Building connections, Bridging resources A journey of empathy, understanding, and advocacy

Documentation by, Meghan Macdonald


The fourth graders at Downtown Denver Expeditionary School learn about Colorado History through the lens of historians and human rights advocates. They begin by studying the history of changing populations in Colorado by analyzing economic, political, social, and environmental reasons that would would motivate people to move.

As students were learning about reasons people move and the challenges they face, we learned of a hate crime that took place at the Mango House, a nearby organization that supports and welcomes new refugees into the Denver community. The 4th graders had developed an understanding of the extreme circumstances that contribute to a person needing to seek asylum and relocate to another country. They were heartbroken to think of the impacts of this crime and were compelled to help. What started with a card writing campaign, has since grown into a large scale effort to increase awareness, build connections, and provide resources to support and welcome refugees into our community.

In response to a hate crime, students began a letter writing campaign to welcome and support refugees as they began a new life in Colorado.


DDES is co-housed with Emily Griffith Technical College, which offers training programs for students from 94 countries who speak 72 languages. Many students who attend the technical college are refugee students that are enrolled in language and job training classes. As students were studying changing populations, the 4th graders at DDES reached out to the the school to get first hand accounts about the experience of relocating to a foreign country. The interviews between the students as Emily Griffith and DDES students, quickly developed into genuine relationships. The student's own journey of developing empathy and appreciation for others had a deep impact in their lives. The students felt inspired to spend awareness for the importance of providing resources for refugees that were relocating to their state. They also wanted to encourage others to follow in their footsteps, by making connections, building bridges, and creating a culture that is welcoming and safe for all.

The learning that has occured has has increased empathy and understandings for refugees, but is not limited to this particular experience. By expanding the project to the larger community, DDES students have had the opportunity to use their learning to promote tolerance and celebrate cultural diversity within a variety of contexts.

mastery of knowledge and skills

By digging deeply into compelling topics related to human rights and changing populations, students have learned to apply critical thinking, communication, and literacy skills to complete real work that matters. The skills they learn impact their work in increasingly sophisticated contexts, both within and beyond a school year. 4th graders develop the skills needed to be able to read complex texts and compose writing pieces for short tasks, long-term projects, and a variety of assessments.

Students used a variety of fiction and nonfiction texts to deepen their understandings about the experience of a refugee.
Students reflect on strategies they use the help them read complex texts, they track their growth towards literacy standards, and use criteria and rubrics to

Throughout their learning, students are articulate what they’re learning and the strategies they are using to become proficient readers and writers. Students reflect on their growth, track their progress, and make meaningful revisions. When students do this accurately, they demonstrate deep ownership of the learning process and impactful metacognitive skills.

Students participate in socratic seminars - a discussion protocol that promotes thinking, meaning-making, and the ability to debate, use evidence, and build on one another’s thinking. The seminar provides an active role for every student, engages students in complex thinking about rich content, and teaches students discussion skills.


The 4th graders developed the skills necessary to engage in courageous conversations that challenged their thinking and fostered deeper understandings of multiple perspectives and experiences.. Students created a set of norms that allowed them to express their feelings, thoughts, and ideas truthfully and openly.

Courageous Conversations

Students regularly participated in discussions about sensitive topics that brought up a lot of strong emotions. In order to create a safe space for these courageous conversations our students created norms and regularly reflected and set goals to support discussions were everyone felt valued and comfortable participating.

It's important to listen without judgment because if you say something rude about someone's culture it could hurt their feelings. You might make them feel like they don’t belong.

Conversation Norms:

  • Listen without judgement
  • Seek to understand - Ask questions!
  • Accept mistakes as opportunities for learning
  • Speak your truth - don’t speak for others
  • Be honest about not knowing something
  • Words are powerful - Use them carefully
  • One voice at a time
  • Honor big emotions and take care of yourself


The empathy that students have developed during this expedition are not been limited to the experience of refugees. Students kept reflection journals that tell the story of their increased understandings of the importance of promoting tolerance and celebrating cultural diversity within a variety of contexts.

I got to help people who were in need and that made me feel good. The refugees in our city were forced to leave and they might not make it back. So, it’s important to make them feel welcome here. I would want people to comfort me after being through a lot. I would mostly need friendship because that’s the most important thing. Luke


4th graders volunteered at the Mango House, sorting donations, cleaning, and spending time with new families that were making Denver their new home.

Fieldwork and Experts

Students learn from fieldwork and experts to deepen their knowledge and make connections to their work. Students visited museums, historical sites, and spoke to experts to gain firsthand knowledge of changing populations in Colorado. Fieldwork and experts helped ensure accuracy, quality, and integrity in their work.

Students visit the Black American West Museum to learn about the history and culture of those African American men and women who helped settle and develop the American West. Located in the former home of Dr. Justina Ford, the first Black woman doctor in Denver
Nestled on the banks of Cherry Creek, the Four Mile House was the last stop coming west to Denver along the Cherokee Trail. It was a welcome site for the weary travelers, a place to wash off the trail dust, have a drink of cool fresh water, find a home-cooked meal, or spend the night before heading in to Denver. Students visit the historic reproduction of buildings & barns, Native American Tipis, and tools used by miners and trappers & traders.
At the History Colorado museum, students learned about he challenges and experiences of homesteaders as they made their new homes in Colorado.
Students interviewed experts in the community to get firsthand knowledge of the experience of a refugee.


Students payed attention to detail, beauty, and accuracy to create a book detailing their learning and reflections. Using feedback from teachers and peers students completed multiple drafts in an effort to create a book that would inspire conversation and shared understanding of the importance of building connections and bridging resources in their community.

Students created their book with the purpose of sharing their learning with their community. They had purpose to their work; knowing that their own reflections and understandings would be read by an authentic audience.

Art Work:

Anna Loring, leads students in an artistic analysis of Romare Bearden's collage style art as a model for their own personal pieces.
Using Romare Bearden as their inspiration, students created self-portrait collages to represent who and/or what they are advocates for. They chose their pose, clothing, and facial expressions to represent their commitment to social justice. The
Romare Bearden was an award winning artist also a respected writer on artistic social issues of the day. Active in many arts organizations, in 1964, Bearden was appointed the first art director of the newly established Harlem Cultural Council, a prominent African-American advocacy group.

final celebration of learning

Students hosted an event to share their journey of learning. They collected donations to support the Mango House, a refugee resource center, they signed up volunteers, collected donations, and informed their audience of the important to advocating for human rights.

Students documented their reflections and learning. Their original art and writing was available for a donations that were used to support The Mango House, a refugee resource center.

Students informed their community about the UDHR and the importance of advocating for human rights for all. In addition to literacy standards, student develop their ability to speak and present their learning to an authentic audience. They learn that that words matter and that their voice has the power to change the world.

"I think that to have a proper conversation on a delicate topic, you need to use powerful words carefully." ~Mischa

Our celebration of learning was an opportunity for students to reflect on and articulate what they have learned, how they learned, questions they answered, research they conducted, and areas of strength and struggles.

Community members committed to donating items requested by The Mango House.

Students wore T-shirts with their original art work, symbolizing human rights that they were particularly passionate about advocating for.

"It felt good to share my learning with others because we can spread the word about the importance of helping refugees. Sharing my learning with a lot of people made me feel like we weren't alone in our work." ~Jaaziah

Final thoughts

The learning that has taken place in the fourth class classrooms has often been messy, uncomfortable, and complex. As we continue to learn and grow with and from each other, we hope, that through this work, we will inspire others to find an entry point into building bridges and having courageous conversations.

Thank you Fourth Grade Students, Teachers - Sarah, Hannah, and Jessica for your willingness to embark in this messy work.

Letia Frandina, thank you for your ongoing support and guidance.

Jaimie Schwaberow and Christina Noyes, thank you for the incredibly photography.

Anna Loring, your artistic talents are greatly appreciated. Thank you for your partnership.

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