It started out at Paris Baguette on Buford Highway. Marian Liou (founder of We Love BuHi) and I were finally sitting down to have a chat about ways that we could align our efforts to encourage unified community within our BuHi corridor.

I won’t describe in too much detail that I had some kind of coffee beverage with something frothy or that Marian sat “comfortably” across from me. I’ll just tell you how it went.

Marian has all these crazy ideas about biking down Buford Highway or creating pop-up urbanism events in abandoned parking lots or participating in a foodie “bus crawl” on what some have called “la carretera de muerte” (the highway of death). And I love it. I’ve even joined her in some of these adventures, and I’m sad I missed this weekend’s Bikes and Bites event.

As Marian and I talked, we wondered why couldn’t students be a part of these efforts to improve the livability and safety of Buford Highway? I was currently teaching the Odyssey and we halfway joked about how walking down Buford Highway to a bus stop could sometimes feel like an odyssey. We bounced around from one idea to another: capturing a student’s story and posting it on a nearby bus stop, having students participate in the BuHi Postcard Project, involving students in the planning of different WeLoveBuHi events. The possibilities were endless.

I walked away from that conversation feeling inspired and excited, and I spent most of Thanksgiving break trying to figure out ways to align the English Language Arts curriculum with community development and advocacy.

At that time, I also had almost 30 students failing or almost failing (out of 90 students), and I was having a hard time engaging my students. Not to be bleak, but at Cross Keys High School, 1 out of 2 students will drop out of high school. There are many competing values at stake for my students, and graduating high school is often one of the values that gets pushed aside.

Many of the students at CKHS moved to the U.S. as young children. They are here legally because of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), but because we live in 1 of 5 states in the U.S. that doesn’t allow students to attend its main colleges and universities, we have a hard time convincing some students that it’s worth it.

Other students don’t see how they could possibly afford out-of-state tuition because Georgia is one of a couple dozen states that doesn’t allow DACA students to attend university without paying out-of-state tuition. (Oh, and they also can’t qualify for federal loans.)

Students sometimes have to drop out to work and support their family or sometimes they move abruptly to another part of town. Students deal with parents being deported and often have to assume full responsibility for themselves and their siblings. School – at times – is just not doable.

As I was thinking of all this, I was trying to find a way to get students to still complete my assignments and learn how to read and write. I wanted to make an argument for why my class mattered – even if they didn’t know how the next year (let alone the next week) was going to turn out. I wanted to be able to say something more meaningful than “You’ll need this in college one day” or “Trust me, you’ll use this when you get into the workforce.” Teenagers – regardless of socioeconomic background or immigration status – want to know “Why do I need to do this right now? Why does this matter today?”

I wanted to answer that question with a solid answer, and that’s how The BuHi Project was birthed. I simply posed a few questions to my students and told them we were going to learn what we needed to learn by working on a project that would impact their community immediately. The questions were: “What would you like to see in your community of Buford Highway? What improvements do you want to make? What do you want to preserve?”

And I let them run with it.

I told them to think about things like public transit, sidewalks, environment, housing, etc. and then I told them to design a way to present these ideas. I promised to line up city councils and community organizations to hear their ideas, and then I unleashed chaos in my classroom.

Well, not complete chaos. Although if you came into my classroom at any point in time, it might have seemed that way. Many times, though, my students were arguing about different ways that they would like to improve their seven-lane highway. One student would say streetcars, another would say bike lanes. Sometimes a group would have a problem working together, but they were already so far along in the project, they had to find a way to work it out.

I saw students speaking to each other, collaborating with each other, writing their ideas, creating visual aids, attending public meetings, and embracing the assets in their community while also highlighting ways that we could improve the livability. We watched documentaries that inspired us – documentaries like Bogota: Building a Sustainable City, in which Mayor Enrique Penalosa outlined his ideas for addressing poverty and social inequality in his city through infrastructure improvements.

Our class invited different guests to come and speak to us to help us think through some of these important issues, and the project kept growing and growing. Students studying Community-Based Video Production at Georgia State University came to interview students for a documentary profiling Buford Highway and its community members; and Councilman Joe Gebbia from Brookhaven, who represents the region in which CKHS is located, came to speak to the class about affordable housing, zoning, and economic development in the area. Marian Liou of WeLoveBuHi spoke to my class about her work along Buford Highway, and Betsy Eggers, founder of the Peachtree Creek Greenway non-profit detailed her work in advocating for a pedestrian-bike trail along the creek that parallels Buford Highway.

Never once did I worry that students were not getting the rich vocabulary, critical thinking, writing, and reading components that are essential to a rigorous English class. I have watched students – some who have been reading on a third-grade level – grow not only as readers and writers, but as thinkers and as members of a community. I have to think that by aligning the academic side of school with the practical side of the real world, my students realized why school matters in a way that perhaps hadn’t occurred to them.

Another aspect of The BuHi Project that has become a cornerstone of the project is that the communities that live along Buford Highway are being able to have a publicized voice in their community. As a resident of unincorporated DeKalb located between Chamblee and Doraville right off of Buford Highway, I have attended many different community meetings in the different municipalities, and sadly, I have found it rare to see any person of color represented at these meetings.

However, since beginning The BuHi Project, I have seen students, their parents, and their siblings attend meetings like La Mejor Vision de Buford Highway or the Doraville Comprehensive Planning meeting. It’s not me advocating for them, but them advocating for themselves, and that’s one of the key components of the entire project. (They’ll be in action again at the Brookhaven City Council work session on April 12 at 3:30PM!)

The developments happening along Buford Highway are the product of developers and residents that do not reside on the Buford Highway corridor, and this project seeks to engage the individuals who live along Buford Highway so that they have an active role in how their home changes.

It’s exciting because not only are my students advocating for what they would like to see along Buford Highway, but they are also beginning an enormous cultural shift, one in which Latinos and Hispanics are active members of civic life. The BuHi Project began as a project-based, constructivist educational strategy (somewhat inspired by The Museum School‘s methods) to teach language arts, but it has evolved into something so much more, and I’m excited to see where it leads.

I envision this project being the basis for a senior thesis in which students will be able to discuss when writing college entrance essays, interviewing for university scholarships, and applying to some of the top colleges in the world. Next year, I plan to have the students who have been involved in The BuHi Project mentor my incoming English literature and composition ninth-graders as they work on different aspects of the project. I also plan to incorporate aspects of the project into the journalism program at Cross Keys High School or perhaps begin an after-school program to give students the opportunity to further their work.

An ideal way to implement this project would be to incorporate all curricula — the math classroom would analyze data and learn mathematical modeling/algebra/statistics; the science class would explore environmental and biological impacts of certain policies; and the social studies class would teach students geography and social studies through the overarching context of the students’ community (this would also extend to civics/government/economics). Naturally, the English class would work with students on the reading, writing, and presenting of the material. This would make each class connect in a meaningful, cross-curricular way — something we tend to avoid in modern education methods.

I have no idea all the different ways that my students will continue to develop their ideas, but I look forward to hearing their voices and seeing their passion influence local government and community development. I’m trying to get out of the way to make sure that this is not about what I want to see, but that it is about what they would like to see. I’m trying to make sure that democracy is something that everyone has available to them, and of course, I’m trying to show them just why reading, writing, thinking, and speaking is important.

If you want to follow our journey or partner with us, you can connect with us on social media, through email (thebuhiproject@gmail.com), or on buhiproject.weebly.com.

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