MAUHS students combat stereotyping with Instagram project

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BENNINGTON — A single story can be a dangerous thing.

Fourteen students at Mount Anthony Union High School are trying to combat "single stories" — simply, stereotyping — in a multi-month Instagram project, "Behind Our MAU Senior Class," modeled after the now-famous Humans of New York project.

The students, all seniors in Kristina Hansen's 12th grade honors English class, started working on the project in mid-February, studying how Humans of New York creator Brandon Stanton did his work and interviewing each other before interviewing other members of their senior class.

The idea for the project came out of a Ted Talk by novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called "The danger of a single story."

"That really connected the dots to everything for us," Hansen said. "Her idea of the single story is basically about stereotypes the single story is that we view people as one thing. Only one thing, over and over again. And that's what they become."

Adichie talks about that being connected to power, and she also talks about how much stories matter, and how stories can empower people and humanize them, Hansen said.

A student connected the idea of the danger of the single story with Humans of New York, Hansen said.

"[He said] `I really think that what [Stanton] does is what Adichie is talking about,'" she said. "`He breaks down the stereotypes of what people think a New Yorker is, or a person who he's profiling is.'"

Hansen loved the connection, and suggested the class do their own similar project.

That was a Friday afternoon. The following Monday, Hansen brought the idea to the rest of the class.

"That's how it started," she said. The students' ongoing efforts are cataloged on an Instagram account, @behind_our_masc.

The students originally thought they would focus on the school as a whole, but then narrowed their interviews to seniors.

"We've all been together for four years now, [but] we don't all know each other," said Zoe Lang. "A lot of us don't know anything about each other."

That's one of the reasons the group chose to focus on seniors, she said. Students also wanted to make a tribute to their class, said Brandon Anderson.

Students interviewed around 30 or 40 other seniors at MAUHS, and are continuing the project in the last two weeks of their time at the school. They divided up the work, with students opting in when they were available.

"I think we were all pretty excited, once we started the project," said Max Noyes. "It's not something you do very often."

Emma Snyder was surprised to learn she had something in common with an interview subject — someone she'd looked up to in a way, because they were so confident.

"They seemed like they had it all together," she said. "And then when I was talking to them, they expressed that they had insecurities too. And I'm like, `wow, maybe I am closer to this person than I actually thought I was.'"

Carly Bylina said she was surprised by the "openness of people."

"People generally want to be heard," she said. She expected people to be more shy.

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"You just kind of asked some basic questions, and then got it going, and then it started to flow more," she said.

Students compiled a list of questions, expanding from there depending on what their interview subjects said. A lot of the questions were rooted in senior year.

Taylor Hewins recalled how he and the other students prepared by interviewing each other.

"I think that sort of loosened us up to the idea of interviews," he said. "Because when you hear, you're going to do an interview with somebody, you kind of tense up it's very easy for it to become sort of awkward or kind of stilted."

The posts are not listed with the interviewee's name, modeled after Humans of New York. Some have photos of the students; others have photos that don't reveal the student's identity.

"I feel like it also takes a weight off the person that's being interviewed," Bylina said of not listing students' names. "This is just me. This is just what I said about senior year. Not, do I look okay in the picture, or how many likes did I get."

Students can be judgmental with social media sometimes, Bylina said, but this project makes it more positive.

Hansen asked her students why Stanton, creator of Humans of New York, would have chosen not to print his subjects' names.

"Maybe he's trying to say — the name doesn't really matter," one student said.

"I think it broadens the appeal of the story," Hewins said. "It allows you to connect more with the story that's being presented."

In broadening the experience, it's more universal, Hansen said. It's about eliminating stereotypes and tying people together — "It's the human story," she said.

Behind Our Masc has been an important project for her students, Hansen said.

"I think it's really important to have an authentic audience," she said. "That their work be bigger than just submitting work to their teacher, that they have the real world be their audience, and not just doing things for a grade."

Some people who are engaging with the posts on Instagram aren't even part of the MAUHS community, she said.

"It's beyond just writing something and it goes in the gradebook," she said. "Their story is being shared, truly anyone can see it. And their words can have an impact."

Students have also been doing their our photography for the project.

"That is really creative thinking, and critical thinking," Hansen said. "I'm not sure that all the traditional assignments that we've done in the past engage kids the way that this project has."

Hansen said she's received feedback from former students about the project, and colleagues have told her it's a great project that they hear students talking about.

Hansen said she isn't sure if future students will continue the project — she'll see what next year's class wants.

"I think it's worthwhile," she said. "That's part of the thing that Adichie says about power. I think that giving over the power that a teacher has in the classroom, giving that over anytime I can to the students for them to be empowered to take hold of the project themselves I would do that again, in a heartbeat."

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at pleboeuf@benningtonbanner.com, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.


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