By Cate Praggastis, AVID Elective Teacher & Coordinator, East High School
I remember the phone call that came almost two years ago – a woman from the Utah Humanities Council had been asking around and heard that East High’s AVID system was vibrant and growing. She wanted to know if we could meet – she had an idea she wanted to share. Over the next school year, I attended numerous meetings (way more than I truly wanted to) as the idea of bringing The Clemente Course in the Humanities to East was explored. As responsible, involved professionals, we all look for new ways to reach our students, ways to connect them to their learning; the more I learned about Clemente, the more I thought it would be worth the effort. I soon realized that AVID, a system designed to prepare students for college success, would fit with Clemente, but the fit wasn’t always comfortable. In the end however, the AVID/Clemente collaboration was definitely worth it.
AVID/Clemente is a community partnership created and directed by the Utah Humanities Council for AVID Elective students at East High School in Salt Lake City, Utah. It is being piloted at East High, along with academic partners the University of Utah and Westminster College. These organizations have come together in a unique model to teach a collaborative course in four segments of the Humanities: Art History, Philosophy, and Literature. It is coordinated and supported at East High through AVID, while the University Neighborhood Partners assists in the effort by supporting the development of parent involvement. East High School is only the second school in the nation to offer The Clemente Course (the first was Harlan Community Academy in Chicago and is also a partnership with AVID).
As we began AVID/Clemente, there were some hiccups for sure – East is on the block schedule, so students would have to be in AVID to participate in The Clemente Course; this meant students would have to enroll in a double elective. Our school district’s students really only have room for two electives per school year, so this proved a bit problematic because it left no room for exploration of other interests. But the fall of the 2013–2014 school year began with twenty-two students enrolled. Professors were chosen and curriculum was set for the Clemente Course days; the first semester would be Art History and Philosophy.
AVID Socratic Seminars and the tutorial methodology of engagement in learning were very helpful for both the professors and students. Students were able to speak, inquire and problem solve complex discussions about Aristotle, Plato, the “meaning of happiness” and other big ideas. In the Art History class, about two months into the program, the teacher asked the students, “What is Art?” Most students thought art was pictures in a museum. Most had never heard of the idea of art galleries or any other concept of ‘art’ as an entity. The teacher showed them a video about the French artist, JR, who had begun a global art project called “Inside Out.” After much discussion, and quite casually, one student asked, “Could we do something like that as a class project?” And that simple request was the genesis of our “We Are One” project.
Then five months of hard, thoughtful work began. We asked for permission to hang 100 3x4’ portraits of students on the outside walls of our school. The students presented to the School Community Council, the district, and the faculty, explaining how this art project would highlight the change East had experienced from its beginnings 100 years ago this year. An affluent, college prep school for over 70 years, East High’s boundaries changed in 1989 and the school began to see a change in demographics. By 2013, the school became (for the first time in its history) a minority/majority. Yet some of our students of color still felt disenfranchised and did not consider themselves a valued component of the student body. How could that change? We could turn our school “inside out.” We could show the world (or anyone who drove past the corner of 1300 East and 800 South), who really resided behind our walls.
The door was opened and they all walked through. As Earl Shorris had hoped when he created the Clemente Course, our AVID students created a place for themselves and found their voices. They worked tirelessly, putting themselves in the limelight, risking scrutiny and praise. They stayed late into the night on Friday and worked early on Saturday morning to help wheat paste the pictures to the wall in time for a 10:30 a.m. unveiling. They met with press and dignitaries and they stood out. They spoke articulately and knowledgeably about the hope they had for this project – that it would invite critical conversations about diversity and opportunity for all. They earned their prideful smiles.
I have had many, many proud moments as an AVID Elective teacher. I have seen much success from the AVID graduates, and no moment was better than the Monday after the unveiling of the “We Are One” project with my AVID 10 class. These dedicated, inquisitive 15-year-olds beamed with pride as they learned the power of their voice, the true meaning of leadership and facing the fear of putting themselves in the limelight. They explored the topic of diversity and had crucial conversations regarding the value, impacts, and stereotypes they face as minority students. They looked at demographic data to ensure a fair representation of all students and had discussions about choice when peers had to be eliminated to allow for another demographic to be represented. The most powerful lesson however, was the epiphany that many of the things we teach in our classrooms are true; education is power, voices can’t be heard if no one speaks up, and we can all learn from each other. In the end, the AVID/Clemente partnership fit turned out to be perfect!
Update on the “We Are One” Project
Over the weekend of April 26–27, the We Are One project posted outside our school was vandalized. Someone painted racist and otherwise hateful graffiti on all thirteen of the images in the project’s lowest row. The students were shocked at the level of hate speech written on the picture. After much discussion, a reported bomb threat and lockdown (on the following Tuesday), and more discussion, the students felt compelled to act, rather than react. Here is their compiled response:
“We are taking action in response to this hateful act. We would like to acknowledge the pain it may have caused to the students whose images were defaced. The images have been removed and will be replaced. We made this project to embrace the diversity of East High School. We are committed to continuing the spirit of the project, despite this setback. Our plan is to ‘embrace the hate,’ to use the energy generated from this event, learn from it, and to rise above it. As is our class motto, ‘You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated.’ (Maya Angelou) We are not defeated... We Are One!”
New pictures were ordered and installed.
Cate has been teaching for 10 years and has been a part of AVID at East High since it began there 8 years ago. In 2011 she received National Board Certification in AYA English Language Arts and completed AVID’s Trainer of Trainer in Critical Reading. Cate has had the opportunity to see students’ dreams blossom into reality as she has sent off each AVID graduating class. Her interactions with students have been both personal and professional. She has played the role of a mentor, motivator, and leader to her students. This is evident through the personal statements written by her students, wherein part of their content explains many of the ways Mrs. Praggastis has changed their lives. Not only has she impacted her students, but her students have ignited her passion for teaching and learning. Receiving the Utah Rotary Club’s Teacher of the Year in 2011 and the Utah Chapter of the National Exchange Club Teacher of the Year in 2012, Cate was selected as the Salt Lake City School District Teacher of the Year and Utah State TOY First Runner Up in 2014. Cate defines her highest award coming each time graduates take the time to stop by her classroom, say hello, and relate stories of how college is impacting and changing their lives.