Black History Month, Class Openers and Senior Capstone: An Interview with Teachers Candi Fulcher and Win Vitkowsky

Senior Capstone is a graduation requirement course where students join community partners to support local social/environmental justice initiatives. Every week the class begins with an opener that sets the tone for group conversation. In honor of Black History Month, course openers focused on the resistance, liberation and empowerment that the Black community exhibits when faced with systems of oppression.

Senior Capstone students Antonio and Ariana in 2017 studying survival skills in 9th grade core. 

Senior Capstone is taught by Environmental Leadership Manager Candi Fulcher and CG High School teacher Win Vitkowksy. Our Development Manager, Audrey Nefores, interviewed them on all things Capstone. Before we began we swapped stories about close calls with our respective neighborhood skunks. Then, we got down to business.

Here we go! Tell me more about yourselves and your time at CG.

Candi: I’ve been at Common Ground for three years as the Environmental Leadership Manager and this is my first year teaching in a classroom here. Previously, in Capstone, my primary focus was managing the portfolio and senior defense process. I was in classes as a support and have now transitioned into my current role as a teacher in the class.

Win: I’ve been at Common Ground a LONG time! I started working here during Occupy Wall Street. At the time I was reporting for the New Haven Advocate and a friend got me involved in a student club. That led me to a TA position. After six years as a support educator I became a certified teacher. Common Ground supported my certification through the Relay Program. This is my first year teaching Senior Capstone. I also teach Journalism and 11th Grade Guidance.

Will you help me better understand what Senior Capstone course is?

Mr. Win with SPEAK Club and (now) Senior Capstone students  on a field trip with Mr. Rios to NYC in 2019.

Candi: Senior Capstone is the culmination of Common Ground’s core program. In 9th grade core, students learn about the Common Ground community (our land, our employees). Core 10 branches out to the greater New Haven (community partners, local government systems). When you get to Junior seminar you begin post-secondary exploration like SAT prep, writing-related research, and college/career pathways.

Then, you reach Senior Capstone.

Win: The students of this Senior Capstone class have been together since the 9th grade. They will be the first group of students to go through the entire core system!

Candi: Senior Capstone is built off all the different growth experiences students have had at Common Ground. We discuss all that they have learned, how they have grown, and what they will do with all their skills when they graduate. All these questions contribute to a Senior Portfolio and a final Senior Defense.

Win: Yes – it’s about all the disciplines working together to create experiential, meaningful learning.

Candi: Right now our students are in the stage of preliminary research for their Senior Project. They have already identified their area of focus or topic — now they are trying to identify which organization, business, community or neighborhood to partner with. Because this class went through the entire core, many of them are giving back to the community partners they worked with in the 10th grade.

How do Common Ground students lead in Senior Capstone?

Candi: The students help guide the topics through their passions and interests. Those interests then inform what we use as content in our curriculum. We begin the year with the Identity Project and that is a big catalyst for future discussions.

One aspect of the Identity Project is researching artifacts in relation to identity. This Capstone student explored a painting from ‘The Migration Series’ by Jacob Lawrence.

Win: All the projects facilitate student-driven research and exploration. What we give them is a framework and a template to express themselves. We begin each class with an opener that often exposes them to new things. Or, things from the past they might not know about. The openers set a tone and then we run with it. There’s always an effort to celebrate who students are and give them skills to support that.

Candi: In the fall, our openers focused on the power of youth changemakers and how young people have been at the forefront of change in different social and environmental movements.

Win: Yes — we looked at specific young people in history (young John Lewis and Jesse Jackson) and we looked at an essay called ‘Youth in Social Movements: Key Lessons for Allies.’

Candi: There is a deliberate focus of liberatory histories and not just history that reinforces feelings of oppression and trauma.

Capstone Opener on youth change-maker Mari Copeny aka “Little Miss Flint.”

Win: And we use the word struggle really intentionally and frame it as not hardship but forward movement towards change. In the first assignment we introduced the quote by Frederick Douglass, “IF THERE IS NO STRUGGLE THERE IS NO PROGRESS.”

“If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.
Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.” -Frederick Douglass

I love that Senior Capstone classes always start with an opener to set the tone. What are the opener discussions you have had during Black History Month?

So far for Black History Month our opener topics have been:

  • Discussion on Metaphor in Song:
    We discussed the iconic song ‘Strange Fruit’ sung by Billie Holiday and Abel Meeropool. We asked, why might this song be relevant today? Can you think of a song that discusses a current social justice issue?
  • Youth Activist Amariyanna (Mari) Copeny ‘Little Miss Flint’:
    We asked, What type of changemaker is Mari Copeny? How might her speaking out about the issue of clean water in Flint, Michigan inspire others locally/nationally?
  • Discussion on James Baldwin’s quote “Ignorance aligned with power is the most ferocious enemy justice can have:”
    We explored the open-ended question, why is ignorance a cruel enemy to justice?
  • Student-driven Historical Web-quest:
    We looked at history and conflict between abolitionists and slavery apologists right here in the city of New Haven before the civil war. Using a 2001 Amistad Committee Report students conducted their own research and told the story of how and why the first proposed Black College did not come to be in New Haven.

Another Opener featured a young Jesse Jackson in a excerpt from Negro Digest 1965.

I know the ‘Metaphor in Song’ opener resulted in the student’s compiling a “billboard” top ten list of their favorite protest songs. I was surprised to see some pretty deep cuts on that list!

So, what’s next for Senior Capstone?

Candi: After the students are done with their portfolios, they prepare for their Senior Defense. They reflect on what experiences at Common Ground had the biggest impact on them, identify their leadership qualities, and get out in the community. Then, they present all the outcomes, all they’ve learned, and their transition plan for post high school.

Then it’s time for them to bring all their power to whatever path they blaze. Thank you both for your time and all you do for our students.

More on Candi Fulcher:
Candi has dedicated herself to the field of education, especially to the social and academic development of urban students. Candi roots for all Common Ground students and acts based on the belief that they all can grow, thrive, and become leaders. While working hard to build strong relationships with colleagues and students, she also helps students build their understanding of justice, equity, and their capacity to be leaders. Read her article, ‘Creating Space for Culturally Responsive Teaching at Common Ground High School.’

More about Win Vitvowsky:
Like many Common Ground employees, Win does a variety of things at the school. He teaches Journalism, Junior Guidance and Senior Capstone. He has lived in New Haven for almost two decades and was a stringer for the New Haven Independent, The New Haven Advocate, and the Washington Spectator. He has been interested in zines/independent publications since he was in high school himself and is currently the editor of the tri-state publication, ‘Bridge and Tunnel Crowd.’


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