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'We Are America' Essay Project Gives Concord Students A Voice

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A national essay-writing project, We Are America, gives high school students the chance to share their voices and ponder the question: "What does it mean to be American?"

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The project, which originated in Lowell, Massachusetts, has taken root at Concord High School. In the coming weeks, essays written by Concord students will be played on NHPR on Sundays during Weekend Edition.

All Things Considered host Peter Biello talked with Jessica Lander, who co-founded the project, and Heidi Crumrine, a teacher at Concord High School whose students' essays will be read on the air. Below is a transcript of their conversation.

Peter Biello: Starting this weekend, you'll hear some new voices on NHPR. An essay project that started in Lowell, Massachusetts, has given high school students across the country a chance to have their voices heard. And soon, you'll be able to hear students from New Hampshire on the air.

The We Are America essay project gives high schoolers the opportunity to write about their life experiences and talk about what it means to be an American. Books of essays have been published since the project began in 2018, and now more than 1,500 students have participated. Jessica Lander is a teacher at Lowell High School in Lowell, Massachusetts, and she co-founded, along with her students, the We Are America essay project and Heidi Crumrine teaches at Concord High School. Her students' essays will be on NHPR every Sunday. Jessica, Heidi, thank you both very much for speaking with me. I really appreciate it.

Jessica Lander & Heidi Crumrine: Thank you so much for having us.

Peter Biello: We'll start with you, Jessica. These essays ask students to help foster a conversation around what it means to be American. Are there common themes that you've seen in the essays so far?

Jessica Lander: Oh, so many. I think what's powerful is the diversity of themes. On our website, we've categorized them into very broad categories, so "family" or "migration" or "health and illness." But I think what's so beautiful and so powerful is if you go visit our website, you listen to the stories in, say, "family," you're going to see the wide ranges of what each student is taking to mean "family" and the students each choose where they want their stories to sit on our website. And I think that's the power of the project is that it really is capturing such a wide breadth of experiences of young people across the country right now.

Peter Biello: It gives them a little bit of voice, and it seems like a little bit of agency, too, control over how their story is told.

Jessica Lander: That's the hope.

Peter Biello: Yeah. And what about you, Heidi? Are you seeing any particular themes in Concord?

Heidi Crumrine: I would echo what [Jessica] said in that it's really remarkable to me that when you initially consider the question, "what does it mean to be an American?" or "is "there a common American experience or situation?" You come to realize that the answer to that is both yes and no. And it's really the kids' voices that are driving the answer to that. And so I can speak for my students; what was neat and, I guess, just insightful into their worlds that they're all very different stories and very different worlds, but they're still young people growing up and questioning, who am I and how do I fit in with all of this?

Peter Biello: A lot of us in the media and parents at school board meetings are talking a lot about policies in schools about COVID, about how and what to teach. We haven't been hearing too much from the students who are actually living this experience. So, Heidi, how do you think the project helps elevate students' voices when it comes to all of the discussion about schooling going on right now?

Heidi Crumrine: Well, I think that you really hit the nail on the head. We're not hearing from students, and that's what I love about the project is it's not about me, even the teacher. It's centering their experiences, and those experiences could be different one year to the next with different batches of students, but that it's about their experiences and giving them or helping them to feel empowered to raise their voice in a way that matters to them.

Peter Biello: Heidi, one of the essays that particularly moved you, was "Who Are You?" By Alexandria Leavitt. And she wrote a little bit about her experience dealing with a nasty rumor in school. So, let's hear a little bit directly from Alexandria Leavitt.

Alexandria Leavitt: A dark cloud fell over me that day, and with it, my reputation felt forever tarnished. Everywhere I went, it felt like eyes followed. I thought everyone as I walked by them was thinking, "Oh, look at her. What a disappointment. No longer a star student. What a failure."

Peter Biello: Heidi, why did this one really speak to you?

Jessica Lander: Well, there were a couple of things that really struck me. First of all, I think we can all relate to walking down a hallway, no matter where you attend school feeling like everyone is looking at you.

Peter Biello: Oh yeah. Been there.

Heidi Crumrine: She captures that and brings her reader in really well because we all get it... and so we're engaged and we're thinking, "I remember the time..." But the story isn't about me or you, it's about Alexandria. And so then she brings us into the experience. And what I love about how she crafted and worked with this is that for many people, when they have a negative experience like that, it's a negative. And you know, you don't... not that "what's the good that comes out of it?"

But it's about how she processed it and is trying to flip it around and do good in the world. And it's funny that you share her story because she just came to me today because she wants to start a women's empowerment book club where girls or anybody come together and read stories of women who have taken a challenging situation and done something with it. So I think what struck me was both her way of making us all relate to her, but then make us really invested in this experience of how she took a moment that could have derailed everything for her and used it to empower her to grow and move forward in her world.

Peter Biello: Jessica, this project started with just 18 students a few years ago, and since then, participation has grown pretty rapidly. What has it been like to see your project gain such momentum?

Jessica Lander: I mean, it's fantastic. So, Peter, we, in the spring of 2019, my students had published their book and then the second class of kids had published theirs and they'd been speaking at a couple of universities and on radio, and newspapers. And I so vividly remember that afternoon, right at the end of the semester, where they were hanging out in my classroom and they're like, "we don't want this to end. Yes, this semester is ending, the year's ending but we don't want this project to end and we don't think it should."

And I remember mapping out with them, what would it take? What would it look like to make a national project? And these were high school students. These were seniors about to graduate and juniors. And they were all in and they've been all in since. We just launched cohort three a week ago and my students are now in college and at work, and we're doing this together as this project that got mapped out on a whiteboard in a classroom on the final days of school. No one's doing this for a grade, but I don't think any of us could have imagined how much it's grown, how far the reach has been, and we have no clue where it will go from here.

Peter Biello: Jessica Lander is a teacher at Lowell High School in Lowell, Massachusetts, and she co-founded along with her students the We Are America essay project. And Heidi Crumrine teaches at Concord High School in her class, is participating in the project. Thank you both very much for speaking with me.

Jessica Lander: Thank you so much for having us.

Heidi Crumrine: Thank you.

Peter Biello: And to listen to some of these essays that Heidi's students wrote. Tune in to Weekend Edition on Sunday Mornings here on NHPR.