Benton Harbor is a place
Where outsiders are always
Judging us as a whole, whenever
A couple of bad things happen,
Even if it isn’t our fault
Tyena Taylor, Benton Harbor High School, Class of 2020

In spring 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic looked as though it might scuttle a planned collaboration between the Benton Harbor, Michigan, school system and Teachers College’s Student Press Initiative, Benton Harbor English teacher Lesa Hamilton and her students could have been forgiven had they simply shrugged in weary resignation.

After all, Benton Harbor, a largely African American city of just under 10,000, located about two hours northeast of Chicago, has endured more than its share of hard knocks. As chronicled by author Alex Kotlowitz in The Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, a Death, and America’s Dilemma (Knopf Doubleday 1999), Benton Harbor is often unfavorably contrasted with its sister metropolis, St. Joseph.

The median household income in St. Joseph is three times higher than in Benton Harbor, where one in two residents live below the poverty line. St. Joseph’s high school is ranked among the top 25 secondary schools in the state, whereas in 2019, the state tried to take over Benton Harbor’s school system.

FIGHTING SPIRIT In 2019, parents in Benton Harbor fought off the state's attempt to take over the school system. 

But Benton Harbor also prides itself on a certain fighting spirit. The state’s takeover bid was scotched by determined parents. Kotlowitz’s book has become a rallying point, and subsequent generations have become aware that they have their own stories to tell — tales of resilience in the face of often overwhelming challenges — which is why the SPI collaboration, first suggested by Benton Harbor Area Schools principal and Teachers College alumnus Ryan Goble (Ed.D. ’18), seemed like an inspired idea.

“SPI provides the framework for kids to immortalize their truths on the printed page,” Goble says.

SPI, which is part of TC’s Center for Professional Education of Teachers (CPET), works with teachers to create units in which students write and rewrite personal narratives, poetry, memoirs and research-based essays around a central theme and publish those pieces for audiences outside the classroom.  Since its founding in 2002, SPI has published the work of more than 12,000 student authors, across more than 850 anthologies, including A Time for Change, in which social studies students at New York City’s Global Learning Collaborative (GLC) explored the 30 Articles of Human Rights; The Masks We Wear, a recent anthology by high school students in Osborne, Georgia; and Present Tense/Future Tense, an anthology of fiction in which Singapore American High School students in Singapore explore a dystopian future dominated by issues ranging from social media abuse to genetic modification. 

SPI provides the framework for kids to immortalize their truths on the printed page.

— Ryan Goble (Ed.D. ’18), Benton Harbor Area Schools principal 

“SPI publications become confidence-builders and sources of pride for classrooms, schools and entire communities,” says CPET Director Roberta Lenger Kang.

Goble, who arrived in Benton Harbor as an interim high school principal at the start of the 2019-20 academic year, secured a large grant from the Benton Harbor Education Foundation to fund the collaboration with SPI. Goble had worked with the CPET team while earning his TC degree and assisted in the publication of his first SPI booklet while serving as a Teaching and Learning Coordinator at a suburban Chicago prior to accepting his current position. 

In Benton Harbor, he spent six months laying the groundwork for the collaboration with SPI — the first time in SPI history that middle and high school students would collaborate on project. SPI staff were also deeply committed to the work — so much so that, even after COVID had escalated from threat to reality, Jennifer de Cerff, a TC English Education doctoral student and CPET Senior Professional Development Coach, and Cristina Compton, Director of CPET Program Development, flew out to Benton Harbor to facilitate the first SPI workshop.  

Three days after they returned home, TC closed its campus, and the Benton Harbor Area Schools followed suit shortly afterward.

Yet even in the midst of uncertainty, fear, caution and the adjustment to remote learning, Lesa Hamilton’s students continued writing personal essays and poetry.  

“I knew after that first meeting that the talent, passion and truth-telling of my students would come through,” Hamilton recalls. “And they have delivered.” 

Jen de Cerff, who is also a TC Zankel Fellow, had to scrap her plans to visit Benton Harbor once a month throughout the writing and editing process. Instead, along with the rest of the working world, de Cerff relied on Zoom to confer weekly (and sometimes daily) with Goble and the Benton Harbor staff at least once a week if not more.

“I knew after that first meeting that the talent, passion and truth-telling of my students would come through.”

— Lesa Hamilton, Benton Harbor High School teacher  

The transition to online professional development was not always seamless. 

“We’d ask ourselves, ‘Is this going to work?’ If it didn’t, we’d then say, ‘OK, let’s try this,’” de Cerff says. “We were inventing it as we went along and working with what we had.”

“The writing was oxygen for these kids,” says Pam Goble, a Chicago-area professor of education who helped her son facilitate the project. “They had these stories they desperately needed to tell.”

Hamilton concurs: “They want their own voices to be heard, their own truths to be told.”

That process ended up taking time. Spring turned to summer, the (virtually) graduated seniors departed, Goble moved on to another position, and still, the editing persisted in emails and texts to the authors from Hamilton and her fellow teachers.

As the process wound down, Kotlowitz contributed a forward to the forthcoming publication. In August, the galleys went to the printer. And just after the start of the year, the first copies of the new anthology, titled (what else?) Our Side of the River…The Real Deal arrived in Benton Harbor shortly after the start of the new school year.

[Read three student works from Our Side of the River.]

Nearly six more months would elapse before the authors, staff, parents and friends gathered on Zoom to honor the accomplishment — a moment, de Cerf says, when the students truly realized that “they are published authors, that their writing is of the world and that their book will live in the Library of Congress.”

Watch an excerpt from the book launch party for Our Side of the River, featuring readings by students and a guest appearance by author Alex Kotlowitz. 

The students read from their works, the high school principal joined other Benton Harbor dignities in singing the praises of the young authors and Kotlowitz applauded the “honesty in the writing that made it impossible to turn away.”

But it may be that the words of student author Tyenna Taylor (Benton Harbor High School Class of 2020) best summed up the project: 

Benton Harbor can only improve,
If you give us just one more chance,
To make things right.
I can only promise that,
We can do our very best.