Becoming #ROCBelievers Reflecting the Voices of Our Community

Genesee Community Charter School, Rochester, NY


The year began with a three-hour walking tour of our city, looking for evidence of bridges and barriers. Bridges, things that serve to unite us, included amazing murals, new small businesses, bike lanes, community gardens, and a vibrant public market. Barriers, things that drive a wedge between us or serve to isolate certain members of our community, were equally plentiful. Students recognized homelessness, trash-strewn lots, poverty, and boarded up homes as barriers during their walk. Back in the classroom, teachers Alexis Stubbe and Chris Dolgos led a debrief about where students saw revitalization - and for whom - and had the students reflect on their perceptions of the community and the bridges and barriers in their own lives.

GCCS sixth-graders began the year with a "Rochester Walkabout," which revealed many great things about the community - but also laid bare the barriers that would need to be overcome.

In the months that followed, they explored the idea of community; the evolution of cities and "the other;" identity; and the intersection of race, class, and urban renewal. But it was the power of the mural as the bridge between neighborhoods and across the community that excited the the sixth grade crew. The class was ready to share their ideas - and use art to tell the story of their city and help make Rochester a better place.

"One of the most important connections I made was realizing that the people I just met were not that different from me, I just have more privileges and opportunities."

Mastery of Content & Skills

Purposeful Expeditions

Sixth graders at Genesee Community Charter School (GCCS) focus on a year-long topic that has real-world value to our students and to their city. Topics are taught through learning expeditions, where science, social studies, the arts, and ELA are fully integrated; math is integrated when it is meaningful and purposeful. These expeditions are built around case studies that scaffold skills, content, and character in service to our final product.

To help students understand the complexities of the urban “renaissance” taking place in Rochester, Chris and Alexis designed a focus around inquiry that highlighted inequalities in the existing community and collaboration to promote inclusive models of change that can lead to a better world for all. Through their work in this year-long Better World Project, 6th graders used academic content, research, communication skills, and in-depth fieldwork to answer the project’s guiding question for themselves: Whose renaissance is it?

Close reads of complex texts, gallery walks, and interviews with community members were just a few ways students applied critical English Language Arts skills during expedition.

Character, Service, and Social Justice

From compost ambassadors to Kindergarten helpers, sixth-graders play an important leadership role at GCCS. They also commit to ten hours of community service each year to further understand and internalize what it means to be a contributing member of a community. Teachers reference Genesee's character traits as well as the EL Education Design Principles when planning and reflecting on service learning - and students begin to see the connection to a world beyond school and beyond themselves.

"Volunteering at Foodlink helped us better understand poverty's impact on our community."

Sixth graders are developmentally charged to take on projects greater than themselves, especially those involving justice for the greater good. Year after year, GCCS teachers engage students in real-world, project-based learning that serves a community beyond the classroom walls. This year’s focus allowed students to examine themselves as individuals as well as members of a larger community. Developing empathy for others by listening and reflecting was key to a successful project; making sure a vision of service matched the needs of the community was an important part of their early work.

"The most important connections we made were with the people who live around the murals because we needed to build bonds and listen to them to do what's best for their community."

Early in the expedition planning process, Chris and Alexis knew they wanted to integrate the Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards into their expedition work. Getting Genesee students out of the classroom and into the community has always been a core tenet of their teaching, but the framework of the social justice standards created a more authentic "need to know" around Rochester's needs. Speaking with people who have different life experiences and different realities helped students build empathy, respect, and understanding while recognizing their own responsibilities as citizens to stand up and challenge unfairness and inequity.

The Arts

Drawing self-portraits required students to look carefully, commit to multiple drafts, and be willing to take and use feedback to make each iteration better.

From examining stigmas in musical genres to exploring personal and social barriers through dance to self-portraits and clay tiles that reflect personal identity, the arts are seen as another language for exploring content. The GCCS arts team collaborated with the 6th grade teachers during the expedition planning phase to make sure arts skills and content were seamlessly woven into expedition plans. Students' attention to craftsmanship was revealed in successive drafts of their work and in the satisfaction and pride of sharing final pieces during Passage Presentations. The exploration of mural work in their city and beyond served as a touchstone for students to revisit identity and audience and reinforce the idea of service through the lens of the arts.

The sixth-grade self-portrait project was integrated into our exploration of identity.

Through a classroom grant from Teaching Tolerance, Alexis and Chris were able to invite storyteller, poet, and author Almeta Whitis to be an artist-in-residence. Through her own stories, she illuminated her experiences and invited students to explore their own identity and share their stories. After several workshops, students were able to craft their own identity poems and monologues, which were shared during the winter exhibition. Embracing their own identities and understanding the stories of their peers positioned students to become reflective listeners as they prepared to go into the community for the next phase of their work.

"In mastering the need for change, your children, our students are learning to engage, reflect and bond together for the good of all. Following their example, we will all find real renewal." - Almeta Whitis
"Working with Ms. Whitis helped me find my voice and be brave enough to share my story with others."

Four Cities Trip

Each year Genesee sixth graders embark on the ultimate field study: the Four Cities Trip. Four national cities are selected that exemplify the the focus of our year long study. Students typically engage in conversations with stakeholders from each city to harvest best practices to bring back and share with Rochester. Students leave for this adventure armed with determination, purpose, and excitement. They return with newfound knowledge and a renewed charge to spark change in their city.

This year Genesee sixth-graders divided into four crews and traveled to either Detroit, MI, Pittsburgh, PA, New Orleans, LA, or Oakland, CA to learn more about equity, racial justice, public murals, and youth voice. Their mission: to gather best practices, stories, and solutions from government officials, mural artists, community organizers, and empowered youth and bring back their messages to Rochester. Students engaged in interviews and walking tours, took quality notes, and asked probing questions. Most of all, they listened with open hearts and minds.

Pittsburgh, PA
New Orleans, LA
Detroit, MI
Oakland, CA
During their Four Cities trip, GCCS students interviewed city leaders, community activists, local artists, and also read expert texts and compared notes in service to their learning.

Upon their return, each Four Cities crew synthesized their learning to share with each other. From there, students noticed big ideas around housing and employment equity, neighborhood revitalization, gentrification, and mural purpose and process. They were now ready to become agents of change.


"Being a ROCBeliever helped me know about people's lives and what they go through and their everyday struggles."
"When we were painting I would learn something new about my friends and that brought us all closer together."
"I want to make our world a better place. I don't see the world as it is - I see it as it could be."

Shawn Dunwoody can be described as a visionary, artist, and change agent. His investment in Rochester is evident in mural work that sends messages of truth, strength, and hope. Shawn's murals are timeless and universal - they are found in neighborhoods, public and private spaces, and even along roadsides and hidden in parking lots. He immediately won the hearts of the sixth-graders with his humor, charisma, and openness. Shawn's sense of urgency to create positive change and lift up the voices of communities through art immediately engaged the students in the work.

Shawn helped frame the work of the ROCBelievers and was an inspiring artist, mentor, and friend to GCCS students.

Armed with paintbrushes, the ROCBelievers set out to bring beauty, awareness, and voice to locations in each of the four quadrants of Rochester: Cameron Community Ministries in the northwest, Anna Murray Douglass School #12 (formerly James P. Duffy School #12) in the southeast, Passaro’s Deli in the northeast, and the Peace Maker Community Garden in the city’s southwest quadrant. To prepare the murals, the ROCBelievers interviewed community members, collaborated with students from Rochester City School #45 (next door to Passaro’s) and School #12, and brainstormed messages and symbols that honored the voices of those they met along the way. On Better World Day, the ROCBelievers kicked off mural work at Cameron Community Ministries and several paint days followed to complete mural installations at all four sites. During this process, GCCS sixth graders developed a deep connectedness to their city as well as compassion and respect for those they met along the way.

The Importance of High Quality Work

Complexity Listening to diverse voices, synthesizing a message, and creating the imagery required the students to embrace multiple (and sometimes conflicting) perspectives and connect it to classroom experiences around the work of urban renewal and equity.

Craftsmanship Executing beautiful work didn't happen overnight. Under the mentorship of Shawn, Genesee's sixth-graders needed to develop an attention to detail and an understanding of the tools and media of a muralist. Mistakes were opportunities for revision - painting over errors provided students a chance to give and receive feedback and improve their craft.

Authenticity Because the murals reflected the voices of the city neighborhoods they explored, the students' work had purpose and addressed the hopes of the community. These real-world works of art can now be a point of pride for neighbors and the ROCBelievers for years to come.

"You may have seen one side of the city but not the other. Our Better World Project helped us see the city as a whole."

Final Products

Co-creating murals in their city's four quadrants was an important fusion of the year-long work around identity and equity, but GCCS sixth-graders also authored their own Adobe Spark page to help shed light on Rochester's renewal efforts. "Whose Renaissance Is It?" provides a synthesis of the students' year long focus, their Four Cities trip, and their passion for fairness in their community. Additionally, students wrote letters to the editors of local newspapers and elected officials, sharing their year's work and encouraging them to make choices on behalf of all Rochesterians.

During their last week of school, Genesee sixth-graders had the opportunity to tour their mural sites with Shawn, "tag" their work as the ROCBelievers, and work on the fourth and final mural in Rochester's southwest quadrant. It was a bittersweet day for the students - they were excited to see their work and speak with neighbors about its impact but also knew that this was their final adventure as a mural crew.

"A ROCBeliever brings joy to the community."

"A ROCBeliever inspires and takes care of others."

"A ROCBeliever makes a difference."

"A ROCBeliever takes action."

"A ROCBeliever is part of the change."


In the space of two months, the ROCBelievers created four murals in each of Rochester's quadrants. Kicking off on EL Education's Better World Day and ending on the second to last day of school, Genesee sixth-graders went through dozens of gallons of paint and made connections with members of their community they might otherwise have never met. The Community Paint Out Day on June 8th provided an opportunity for four EL Education schools in Rochester to come together and participate in the ROCBelievers' largest project around the theme of Frederick Douglass and home, building bridges among students and across the community.

The ROCBeliever project is a fitting end to this year. From embracing their own identity to embracing their role as leaders, they now move on to twelve new schools, where they will have the chance to share their work and hopefully inspire their new friends and peers to listen to the voices of the community and build new bridges across Rochester.

#ROCBelievers 2018

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