza of his poem:
When you tell them my story,
Say that there wasn’t anything to keep me away
From being myself,
To being alone.
Tell them, this is how I’m going to show them my world.
I wondered then, and still wonder now, how a complete stranger was able to uncover something beautiful within one of my students that I had missed after our eight months together.
Empathy key to human life
Like any middle school teacher, I just plant seeds, hoping that they blossom, grow, and bloom into something beautiful, vibrant, and awe-inspiring. I never get to see any of that; I just keep planting the seeds with hope and faith.
Nikki Giovanni writes that empathy is not simply a tool for poetically appropriating lives and experiences removed from the world inhabited by the poet; on the contrary, empathy is key to human life and understanding because it is key to human connection. Empathy enables us to collapse the dualistic structures that polarize our world into "us" and "them."
I hope my students will be people who collapse the structures that divide us.
Bryan’s and my students demonstrated the capacity to build bridges. If they can do it, why can’t we all?
“Building Bridges Project” How To’s
Probably, more than ever before, students have a need to build connections and bridges, and feel honored and valued as an individual. If you’ve got the time and energy to do this project right, I promise you the reward is tremendous.
Before you begin
Have the time, energy, and rapport with your students to do it right. This project requires considerable time, energy, and effort to match students, help them through multiple drafts, and exchange materials. It’s not a lesson you roll out, do quickly, and move on. To really do justice to your students’ partners, you must take time.
Find an appropriate, committed school partner. Is there a school or community for whom your students hold ignorant views, or have no clue about? It took Bryan and I three months of constant correspondence and occasional meetings to organize and carry out this project. Make sure your partner cares about writing and students as much as you.
Start after second half of year. For some reason, people immediately want to use this project as an icebreaker with their students. I think this is a mistake. Save this project for the second half of the year when you have built up rapport with your students—you’ll have a better chance of them trusting you as you guide them through writing a stranger’s story. They also should have the poetic chops to craft poems that will honor and value their partners. This isn’t the poem you want them cutting their teeth on.
- Brainstorm list of preconceived ideas about your school partner.
- Complete identity questionnaire and collect photos.
- Match students and deliver information packets to each school.
- Write poems
- Reflect on the process
- Trade with school partner
The moment of truth
Prepare for potential hurt. My students read their poems aloud with great anticipation. In hindsight, I probably should have read the poems first to avoid potential hurt feelings, embarrassment or shame. You know your students best. Handle with care.
Shall we meet? Have the two groups meet, if you can. It works better if all or most students can meet, not just a few who can make it.
- EXPLORE: Building Bridges Project poems written by Charles Sanderson and Bryan Chu’s students.
- INQUIRE: If you have comments, ideas, or questions about the project, you may email Charles Sanderson at firstname.lastname@example.org He’d be happy to share electronic copies, too.
Charles Sanderson wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Charles teaches language arts at St. Helens Middle School in St. Helens, Oregon, where he also publishes the school's literary journal, and coaches the rugby and slam poetry teams. His next literary adventure will be bringing urban, rural, and suburban youth together to compete and collaborate as slam poets and share a common meal.