Harrisburg alumnus' program lets adolescents tell the story of their lives

Anthony Sedun, a 2009 graduate of Penn State Harrisburg’s teaching and curriculum master’s degree program, believes that we all have valuable life stories to tell, no matter who we are or where we come from. In fact, his own personal story is quite interesting. In 1985, at 4 years old, he and his sister were adopted from South Korea by an American family.

“The circumstances of my life story have a pronounced and lasting impression on my identity,” Sedun said. “I’ve learned to value my story and embrace the attempts at understanding, that in these attempts, I may grow more self-aware.” This “self-awareness,” he said, leads to a greater engagement with others.

Now a husband, father and teacher at Linglestown Middle School in the Central Dauphin School District, Sedun is using storytelling and the personal narrative to help students in his eighth grade summer school English class not only transition to the ninth grade but make valuable gains in their personal lives, with their families and in their communities, all while telling the stories of their lives.

Called the Life Writes Project, this pilot program turns the traditional summer school English class experience into a personal journey of self-discovery. Sedun created the program with Matthew Skillen of Elizabethtown College and Ryan Chrusch, a student in Messiah College’s adventure education program. Supported by the Central Dauphin School Board and administration, he implemented the program this past summer.

The plan is to help adolescents in transition develop resiliency and make gains in writing through narrative inquiry and adventure education.  Sedun said that making sense of self is part of the premise on which the project was created.

The students in the program failed eighth grade English and are considered “at-risk learners.” They came from four different middle schools in the district, and varied in age and socioeconomic backgrounds. One student had emigrated from Puerto Rico within the past two years. Most of the students were males and most were also nonwhite minorities. Some of the students were special education students.

These students may have otherwise fallen through the cracks of the education system without teachers like Sedun there to help them realize that they had something significant to contribute to society.

Influences

Sedun said that his experiences in the teaching and curriculum program were punctuated by relevant learning and robust expectations from his professors to engage more deeply with his work as a classroom teacher.

“I am especially indebted to the mentorship my adviser, Dr. Martha Strickland, provided through my time at Penn State,” he added. “The insistence on teacher-research in the program serves me well as a teacher, and certainly this spills over to initiatives like the Life Writes Project.”

Sedun also highlights his experience in the 2011 Capital Area Writing Project’s Invitational Summer Institute at Penn State Harrisburg. He calls it “one of the most effective and meaningful professional development opportunities” in which he has participated and adds that “its footprint is evident in the Life Writes Project.”

Sedun also utilized his own personal experiences and situations in creating the project.

“I realized how everyone has a pattern of narratives that their life experiences fit into: tragedy, triumph and tribute,” Sedun said. “I designed a unit of narrative inquiry with three interwoven pieces called ‘The Triptych Narratives.’”

The Life Writes Project allowed him to leverage these three specific types of personal stories for re-storying young people’s identities and building their capacities to be resilient, reflective and engaged people.

Sedun’s summer school students never imagined that they would embark on a great adventure that would challenge them to confront their obstacles, motivate them to make the transition to ninth grade and ultimately inspire them to change their lives for the better.

He urged the students to take a personal story and “make something out of the mess.” The result was a truly transformational experience for the students, the instructors and the project itself.

“We helped them chase their stories and as we did so, we chased the story of this project and what it could be.”

To execute the project, Sedun utilized several different learning platforms, including one in which literacy is used to immerse teachers and students in an ongoing conversation with the texts of their lives. Reading, writing, speaking and listening are seen as tools for making meaning rather than as ends unto themselves.

Sedun asserted that this gets children to think better as individuals and as a group, and allows them to share the thinking and work together.

He also used mentor texts from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, which identifies teenagers with exceptional artistic and literary talent. These texts were a guide to the students as they wrote their own narratives.

Leveraging a constellation of personal writing, art, text, movies, YouTube and more, Sedun sought to teach the students what it takes to be a writer by making sense of their own lives and the life stories of others without limiting or stifling their experience.

“In creating this program, I wanted to bring forth meaningful and lasting learning,” Sedun said. “I wanted these students to become writers for the world and learners for life. I wanted to show them that not only could they be writers, they could be better writers and they had something to share.”

Over five weeks of intensive instruction, students learned that making sense of one’s life is valuable, practical and essential in moving forward toward a better future.

Challenges

As with many pilot programs, Sedun and his team faced some challenges. One of the more significant – how to build an interpersonal relationship with the students, most of whom were from different backgrounds than his. He knew that in order to engage them, he had to find a way to communicate with them and to build a rapport and trust.

Sedun said that building relationships was huge in design and success of the project. “I often wrote alongside students,” he said. He utilized collaborative writing opportunities, culminating in the students’ individual multi-modal, multi-genre projects, to value the students as capable, credible and quotable. “My job was to build their capacities and invite them at every occasion I had to deeper engagement, more meaningful reflection about themselves, their texts and their world,” he added.

He acknowledged that establishing and honoring mutual trust and respect contributed to the students’ willingness to open up.

As a part of his multiple approaches to building relationships with students,Sedun also enlisted the help of his former faculty adviser, Strickland, associate professor of education, who specializes in building the relationship between teachers and students who come from different backgrounds.

“Anthony really wanted to build relationships and transform identities … and wanted to do it well,” Strickland said.

Strickland and Penn State Harrisburg honors student Hannah Warfel designed research that studied the use of photographs to enhance teacher-student relationships across differences. They evaluated how Sedun responded to the cultural differences of the students that he was teaching and how that responsiveness influenced the teacher-student relationship.

While the data they collected during their time with the project is still being analyzed, Strickland and Warfel see that providing space for the students to bring their home context into the classroom has merit in portraying important relationships and relevance – vital to the learning process. Through the students’ expressions of their lives using video, photos, narratives and class discussions, they brought their worlds outside of school into the classroom; Sedun was able to strengthen his pursuit of a relationship with them.

“Valuing students’ lives and their voices is the effectiveness of projects like this,” Strickland said. “I believe that this project was a success, and I hope they build on that success in the future.”

'Chase your story to the very end'

The students’ efforts culminated in an exhibit at the Friendship Community Center in Lower Paxton Township, Pa., in July. The exhibit offered a rare opportunity for these young people who have faced difficulties or challenges in life to showcase their talents to the larger community. It allowed them to engage with their community in ways that they never had before and gave them an opportunity to increase their resiliency by displaying their most personal stories.

More than 150 people attended the exhibit where the students’ 60 original works of art and writing were on display. Their personal narratives were presented through various modes, including personal essay/memoir, poetry, creative nonfiction, and digital and visual artwork.

At the end of the program, all 20 students passed Sedun’s eighth grade summer English class. In November, Sedun and Skillen presented their findings at a National Council of Teachers of English (NTCE) conference in Boston and already are looking forward to continuing the
Life Writes Project.

Sedun said that through the first year of Life Writes he discovered that these students in transition want to learn, they want to write, and want to make sense of their lives and their learning.

“We plan to build on what we started and (foresee) even greater outcomes for student-participants, for the school district and for the larger community,” he said.

Acknowledgements

Anthony Sedun wished to acknowledge key supporters and volunteers for the success of the Life Writes Project: Carol Johnson, superintendent, Central Dauphin School District; the Central Dauphin School Board; Rebecca Fairchild and Jesse Shenk, Millersville University; Alvia Walters, Penn State; Rebecca Kremer and Lexy Viscardi, Elizabethtown College; and Angela Sedun, artist and wellness consultant.

Last Updated January 29, 2014