Project Aims to Educate Lewiston High School About Somali Culture

Nov 4, 2016

How do you help a largely white teaching staff talk about race and culture with black students? That's a big question at Lewiston High School as the city's Somali population has grown to about 7,000.

The answer has been found by a group of Lewiston students, who came up with an approach that's based on their life experiences.

Every Wednesday after the final bell at Lewiston High School, a group of about 20 students gather in a small basement classroom for a program called 21st Century. It began as an after-school help program, largely for the district's population of children of immigrants from Somalia.

But over the past few years, program director Jenn Carter says it has evolved.

"The students come because they need help," she says. "But eventually we try to push them to a leadership role where they're also helping the community. Developing confidence, leadership skills."

About a year ago, Carter challenged them to think about a big question.

"What are the things that we could change in Lewiston High School? The community in Lewiston in general?" she says. "What can you, as a young person, add to make things better?"

"Well, in my experiences, teachers don't really have a connection with students of different culture," says junior Abdul Mohamed.

For students like Mohamed, the answer came quickly. As these 21st Century students talked to friends and each other, they found shared experiences and felt many of the teachers at Lewiston High School still didn't understand their Somali culture.

Junior Maryamo Elmoge says some of the interactions were surprising.

"Some of them say, 'Do you speak Muslim?' Stuff like that," she says. "We never ask questions like that. We're educated about their culture. We know a lot of things about them. But nobody really teaches them about our culture and what we wear, why we do what we do, stuff like that. We want people to be educated about our culture."

More than a quarter of the district's students are black. Yet Lewiston High School has only one African-American teacher. And according to federal data, nearly one-fifth of the black students at Lewiston High School received an out-of-school suspension in the most recent year on record.

That's a rate nearly 60 percent higher than the student body as a whole, which Elmoge says is a problem.

"That has an impact on their learning," she says. "They seem to get in trouble more often than the white kids. And the teachers think that has to do with their skin color. That it's the black kid who gets in trouble, so you're always that bad kid. We don't want them to think that way of us."

The students decided the best way to change these practices was to tell their personal stories. To lead a training where they didn't attack the teachers, but instead simply shared their experiences at Lewiston High School. Both good and bad.

"You want to believe that everybody treats everyone, regardless of their culture or race, equally. But I think we'd be putting our heads in the sand if that was reality," says Lewiston Principal Shawn Chabot. "We know that we have work to do."

Chabot says he was open to the idea of a workshop and agreed. So the full training, for more than 50 of Lewiston's educators, occurred last month. The students wanted to ensure that teachers would be open about their feelings, so they decided not to record the session.

The training was a success. Students shared uncomfortable experiences and teachers talked about how they sometimes felt nervous to even bring up race in the classroom. Social studies teacher Donna Olsen says the stories really made her think about her own communication and how she talks with students.

"The biggest thing I got from it is I really need to be clear of when I have a conversation with a student, or even if there's a consequence of a behavior, I need to be really clear about the reasons behind it," she says.

When students talk about the kind of communication they want to have with teachers, some point to Lewiston math teacher Erica Gosselin. Inside the downtown Lewiston apartment of junior Isho Mohamed, she works with Mohamed on a paper for English class.

Teacher Erica Gosselin works with student Isho Mohamed at her house in Lewiston.
Credit Robbie Feinberg / Maine Public

"A peat of mud, muck slime, ooze," she says as she reads through a passage, helping Mohamed search for descriptive words in the text. "That's a good word. Ooze. Sounds gross, right?"

This one-on-one, intensive tutoring with students started six years ago, Gosselin says, with Isho's sister Fatumah. She worked with her in summer school, and Fatumah invited her over.

"I went to their apartment and we had dinner," Gosselin says. "And it was like the first time where I really felt comfortable enough to just ask any question I wanted. It started with academics, but what got me to the point of being completely comfortable with subjects like race was being in their homes and getting to know them as just people."

As Gosselin and Isho sit at the kitchen table, they say the relationship goes beyond academics.

"I know where you live, I think," Mohamed says to Gosselin. "I know her family."

"Did you come and stay when your house burned down?" Gosselin asks Mohamed.

"Some of my family, my sisters went to her house to sleep there when our building burned down in the year of 2014," Mohamed says.

They even celebrated the Muslim holiday of Eid together.

"I feel like a family member at this point," Gosselin says. "Like I'm their crazy aunt or something like that. I just got that feeling when you try on something new or different, not something I know a lot about. It was nice to learn something from them. Instead of me as the teacher all the time, them learning from me. But me learning something new about the people in my community."

The students say they don't expect all their teachers to act like Gosselin. But they do want teachers to ask about their culture.

The next step in the process, they say, is to increase communication through restorative practices such as classroom-wide "community circles." The students have now formed a working group of students, teachers and administrators.

Chabot says the students' willingness to talk about a subject like race is exactly the kind of leadership he wants to see at Lewiston High.