Bridges or walls? It’s a rhetorical question, but I’ll give you the answer anyway: you can take the question literally or figuratively, but either way, you should come up with bridges. The walls keep people out, the bridges let people in, and we’ve all been taught to include others, to get to know them before we judge them, and to love our neighbor despite our differences. It’s fairly straightforward. But, then again, maybe it’s not. If the questions asked whether we should build walls or knock them down, that’s easy—we should want to include others; down with the walls. But the question gives us a choice between walls or bridges. One or the other. And bridges do more than just let people in; they’re meant to connect two places or groups and therefore mean nothing if one side merely waits for the other to utilize them when they won’t themselves. It’s not enough to accept or even embrace others when they happen to come to us, when they stumble into our communities, our schools, our countries, when they seek our help or advice. No, we have to seek out differences. We have to want them. We have to take the bridge ourselves—to make ourselves uncomfortable—in order to become better. Build the bridge and walk across it to something new.
I’ve been a classroom teacher for the last fifteen years, and so I feel qualified in saying that the classroom benefits from bridges the same as any other place. I think it’s safe to say, the teacher must embrace their students’ differences to foster a climate of improvement and growth; however, how often do teachers themselves travel across these bridges? When do we seek input from the students? When do we allow ourselves to learn from them? Are we ready to incorporate disparate individuals in our classrooms? Or do we build that bridge with no intention of ever using it ourselves?
This year, I have commenced a new role as AVLI’s Director of Collaborative Learning, which is, amongst other things, in charge of building and administering the appropriately named Bridges project—an ambitious and innovative program through which students from two separate Catholic high schools connect to form one single class participating in both synchronous and asynchronous work, both virtually with the course teacher, and face-to-face with their respective on-site facilitators. My goal is to build this project from the ground up with all of these questions in mind—questions insinuated by that first one: bridges or walls?, and questions vital to a task where the physical distance between schools, students, and teachers can amplify difficulties inherent in even minor miscommunications. And so from the program’s inception onward, we must enact an intentional, methodical approach to trust building as the core of the Bridges program, because only a deep-seated trust between schools, teachers, and students can overcome the physical gap between them.
Acknowledging this philosophy as paramount to the project’s success, the first thing I needed was a willing accomplice, who I found in the form of Bridget Bowers, an English teacher with me at De Smet Jesuit High School in St. Louis, a fellow Loyola University—Chicago Rambler, and a teacher not afraid to build and cross a bridge or two. Bridget will teach a Women’s Studies Literature course featuring students from De Smet and John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls' High School in Philadelphia. The course begins next year, but we’ve already broken ground. Our first step: reaching out to prospective students of both high schools for advice on course content—a course planning practice usually sacrosanct for the teacher. Bridget, though, knows and loves her content—one of the reasons she wants to teach it in the first place—and so in lieu of dictating an inflexible syllabus, she has instead created a lengthy list of familiar novels, short stories, poems, and criticism from which the students will choose in the form of a detailed survey from which Bridget will then construct units featuring these titles bolstered by a litany of appropriate online and in-person activities and assignments. Procuring student advice ensures a course that better represents all members of the classroom, and Bridget is more than capable of guiding them through the territory no matter the direction. Student choice may alter the pathway, but a capable guide ensures it in no way changes the destination.
The objective, of course, is to utilize the bridge as a two-way avenue toward new success in the classroom. Bridget herself is fully equipped to teach the course, but we’re not waiting for the course to end to enlist student help; we’re reaching out now, during the planning stages to incorporate student interest and fan a symphony of trust between the teacher, the students, and the two schools well before we commence next fall. Thus, when we do start, we will do so at a canter as the students—those for whom we created the class—will witness the product of their input from the second they hit the ground.
For more information about the survey, it’s results, the course building process, or the Bridges project as a whole, please contact Nick Dressler at firstname.lastname@example.org.