South Portland students find write way to break barriers

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Students at South Portland High School have been writing and illustrating children’s books that share a common theme: inclusion. 

The project was completed over the last month in partnership with the Portland-based Telling Room – a nonprofit writing center that teaches children and young adults how to be storytellers.

On Monday, some of the students traveled to Skillen, Kaler and Dyer elementary schools to read their books aloud to second-graders as a way to “share their voices and their messages with some of the younger population in the school district,” said Carrie Barbosa, who heads the English department and is involved with the project. 

Barbosa said it was “obvious that the high school students were proud of what they accomplished through the crafting of their stories and the collaboration with their peers.”

The project has served to integrate nearly 50 freshman, sophomore and juniors that come from a mix of English language learning, alternate education, and mainstream classes.

Technically an extension of their respective English classes, the Inclusion Project is the first opportunity for many of the students to work and collaborate with peers outside of their own educational track, Barbosa said on a recent Friday in May. 

The project is led by the Telling Room’s teaching artists, including graphic artist and poet Myles Bullen.

Bullen floated between groups of students during week four of the project in Barbosa’s classroom, where students were in the final stages of illustrating their books before they were to be printed. 

They were directed to explore themes of bullying, race, gender, sexuality and inclusion for the assignment. Most of the stories share a similar trajectory – the protagonist begins the story in some sort of isolation, whether it is a language barrier or literal solitude. By the conclusion, the protagonists have found a way to comfortably exist alongside their peers.

One story depicts a feline named Grumpy Cat, who lives alone on the moon. He sees other animals on planets nearby with friends, but develops a grumpy disposition because he doesn’t have any friends and can’t seem to make any. It’s only after he bravely takes a risk and saves the Earth from an approaching meteor that Grumpy Cat becomes popular. 

Another tells the story of a young male student from another country who attends an American school and wants to try out for the baseball team. But the student is limited because he doesn’t know the rules. After meeting a young boy who reminds him of his best friend from home, the student tries out, makes the team and helps lead his teammates to a championship.

Not every student who has participated in the project has firsthand experience with being bullied or excluded, but many do, Barbosa said. Many of the “magical parts” of the project, however, were “watching them share their personal stories,” she said, and watching students interact with peers “outside of their normal peer group.” 

Barbosa said she would like to see the school participate in similar projects that dissolve classroom walls and learning barriers, and push students with different learning styles together. 

“I just like to see kids collaborating. I would love to see more projects that run across the curriculum,” she said. 

Bullen agreed. 

“They’re already so naturally divided,” he said. Yet, at the same time, there has never been a time when the opportunity to have “so many students from different cultures” work together in the same room was possible, he said. 

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA

Cameron Brown, left, a senior at South Portland High School, reads aloud Monday to second-graders Nalin Chau, Rachel DiMauro and Maggie Brown at Kaler Elementary School. Students from SPHS wrote and illustrated books depicting common themes of social inclusion as part of a collaboration with the Portland-based Telling Room. 

South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.