On January 12, 2000, a school bus pulled out of the parking lot of McGee Middle School in Berlin, Connecticut. The bus wasn't carrying students, though. It was carrying ideas. Neither its route nor its message was limited to one small New England town. The school bus was beginning a 13-month journey that will take it to 25 schools in 22 states. At each stop, it will be boarded -- and transformed -- by the efforts and idealism of middle school students of all ethnicities, races, religions, abilities, and social and economic backgrounds.
The Town-to-Town C.A.R.E.-A-VAN is on the road to a new world -- a world in which people share and celebrate diversity. You and your students are invited along for the ride!
The Town-to-Town Caring Adolescents Reaching Everyone-A-VAN is a project that grew -- and grew and grew -- out of a year-long diversity program in which students from three schools in two adjacent -- but very different -- communities participated.
The student population at Catherine McGee Middle School, located in suburban Berlin, Connecticut, is almost 96 percent white. At Roosevelt and Slade middle schools, located in nearby New Britain, Connecticut, about 65 percent of the students belong to minority groups. The students are mostly black and Hispanic. During the 1998-1999 school year, the students at the three schools joined in a variety of academic and enrichment activities designed to address the topic of diversity by providing the students with the opportunity to work -- and play -- together. As a culminating activity, the students painted a school bus with visual representations of diversity.
"School buses," said Michelle Sorenson, assistant principal of McGee and the force behind the diversity bus project, "have always been powerful symbols of the multicultural issues facing our schools and communities. We've used school buses before to try to solve problems between cities and suburbs. This bus moves ideas instead of people. The Town-to-Town C.A.R.E.-A-VAN is a 'vehicle of expression' that moves hearts and minds through visual graphics, breaking down the barriers of prejudice and bias."
"When I came to this school, I was looking for my partner, and I thought he'd be different from me. But he was kind of the same." -- Emilio, grade 6
The Diversity Bus wasn't just an art activity. It was a true cross-curricular lesson that evolved into the epitome of an authentic learning experience! This is how it worked.
A review of the history of busing introduced the students to the issues surrounding diversity. The lessons included information about the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, sparked by the refusal of Rosa Parks, a black seamstress, to give up her seat in the front of the bus to a white passenger. As part of the lesson, students participated in group discussions in which they shared their feelings about diversity.
During the language arts component of the project, teachers at the three schools taught lessons on writing metaphors, and each of the 400 students participating in the program wrote an original metaphor related to diversity.
Click here to read some of the metaphors that the kids created!
In an activity developed by Joseph Geisler, the art teacher at Slade Middle School, 30 students -- ten from each of the participating schools -- were provided with bus templates and asked to create visual metaphors that would convey both the concept of diversity and the idea of a school bus as a vehicle for ideas. After creating individual designs, the students collaborated on an overall design, combining aspects of each metaphor into a single image. They eventually settled on the metaphor "We are all an important 'peace' in the same puzzle." Puzzle pieces, the students noted, are different in shape, size, and color, and no puzzle is complete unless all the pieces are in place.
Finally, the visual metaphors -- including a border showing students of different colors holding hands -- were painted on a school bus donated by DATTCO, a Connecticut bus company. Each student incorporated his or her written metaphor into the artwork, and the bus was ready to roll!
The bus couldn't roll without a proper musical send-off, however! As part of the project's music activity, music educators Corrine Terlecky from McGee, Kurt Swanson from Roosevelt, and Jim Knight from Slade directed a chorus of students from all three schools in a moving rendition of "Build a Bridge," a song written for the project by Terlecky. The students sang the song at ceremonies marking the bus's departure from McGee.
"The Diversity Bus, in my opinion, really brought our school together." -- Tyler, Grade 8
The lessons conveyed by the C.A.R.E.-A-VAN project were so powerful and so successful that Sorenson offered other teachers from across the country the opportunity to share them. Twenty-five middle schools -- from New York to California, from Washington to Alabama -- signed up!
During the next year, each of those schools will host a two-week visit from the Diversity Bus. While the bus is at their school, students and teachers will work together to
In addition, each school will arrange for housing for the drivers, donate $500 toward the support of the project, arrange for bus maintenance, and donate a tank of gas.
"The bus was one of the highlights of my school year, and just because some students didn't paint it doesn't mean they weren't affected by it!"-- Shannon, Grade 8
Two college students, Harris McCabe and Jay Kubeck, are driving the C.A.R.E.-A-VAN. They have taken a year's sabbatical from their studies to participate in the project. In addition to serving as bus drivers, mechanics, goodwill ambassadors, project facilitators, painting assistants, artifact coordinators, and press correspondents, the two are creating a documentary about their trip.
The first stop on their route was Horton Middle School in Pittsboro, North Carolina. "It happened that as the students at Horton Middle School painted messages of acceptance and love for different races and ethnicities on the bus," Kubeck wrote in an article in The Hartford Courant, (a Connecticut newspaper) "former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke was preparing to lead a rally protesting Mexican immigrants in local chicken processing plants in neighboring Siler City. The C.A.R.E.-A-VAN's presence and the anti-immigration rally provided a stark contrast.
"There was a division in Siler City," Kubeck added, "but in my eyes, it wasn't about race. It was about ideals. Duke's National Organization for European Rights is afraid of this changing world. The students of Horton Middle School welcome it!"
The next stop, at Discovery Middle School in Madison, Alabama, was equally -- though less publicly -- dramatic. "Our community has a fairly diverse population as far as race goes," Discovery teacher Robin Dauma told Education World, "but it is a primarily white-collar, high-income area. Many students tend to look down on those who don't wear the latest styles or listen to the 'right' music. There is also a good bit of segregation related to academic ability. One of the greatest successes in our experience was the cooperative effort among students of different ability levels."
"I teach students who have experienced some serious difficulties with reading," added reading specialist Louanne Jacobs. "They have either been identified as having a learning disability, been retained in a previous grade, or had a history of poor grades. These are not the students who usually get an opportunity to become involved in such a project. In fact, they were so intimidated by the gifted students who initiated the project, they were willing to give up the chance to work on the bus rather than work with 'those' students.
"As it turned out," Jacobs explained, "my students appeared on television, were quoted in the newspaper, and had many of their metaphors chosen for the bus design. They did it on an equal footing with the other students! Raphael, a seventh grader, said, 'It's the best project I've ever done in school. Why isn't school always like this?' Chris, also a seventh grader, became life-long friends and e-mail pals with Harris and Jay. Zach will never be the same. He discovered his poet's soul during the project and is now an avid writer and the star of my class!
"We wrapped up our study and the bus project by taking a trip to Birmingham to visit the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and the Civil Rights Institute," Jacobs continued. "During the trip, the true learning that had taken place was obvious. Black students, white students, Hispanic students, gifted students, and challenged students mixed and mingled and giggled and enjoyed one another's company. Best of all, they didn't even notice that they had changed."
The Discovery Middle School students were equally enthusiastic about the project. "One special part of our project was that we focused a lot on the contributions of Rosa Parks," Christine P., one of the students who served as a project coordinator, told Education World. "We even had a plaque made to give her back her seat on the bus. Victor, an eighth grader who, although he struggles with academics, excels in art, had a special contribution to make. He created a rose design that was painted on the hood of the bus. Victor -- and the entire school -- took great pride in his accomplishment."
Later in the year, Jay and Harris hope to present that plaque to Rosa Parks in person -- replacing the seat on an Alabama bus that she refused to give up with a seat on the Diversity Bus dedicated to her by a group of Alabama middle school students!
"I know that a lot of our students really got excited about it's coming, and I'm sure they felt the same way I do, about it being so ultimately cool." -- Clio, Grade 8
Why was the Diversity Bus project targeted at middle school students?
"Middle school students are today's learners and tomorrow's leaders," Michelle Sorenson told Education World. "This age presents a wonderful opportunity to make an effective change in people's attitudes about diversity."
"Middle school," added McGee principal Carol Janssen, "is where kids start to form real opinions. They start to branch out. They get into peer relationships. They start to form cliques. This is where we as educators need to sit down and teach them to open their minds, to take a look at the similarities and the differences and not just tolerate people because they have different religions or cultures. We need to teach them not toleration but acceptance."
"In middle school," said Roosevelt art teacher Kristen Ramsey, "you reach students in the middle of the road. They're going to take a path to the left or a path to the right. We are trying to send them down the right path."
Click here to listen to students as they talk about their experiences painting the C.A.R.E.-A-VAN.
Unfortunately, all the stops on this year's Diversity Bus tour have already been scheduled. You can participate in the project in a number of other ways, though.
"If we as educators can help our students break down the barriers of prejudice, hatred, and bias, we have come a long way toward helping them live in a global world."-- Geri Brown-Springer, principal, Slade Middle School, New Britain, Connecticut
Whether you participate in this project or create a project of your own, the need to teach the lessons of diversity cannot be ignored. As Michelle Sorenson pointed out, "Adolescents today are faced with a variety of societal challenges that are being reflected in our schools. Acts of prejudice, hatred, and violence have become headlines for defining teenagers and their behaviors. More than ever, it is imperative that young adolescents acquire the ability to respect and value the differences and similarities of the people in the world around them."
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