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The 290 Project: Living & Learning during the Pandemic

Michele Clark High School, where I am fortunate enough to teach a 9th grade Creative Writing class, is located alongside the 290 expressway in the Austin neighborhood, which is located on the westside of Chicago, a notoriously segregated city, and the impact of structural racism is felt not only in accessibility to economic, housing, education, and healthcare systems but also to their sense of belonging and connection to the city. It was this disconnection that led to our proposal of The 290 Project: Lives Along the Exits for the LRNG Innovators Challenge project, awarded to us in 2019 by the National Writing Project and John Legend’s ShowMe Campaign. We were excited to travel down the expressway and explore the neighborhoods and people living and working in them to uncover what connects us and isolates us as Chicagoans. Students were then going to share their experiences via spoken word poetry performance, podcast and/or digital collaging and then share these projects in a culminating event at school. 

However, about two weeks before our first trip down 290, schools were closed in the state of Illinois due to Covid-19. Our experiential learning project was now an unsafe and impossible one, so we shifted the timeline and reimagined what it could look like in the fall. 

As the school year started in the Fall of 2020, I began my work with my new class – now meeting fully online and at a distance from each other – by building on what inspired us to propose the The 290 Project: Lives Along the Exits in the first place. We decided to start with some brainstorming and writing about Chicago, about our neighborhoods, and we explored the themes of belonging and isolation together. Below is a reflection on our blocks and neighborhoods: 


We further explored the qualities that made our neighborhoods and experiences unique. We used George Ella Lyon’s “Where I’m From” poem as a prompt, and students explored Tonika Johnson’s virtual exhibit, Belonging: Power, Place, and (Im)possibilites to deepen their exploration of belonging and disconnection in Chicago. When we began the discussion of feeling disconnected, Anthony said, “Ms. Hughes, most of us feel disconnected from everywhere except our houses and families.” Another student added that some students didn’t necessarily feel connected there either. Although obvious in some ways, it was also incredibly profound in shaping a clearer idea of what students really needed from this project. 

Two themes emerged as we explored this work together: first, we needed to focus on a sense of belonging as a school community, as many of my students were freshmen and had never been in the building, and second, that we needed to get to know each other cross-generationally.  The students decided the best place to start was to work in teams to interview the school staff and other adults in the building.

Yafae, an older student who had been part of the original 290 Project and had started working on his skills as an interviewer, came to our online class and did a presentation and a Q & A of tips on interviewing adults. He was inspiring, easing students’ nerves by sharing his own experiences and affirming that the adults at school cared about the students and “always want us to be successful.” The class then generated a list of questions they would ask their staff member they would be partnered with for the interview. What was also exciting is that more than the needed number of staff volunteered to be interviewed and students got to spend 15-25 minutes talking to an adult; the longest amount of time spent with a staff member for many of the students. The experience went well for both students and staff as we reflected afterwards. During one interview, a student stated she was nervous to come to school at this point. Her adult interviewee, a senior teacher, told the student to shoot her an email if she felt scared, and she would find her so that they could check in. Freshmen were now building relationships with adults from across the grade levels and building, something that would not have happened if we were doing in- person learning. 

The class then collectively decided to continue to write and document about what their own experiences were living and learning during this time of quarantine and continue to interview staff and each other on different topics about their own lives. A guest teaching artist worked with the students on different writing prompts and the process of digital collaging, which students will synthesize and capture through ProCreate or video editing at the end of the school year and then share with the Clark High School Community. We wrote to  try and make meaning of the world: students created blackout poems using texts from a grade level project about Black Lives Matter, the days before the presidential  election we read Danez Smith’s “My President” poem and wrote their own versions celebrating the people in their lives. 

Although how we built connections and explored ideas of togetherness and belonging changed, our goal of connecting our students to a larger community grew in some beautiful and unexpected ways. Some of the samples of poems  on this padlet are examples of capturing those moments that have shaped their year of living and learning remotely.  We invite you to read and comment to celebrate a sampling of the writing, insight, and voices of our incredible students.


Hero image: Yafae, who had been honing his interview skills to create podcasts, interviewing the Lake Stevens, WA team behind the LRNG Innovators Seize Your Futures: Passion Projects Grant






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