Last month, a group of Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School students left the comfort and familiarity of the Vineyard for the island of Manhattan. Their trip was the first leg of the “Two Islands, One World” cultural exchange.
The project began with a shared vision that communities as vastly different as Manhattan and Martha’s Vineyard can learn to understand and appreciate each other and that every time that understanding is achieved it is a step toward a more humane and explicable world.
Our young Island people will go out into a world where cultural literacy has never been more important and where the ability to think critically from an informed position is an essential key to success. With that as the guiding vision, the idea of an exchange grew where Vineyard students would visit New York and spend three days at the High School of Economics and Finance in Manhattan in April, and students from their partner school would return to visit them in June.
On April 22, a group of eight invited students and two group leaders, history teacher Kate Holter and I, left the Vineyard for New York City. After traveling most of the day, we were met at the Port Authority and escorted to the Westside YMCA. That began the most hectic three days imaginable. We bought metro tickets so that we could use the subway and one of the first cultural differences we encountered was that New Yorkers walk and we don’t, but we learned how to!
“This exchange was really productive because we learned to see their point of view in the city,” student Kendall Robinson said. “I liked the school because it was much different than ours. It was bigger, and I liked the way the students were given more freedom in their classes. They had time to work on things and they were allowed to do it their own way. They were not being told but being encouraged to learn in their own way. So they learned how to do it — instead of just listening.”
Cece DeGregorio was similarly thoughtful. “It was a very good experience because we visited many cultural places, and I got a lot out of those museums that we went to, all of them,” she said. “The school was definitely a lot different than our school, and it was a big transition for us, but I really enjoyed meeting new people.”
Julio Brito reflected on the diversity of New York. “There were a lot of different backgrounds in the school and I liked that you get to know other people and interact with them,” he said. “It seemed like everyone was welcome. In New York City, I saw places named after other countries and people from that country live there, and they have their own culture.”
For Brandon Watkins the New York school’s approach to discipline was an irritant. “We got a little taste of city life and that was great, but they are way too strict about hats,” he said. “You could not wear them and that got on my nerves.”
The High School of Economics and Finance had a 55-minute lunch break. Brandon said that was a real positive because students got a chance to relax and talk to friends and enjoy eating as a social experience. “Juniors and seniors got to leave at lunchtime, too, and that was really cool” he said.
“It was my first time in New York City” said Kassidy Bettencourt “and I thought it was a really good experience, especially because we went to the school. The classes were really different and the kids got to choose what they did and learned how to do things for themselves and not just having to listen to the teacher talking. I really liked that.”
The huge size and diversity of New York amazed Rodrigo Honoratio. “I had an incredible time, and a lot of fun with the people in our group and the kids from the other school, but the city is huge,” he said.
Comparing the two schools, Rodrigo noted the comparative size. “If you were to break the whole New York school like puzzle pieces and put it back together it would be about the same in size as the high school on the Vineyard, and they had 800 students so that is not too different from our school,” he said. “I was struck by the difference between their assistant principals and ours. In New York it was the assistant principal who took care of our visit and he was everywhere — in the hallways, in the classrooms, talking to kids, and he taught classes. I suppose that kept him connected to the kids and to the other teachers.”
“We really had no common ground with the New York kids other than we were all teenagers” said Alice Greene “and I really liked how as a group we had to make an effort to communicate. It was really rewarding to meet these kids and reach out. Their school is different and their students are way more respectful. It may just be the classes that we visited, but I noticed that the students respected each other and their teachers. In the library the teachers were tolerant of the kids expressing themselves, and they joked with them.”
The group’s only freshman, Anais Bermudes, enjoyed New York very much, particularly learning to read her fortune in Cantonese in Chinatown, and she shared the prevailing view that the classes were interesting and well organized. She noted that we walked so much that her feet were still hurting after the trip.
From the perspective of group leaders, we found the standard of teaching very impressive. We saw genuine team teaching and student-centered instruction with clearly articulated learning expectations. In our visits to the Tenement Museum, the 9/11 Memorial, Strawberry Fields, the African Burial Ground, Chinatown, and Little Italy, we seemed to naturally keep returning to the idea that we are all “from someplace else.” The symbolism was all around us, and I think we all took away from this experience the idea that it can be exciting and rewarding to share our differences, as opposed to fearing them.
Elaine Cawley Weintraub is the chairman of the high school history department. Funding for the project was provided by the MV Cultural Council, MVNAACP, and community donors.