Learning across Community Spaces: An Urban Exchange

Jun 3rd, 2022 | By and | Category: BLTN Teachers, Spring / Summer 2022

By Monica Rowley and Sara Taggart

Asking students to notice the world around them as reporters and writers with authority teaches them to respect their observations and creative interpretations. This positioning leads to student-driven inquiry about where they come from and how they can represent and share their community. During the last two years, our individual worlds have become smaller while simultaneously expanding through shared technology. We have not been able to travel as broadly; however, we have been able to gain new skills and practices in our homes, which technology allows us to share in ways we had not done before. We experience a seeming paradox of being still while also being able to share what we did in the stillness in a myriad of new ways. As students, teachers, and school staff returned to buildings this year—expanding our geographical worlds again—Sara and I felt it was crucial to allow students to record where they are from, what they see, what they value, and offer a space for collaboration about what they wanted to share. -Monica Rowley

We – Monica Rowley and Sara Taggart – intended to engage our students in a study of poetry to explore rhetorical texts as platforms for students’ voices, to inspire social empathy and change, and to explore issues of personal culture, language, and identity. In this article, we narrate the development of our exchange via the Bread Loaf Teacher Network (BLTN), and reflect on our ongoing learning from students’ experiences. Because this exchange was entirely conceived and carried out over distance (including the online summer session of the Bread Loaf School of English [BLSE], where we were both students when we conceived the exchange), we alternate between shared and individual observations in our narratives.

Two Diverse Urban Schools

Sara teaches 10th grade English at Mifflin High School (MHS), one of 20 high schools in the 50,000-student Columbus City School District in Columbus, Ohio. MHS is a diverse urban high school with a population of approximately 800 students. More than 90% of MHS students identify as Black, Hispanic, or Asian, almost half of whom were born outside the U.S. A shelter site for the district’s large LEP/ELL student population, MHS  is home to students speaking over 23 languages from over 40 different birth countries. It is a Title 1 school with all students receiving free breakfast and lunch to show equity for low-income and underserved students. 

Monica teaches 8th and 9th graders at Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School (Masterman), which ranked tenth in U.S. News 2022 national secondary school rankings. Masterman is a 5th-12th Philadelphia public magnet school with just under 1,200 students. Masterman is a diverse school with 43% of the students identifying as caucasian: 27% as Asian, 15% as African American, 9% identifying as two or more races; 6% Hispanic; and, less than 1% identifying as American Indian and/or Pacific Islander. Nearly all students receive free or reduced lunch. 

Why Plan a Place-Centered Exchange?

We were excited through this exchange to widen our students’ geographic understanding, increase their awareness of the world and their place in it, dispel myths or “single stories” of themselves and others, and give them the authority to present themselves to an audience beyond students and teachers in their own schools. Added to this, of course, is the ever-present goal of strengthening their existing reading, writing, and communication skills.

We wished them to delight in poetry, language, and their own rich backgrounds. We found this especially important as we reemerged from the COVID-19 pandemic. We wished to create a space where our students are operating not from a place of deficit, but a place of authority, where they have much to bring to the conversation. They are the ethnographers who can write or create multimodal works from their experiences with high selective choice. 

Roots of the Exchange

Sara’s Experience: Identity, Diversity, and Social Justice through Poetry

My summer 2021 BLSE tutorial, led by Professor Brenda Brueggemann, was Amanda Gorman: The Hill We Climb, focused on Gorman’s inaugural poem “The Hill We Climb” and rhetorical poetry in general. Before beginning the course, I already knew I wanted to find more time for poetry in my classroom, and I hoped to use Gorman as a relatable role model poet. Through my work in the tutorial, I enhanced my own knowledge of literary and rhetorical devices and gained new appreciation for poetry as a platform for discussion of topics relevant to my student population—specifically identity, diversity, and social justice. I planned to address the BLTN theme of “learning in community spaces” by engaging all of my students in the exploration of their families, communities, and social issues through class literature study and personal culture projects. I knew I wanted to expand on these themes in a cross-classroom exchange. When I posted these ideas for an exchange partner from BLTN, Monica responded with interest. We agreed that a cross-state exchange of student voices and original creative writing would be a way for our students to address relevant issues, encourage social commentary, and inspire social empathy. 

In my classroom, we started the year with an exploration of culture and what went into creating one’s sense of identity, or “personal culture.” This activity would serve as a brainstorm for our “About Me and My City” posts in our exchange. I helped my students consider what made something “a city,” hoping they might research more about Columbus’ economy, major industries, diversity, and urban failings. 

Monica’s Experience: Self, Place, Awareness, and Field Notes

My interest in this exchange, one of poetry and place, ties directly to two great influences from my time at Bread Loaf: Bob Sullivan’s Creative Nonfiction: The Almanac (2019) course and Ruth Forman’s Poetry Workshop: Poetry of Humanity and Hope (2021) class. Both of these instructors weave self, place, and awareness into their courses. They also both use what is in front of us to center creative output. Through pedagogical approaches and content introduced by both Sullivan and Forman, I weaved ideas together to situate my students to explore our future exchange with Sara’s class. 

My students and I began the year, as Forman began our summer course, examining Lucille Clifton’s “blessing poem.” The students and I used that poem as a model for our shared hopes, aspirations, and blessings for our school year. Our poetry study continued, and I tasked students with monthly field note exercises: completing write-ups of three nature observations; observing and tracking the night sky at least three times; jotting down human made structures or behaviors that intrigued them: Why is this building abandoned? Why do people tend to…on their…while they…? What are these blue historical markers throughout the city teaching me? Inspired by Sullivan’s creative nonfiction exercises, these field note exercises proved exciting for my students, and my students expanded their work through photography, illustrations, extended research, and recordings. One student even completed a dance interpretation after Philadelphia experienced record flooding in September of 2021. This work, which we began in September, would be the source material for my students’ poems of place exchange. 

Exchange Nuts and Bolts: Technology, Timeline, and Process

Sara suggested we use Padlet as our platform for the exchange. Padlet fit all of our needs, having the following features: 

  • variety of methods to organize materials and posts
  • free and easy to use both on computer and mobile devices 
  • works with or without school-specific accounts (accessible through free signup, or links with Google, Apple, or Microsoft)
  • allows administrators full, variable control of postings 
  • variety of posting options for subscription to Universal Design for Learning and high student agency: video, photo, URL, image or document upload, text and RTF (including spell check), audio, maps, YouTube, and more!

Our exchange was fluid. Sara set up various Padlet streams, and we used those streams to begin our communication. This project was new to both of us, and we were able to make it work amid all of the demands this incredibly challenging year made upon educators, students, and administrators alike.  As you continue to read and hear more student voices and experiences from the exchange, you will notice ways you could use and/or adapt what we did to work for your classroom. 

What we were able to accomplish took place in two distinct phases: An introductory exchange we called “About Me and My City” and a second phase in which students responded to Amanda Gorman poems, and exchanged their own poems of place. In the following sections, we will provide examples of student responses along with our own and our students’ reflections on each phase.

Getting Started: About Me and My City

To start, students posted their initial “About Me and My City” responses on our exchange Padlet. Students replied to each other and asked questions about their respective schools, cities, and experiences. It was an exciting phase to remind them they can be curious learners! While many of their questions were focused on school (not surprising, since it dominates much of their time), students also asked about traditions, weather, food, and even local flora and fauna.

Sara: Scratching Surfaces

One amusing interaction we had was when a Masterman student asked what people from Columbus called themselves. One of my students found the question, addressed the class, and it turned out that no one in class knew (including me, not a native of Columbus)! We did some brainstorming until one of my students, Amiro, researched the answer. For the record, we now all know we are Columbusites. Some of the more serious insights we gained were about the diversity in our respective cities; our Mifflin students go to a very diverse school, but they don’t all live in diverse neighborhoods. Through some of the conversation on Padlet, it became clear that my students appreciate diversity in our city, but we only began to scratch the surface of inequities that also exist. For example, Sujata writes: 

“My city is the type to never discriminate. If you ever come to visit, you will realize that there are many beautiful cultures here. We are very diverse with our culture and races. There are people all the way from the other side of the world here! Somali, Nepali, African, American, You name it! All cultures are different in their own way but the differences don’t stop us from being one. I think culture is important because it defines who you are and where you are from. Columbus is a good place to spread culture in general because you can teach your culture to others and you can learn from them as well. There are different cultural stores all around Columbus. For example, I am Nepali and there are stores here that range from clothes to groceries! Columbus is a place not to be embarrassed of your culture, but to embrace it!” 

Masterman student Kaitlyn responded, “In your city, are there neighborhoods with a population of people who come from similar ethnic or cultural backgrounds or is everyone more mashed together?” 

My response: “This is a tough question, but I’d say a little of both.”

Kaitlyn’s question deserved more research and thoughtfulness than we could give at the time. It is indicative of what we could do better in the future to foster more communication and give students more structured time and guidance to do so. 

Candidly, I felt that most of my students’ initial explorations of self and city were superficial efforts; instead of probing what made something “a city,” or particulars of Columbus’ economy, major industries, diversity, and urban failings, they tended to use landmarks and attractions to represent their own experiences in the city. I was personally very interested in comparing the students’ COVID experiences with mask mandates, online learning experiences, and other responses, and figured my students would be interested, too, but they did not seem to have initial curiosity about that. I realized many of my students were drawing from their own somewhat “sheltered” experiences in our city. In hindsight, I realize that piquing students’ curiosity about their own community spaces, as a way to be more able to inform others, may need more time and attention in the future. Still, once the interaction began, my students began to see their lives in more full perspectives. 

Monica: Towards More Complex Conversation

Sara’s point about how we could improve this exchange for more complex conversations about who we are and where we are from is important. Students shared the sentiment, noting areas where growth for a new iteration could happen. Overall, my students found the initial inquiry and postings about place intriguing, and in their comments and feedback noted they felt this portion should have been extended both in length of time and in the range of topics and ideas used to build personal connections.

Ray notes: “Being able to pose questions to those from Columbus was really fascinating. Not only because I could learn about life in that city and school, but also because it helped me examine my own school life and surroundings and think about how those could differ elsewhere.”

Brandon comments, “I learned a lot from the ‘I was wondering’ column. It made me realize how different a city not that far away was. I found out that our environments weren’t alike at all. Their schools are at different times, they don’t have much public transportation, their most popular sports team is a college football team, they eat pizza every day, etc. It makes me wonder how different cities or places even further away are.”

Sophie writes: “I enjoyed learning about some of their school norms that seemed weird to us and vice versa. Aspects about their school lunch, uniforms/dress code, when school starts/stops, field trips, etc. I also enjoyed learning about Columbus in general and what school in other cities is like. Sometimes I think that schools in cities are unrealistic and different because we mostly see suburban schools online, so it was interesting to know that there are plenty of other students in city schools.” 

Sophie’s comment highlights how the students were able to recognize themselves through others in this phase of the exchange. I think Jason summarizes this emerging understanding when he notes, “Masterman and Mifflin sound quite different, Philly and Ohio sound quite different, but the students are fairly similar.” I wonder how, in future exchanges, I can deepen these initial important understandings into an even richer tapestry of shared content and mediums. 

Moving On: Exchanging Poetry of Place

In the second phase of our collaboration, students began their poetry analysis and creation centering on the idea of “place.” We studied poems of real and imagined places. We each customized our lessons for our own classroom contexts, but you can view the general slides we used here. The gist of our sequence was to guide students in articulating their responses to Amanda Gorman poems, in gathering observations from their own places, and in posting and responding to original place poems.

Students posted their respective images and poems of place, and began a second round of responses. They were intrigued and engaged in reading each others’ poems. They discovered commonalities and learned new elements of culture and voice.

Sara: Questions Leading to Connection

No matter the simplicity of the subject, students found a way to connect, relate, or compliment each other. In many cases, students’ poetry introduced more questions to help them connect. 

For example, Masterman student Charles’ poem about his elementary school struck a nostalgic chord for many of our students, especially considering what they’ve been through in the last couple of years with the pandemic. 

Additionally, Mifflin student Koureysho’s poem about Mecca inspired some connections and sparks further cultural curiosity. 

Masterman student Emi writes, “You very effectively conveyed the importance of this holy place! Ramadan Mubarak!”

Masterman student Jia-Ming writes, “This poem makes me want to know more about Mecca and Hajj, and I’m wondering if you’ve ever been to Mecca?” 

Monica: Places Beyond Geography 

“Poetry of Place” turned out to be a fruitful topic of engagement; my students’ responses to what they learned were reflective, and I was often delighted by their insights and new understandings. 

Brandon summarizes his experience well with his thoughts, “I learned that Poetry of Place doesn’t have to be about a literal place. It could be about an experience you had somewhere, or how a place makes you feel. It seems like it is a very diverse topic to write about. People’s poems varied from their childhood home to a fictional wonderland.”

Rudy eloquently states: “The exchanges I learned the most from were the people who used places that aren’t just places, but ideas in a way. Like the idea of being in this place, so geographically it isn’t really a thing, but it’s more about your environment, and why that makes that location something that you adore. For example, someone said their favorite place was a place that was quiet and dark. They didn’t necessarily give a specific location, but I perfectly understood what idea they were trying to give off, and it was also somewhat relatable.”

Rudy’s reflection illustrates an expansion of what he considers to be the purpose of poetry, and he also notes an expansion of possibilities when it comes to content selection. He goes on to note, “I learned a lot about Poetry of Place. How most of those poems effectively describe a location, so you can imagine yourself in it. Why those locations are important and unique for that person compared to other locations. Why that location holds a special place in someone’s heart. And that in most Poetry of Place poems, it isn’t always describing the exact geographical features, but instead the history of that place and its correlation with the author. Most Poetry of Place poems have a ‘being alive here and now’ theme, they simultaneously describe features, and feelings.”

I simply love Rudy’s understanding that “Poetry of Place poems have a ’being alive here and now’ theme.’” His reflections are a direct line back to my objectives in this work, and his thinking reflects much of what I began to consider after being a student of Forman and Sullivan. I also believe his—as well as all the perspectives of the students involved— comprehension of form, function, content, and context improved because of an exchange with peers. Something new, real, different, and compelling was at stake in the work, and when students have an audience they are concerned with reaching and engaging, their learning develops on a personal level that adds to the work’s inevitable meaning. The work becomes portable. The work is personal. The work builds community. 

Students pushed past their initial understandings of the topic, and their reflections highlight the deep thinking that occurred for many of the participants. Mehaad’s understanding of the functions of poetry expanded, “I learned that poetry has a powerful capacity to evoke particular places’ emotions, to inform us of their meaning and effect in grounding us regardless if we know the writer or not.” Charlie elaborates on how expansive the topic of Poetry of Place became for him, “I didn’t realize it was so broad. I thought it was a pretty narrow topic because you could only do it about a certain place. But places aren’t only defined by their geographical location, and I think poems about place really bring out where in the heart these places are located.” 

Charlie was not the only one to reconsider place as more than a geographic location. Brycinea expounds on this, “I learned how vague or specific each different location poem can be. It could be about a very specific event, in a specific location, or it could just be about an idea (mine was about the concept of home, and another one I thought of while brainstorming would be about being in my own body or brain – being myself).” Guilia asked questions fruitful for anyone to consider, “I could have written a poem that was bittersweet about almost everywhere, but that’s what most of the things I write are like. I tried to write a more uplifting, joyful poem, but again, where do I only have joyful memories? Writing a Poem of Place defined what place means. Is it a physical place? Or can it be a figment of my imagination… or in my case, a group of people? I learned that place can be whatever I want it to mean.”

We envisioned a third phase that would include some cross-collaborative work between students such as imagining a place together and jointly writing about it; sending their own images of place for the exchange group to question, probe, and create poems from; and a live meet “virtual cafe” where students would read some of their poems together. While we ran out of time for this third phase, our students’ feedback helped us to see the value of our text-based exchange and the need to plan more interaction should we plan another iteration. 

Overall Reflections

Sara: Overlapping and Expanding Communities

I sampled student feedback via a whole-class discussion and interviews with two students. I asked the following questions in student interviews and whole-class reflection:

  • Have you ever done something like this before? (Pen-Pal or contributed to an online blog, perhaps)
  • What was it like connecting with students from another city and state?
  • What did you think of the use of the Padlet platform?
  • How did it feel to share your questions and original work with peers from another school/city/state?
  • How did it feel to read original poems from your classmates and those in Philadelphia? 
  • Did you enjoy the process? If so or not, why/what part?
  • Did you enjoy writing a poem of place? Why/why not?
  • Would you like to continue an exchange like this in the future? What form would you like it to take?
  • What changes would you like to see to make the exchange better? 

After students had some time to reflect in writing, we had a short but productive whole-class discussion. Themes from the whole class discussion included balancing our exchange with expected classwork (which was due to hiccups in the timeline plan), whole-group versus student pairs work, and the value of poetry as a focus. Most students enjoyed the experience as a whole, and almost all felt they had a unique experience. Several students expressed interest in pairing up more pen-pal style to form better connections; we discussed that it might be good to start with the Padlet and then pair up students as we got into content work. Here are some stand-out quotes from their written reflections: 

“My favorite part was the poem of place. It was fun to see the different places that mean so much to other people. The students’ poems were amazing. They wrote it so beautifully and it was fun reading them.” ~ Koureysho

“It was great connecting with other people from other states because you always get to learn something new.” ~ Roman

“I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it because I’m not a people person but it was something to learn from.” ~ Jayla

“I enjoyed writing and reading the poems of place because I got to know what places from Philadelphia they liked to visit or had a special connection with a certain place.” ~Diego

“This event will be a good memory to hold because I never did this before.” ~ Shanelle

In brief, on-the-fly recordings (forgive the background noise), Koureysho and Malcom both expressed enjoyment of the exchange and found it a valuable and unique experience they’d like to continue. They both liked the use of Padlet as a platform and liked the use of text-based communication for comfort. 

Here are key insights from each student:


What was it like connecting with students from another city and state?

I would say it was something that I never experienced before, especially from going to middle school. Between elementary to middle school, I went to an Islamic school, so like I’d never been this out in public, with different diversity, kids, so, it was something I haven’t experienced. It was good. 

How did it feel to share your questions and original work with peers from another school, city or state—basically like strangers, right? How did that feel? 

It felt really weird at first, because I don’t usually text people that I don’t know. But then it was nice to see how the questions I asked, and some of the stuff, they can relate to it, so it was nice seeing other people out there that have like the same mindset, or the same stuff that you go through. 

Koureysho’s recording


I just wanted to get an idea of how you felt the exchange went, how it felt to share your questions, share your original work, how it felt to read the poems from people who are outside of the state from you, and how you felt about Using Padlet as a platform to do that. 

I thought the exchange was great…the fact that there’s other people out there who could be somewhat like you, if not the same as you, and it’s good to meet other people that love the things  that you like to do. 

Malcom’s recording

I hope this project has opened my students’ eyes as it has mine to the idea that “learning in community spaces” does not end with your family, school, or hometown. Our students carry with them their own experiences in communities outside the one we currently share in school or city. Sometimes, the communities we are a part of can seem to be in competition for our attention and love, and they do not always coexist well. Many of our students have toes in many different community spaces; however, community is an ever-expanding idea to those who are in touch with themselves as a part of humanity. I hope my students can continue to tap into their curiosity to learn more about themselves as members of a global community. It is my hope that our experiences this year have helped my students start to understand the far-reaching ties of community and carry these budding understandings with them in their future learning. 

Monica: Laying Foundations through Creative Agency

For a first run, I thought this exchange went well. Sara and I have never even met in person, so the work we did also highlights that our post-pandemic world has made remote instruction something we all need to reconsider for creative and critical pedagogical opportunities. I must note, as a teacher of over twenty years, that this year has been one of the most challenging years of my career—rolling absences, waves of transmission, concerns around building safety and ventilation, a returning population unsure of what the year will bring or if another shoe is waiting to drop, and all of us not used to classroom environments—and our collaboration was able to happen despite all of these external forces because of the technology we used coupled with a flexible schedule that allowed for interruptions and demands any public school teacher is all too aware of in his/her/their life.

On a pragmatic level, with experience to now guide us, we would consider ways to delineate tasks for students across the year, and we would make more time to have a live interaction between students. Along with these pragmatics, I would approach another exchange with enthusiasm for these big questions: How can a student-to-student exchange increase understanding, critical thinking, and creative agency in comprehending where you are from in relation to where somewhere else is from? What surprises arise? What questions linger?

From my perspective, students are partners with us in our emerging technological advances, and often they are instructors in selecting the best platforms and means in which to deliver content. Students in my class offered ideas for future exchanges that were applicable to this work, as well as applicable to a similar exchange someone else might want to undertake. Feedback from Ghent, Miles, Ana, Ryan, and Jason gives me plenty to think about in terms of other structures, activities, genres, and even data gathering we might undertake in future iterations.

Catherine offers her understandings, as well as other important thematic considerations: “From the poems written, I learned that there is beauty, even in what may seem like the simplest objects or ideas, such as the nature we see everyday around us. From this poetry exchange, I also noted strengths that I saw in other people’s poems that I could incorporate into some of my own writing. Other topics that I would like to consider for a classroom exchange is writing about our core values and how those are important to each one of us.” 

Sophie notes a much echoed opinion in wanting to have a live exchange alongside the online written component: “For next year, maybe doing a portion over zoom or google classroom so we can actually see each other and talk rather than just typing, or something else more interactive.” This idea was part of our original plan, and this would be an aspect I would ensure to include in a future exchange. 

This was a fruitful experience for me and my students. I know there were key takeaways for all. My students understand poetry more; they were able to explore a style within that genre; they expanded their understandings of America; they were also able to see themselves in students from another geographical part of the country; they expanded their own representations of self and community; they used their field notes and observations to generate content; they remained curious about others while becoming excited about where they are from; finally, they also felt agency as teachers to me, as I often sought their counsel around ideas of design and execution. Essentially, during a year I was not so sure I could do anything else other than what I was tasked with by my district, school, and community, I found that meaningful exchanges about who we are generate content that matters while also laying the foundation for further questions and growth. 

Bella writes, “This has been one of my favorite things we have done in Literacy. It was interesting getting to know these new people who we may have never even known about if we didn’t do the exchange. They were all very nice students and were very positive when giving us feedback on poems especially. Columbus, Ohio is a really interesting place which makes this exchange really helpful. We got to learn about a new city and what their daily life is like” 

And I think leaving with Jesse’s words suits me best, as his lines were written as a couplet, and made me smile broadly while considering his ideas and new travel plans: 

“I wonder what those Columbus kids think about us. 

If I could, I would visit Columbus.”

Monica Rowley is a 2021-22 Roxanne McCormick Leighton ’67 Endowed Fellow
Sara Taggart is a 2021-22 Bickimer Fellow

6 Comments to “Learning across Community Spaces: An Urban Exchange”

  1. Carl Ackerman says:

    Thank you for all of the hard work you’ve done! This project speaks to the power of exchange – we people get to connect with one another, learn from each other, our world seems to grow and shrink at the same time. Thank you for providing all of the details about the exchange, evidence of the padlet entries, and the recording of student interviews. I’d love to hear a recording of the students reading their poems too, if possible. I commend you all on the amazing work you’ve done during a very difficult year. This project is amazing Art and History!

    • Sara Taggart says:

      Carl, thank you for your comments. Having students record their pieces is an excellent idea that I will keep in mind for the future. I know exactly what you mean when you write, “our world seems to grow and shrink at the same time.” I experience this often! Recognizing that both experiences are valid and important, I also think they can coexist. When we have an understanding of that, it can help us be more empathic, better communicators, and more productive and positive members of a community.

  2. Owen Cheung says:

    Though personally i may not have been the biggest fan of this, I am glad to have taken part of this experience and hope it provides valuable feedback to improve on future inter-school exchange activities.

  3. Jesse Zhen says:

    I really like how detailed this article is. It covers every nook and cranny of the exchange.

  4. Casie-Elle Saint-Pierre says:

    This is a very well written article! I love how diverse every response is and how almost everyone got a chance to shine with their own opinions and outlooks on the topic at hand. It was fun to do this type of interaction; learning about places outside your comfort zone should always be acknowledged. 10/10 Would do this experiment again!

  5. Zhaire Easley says:

    This article was very pleasing to read. I enjoyed hearing what my classmates had to say because we shared the same opinions/views on the exchange. Overall, this was a wonderful experience for both classes and I’m pretty sure they’d love to participate in an exchange again.

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