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Education reformer

Stephen Goss

Stephen Goss wants students to learn through innovative channels of self-expression and digital media. Photo: Douglas Levere

By RACHEL RAIMONDI

Published October 10, 2013

“I think schools too often limit student voice and restrict their rights to be heard by the outside world.”
Stephen Goss, visiting assistant professor
Graduate School of Education

The flyer wrapped around a street lamp in downtown asks readers to “call (716) 980-5165 for a good poem.” For a time, a bike leaned against the lamp post, broken but brightly colored and covered in poetry.

What one might call street art, Stephen Goss, visiting assistant professor of English education at UB, calls a step in the right direction toward education reform.

“I think schools too often limit student voice and restrict their rights to be heard by the outside world,” Goss says.

In response, Goss, working with students from Middle Early College High School (MECHS), a public school in downtown Buffalo, created the “B-Heard” project.

Goss is passionate about students learning through innovative channels of self-expression and digital media. His teachings underscore a belief that writing lessons, especially about poetry, should be about people and their lives. He is passing on his revolutionary techniques to soon-to-be educators enrolled in “LAI 513: Teaching of Literature,” a course he teaches in the Graduate School of Education (GSE).

The “B-Heard” project focuses on getting students to conceptualize lessons creatively and implement them for the greater social good. The two major components are the “B-Heard” bikes and the Poetry Hotline.

Calls made to the hotline’s advertised number are answered after three rings: But callers don’t leave a message; they take one away. One week, callers heard a message from MECHS sophomore Ja’ir:

“In the hood you hear gunshots,
and when you come out you hear someone got shot,
over guns, girls, sneakers or pearls.

The world needs a turnaround,
but drugs are coming up from the underground.”

Goss changes the hotline’s recording weekly to feature a wide variety of student poetry.

“I think it helps my students start to feel like they are real writers and artists, and that they have important stories and ideas that should be heard by others,” Goss says. 

The “B-Heard” program began at MECHS in the spring of 2012 with a heap of discarded bicycles. Goss provided the spray paint; 70 students brought the words.

The young poets painted the bicycles in vibrant, neon colors like ruby, aqua and lime. They then wrote lines of original poetry on the seats, handle bars and support beams, and chained the bikes to street signs and lamp posts in Ellicott Square and the Canalside area of downtown Buffalo. The poetry bikes, on display rain or shine, were the students’ way of breaking from traditional educational concepts to capture the attention of a broader, live audience.

Seeing the words “Love can kill” on bike handlebars, or “It’s okay not 2 be okay” on tire rims frequently prompted passersby to do a double-take.

While the poetry bikes are no longer on display—they were taken down in May—the fliers remain throughout downtown, with students’ social media profiles and their collective Tumblr page of photos promoting their other artistic projects.

Story birds

“Story Birds” hang inside Goss’ office in Baldy Hall. The paper birds, posed as if in flight, are covered with Middle Early College High School students’ personal stories and writing exercises. Photo: Stephen Goss

Among those projects are paper “story birds,” designed by the students to free their messages from the standard, rigid English lessons. The giant, vibrantly colored birds were cut from the paper so that their wings appeared to be extended in mid-flight. The children inscribed their writing on the wings and posted the “story birds” outside in another public show.

Students also strung paper origami lanterns between trees to illuminate a “personal truth” and represent their endeavors. These “knowledge lanterns” swing in the breeze and place the focus on children’s education and the benefits of self-expression.

Goss’ techniques are creative, while still conforming to state and national standards for English language arts. His course at UB focuses on this rethinking of traditional educational practices as an effective method for teaching engaged and reflective reading, writing and speaking skills.

It challenges the current state of secondary education, which Goss believes can be oppressive and keeps students silent. Children’s writing and other work traditionally are seen only by their teachers before being discarded at the end of the school year.

“Opportunities to have a voice are often restricted or taken away,” Goss says, suggesting that one could compare some schools to “mini military states.”

Reader Response decoupaged collages

“Reader Response” decoupaged collages hang outside Goss’ Baldy Hall office, displaying UB students’ responses to literature and academic texts about English instruction. Students are required to present the collages referencing authors like Amy Tan and Sherman Alexie. Photo: Stephen Goss

He is a staunch believer in sociocultural theory, which emphasizes the interaction between individuals and society, and how it impacts education—an ideology, he says, that is represented throughout the GSE curriculum.

A film about the “B-Heard” project, shot and edited by the students, debuted in June at the Market Arcade Film and Arts Center as part of GSE’s “City Voices, City Visions” project. The objective of “City Voices, City Visions” is to foster student achievement by empowering young students with digital video tools for thinking critically and composing meaning.

“The world has changed, students have changed and our pedagogies have to change, too,” says Suzanne Miller, professor and chair of the UB Department of Learning and Instruction and director of the “B-Heard” film. “Taking advantage of the affordances of the digital world to reimagine what a 21st-century classroom has to be a priority at all levels of education.”

UB graduate students enrolled in Goss’ course learn that adolescents can develop skills for deep engagement in academic tasks if the tasks are meaningful. Goss’ teaching techniques, like the Poetry Hotline, provide templates for future work in the UB program, Miller says.

“Nothing would make me happier than having teaching methods progress toward this kind of experiential learning,” she says.

She believes the teaching and research in GSE demonstrate extraordinary strength in the use of digital technologies to support traditional educational topics. Students leave GSE prepared not only to teach children, but also reform educational practices around the world.