Finding Voice History

Finding Voice is an innovative literacy and visual arts program based in Tucson, Arizona that is dedicated to helping refugee and immigrant youth develop their literacy and English language skills by researching, photographing, writing, and speaking out about critical social issues in their lives and communities.

Finding Voice educators, Julie Kasper (National Board Certified ESL/ELD Teacher-Leader) and Josh Schachter (Tucson-based photographer and educator) founded the program in 2007 in collaboration with the Tucson chapter of the International Rescue Committee. They worked with 46 students from Afghanistan, Ghana, Honduras, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Mexico, Republic of the Marshall Islands, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and Sudan to help them examine through words and photographs where they came from, where they live now, and to then find their voice in expressing their lived experience. The power and synergy of writing and photography were critical to the success of this project. For many students, taking photographs helped them to determine what matters most to them and provided the motivation to revise and develop their writing.

Through this experience, the students developed a better understanding of their Tucson neighborhood and U.S. culture, while building a stronger connection to their culture and family. They improved their literacy skills, critical thinking, and self-confidence. Students who began the project speaking little or no English with strangers finished the year with poise, confidence, and a desire to speak with others about their lives.

The students’ work resulted in an exhibit entitled “Home? Teen Refugees & Immigrants Explore Their Tucson,” which was featured in the office gallery of Tucson’s City Council-member Nina Trasoff. Due to the overwhelmingly positive response by the Tucson community and media to the exhibit, Julie Kasper and Josh Schachter worked with the offices of Senator John McCain, Congressman Raul Grijalva, and Nina Trasoff to expand the impact of the work by displaying it in Washington, D.C. The exhibit was shown in June, 2008 in the U.S. Senate Russel Rotunda and six students presented their work and policy recommendations at a Congressional briefing. This exhibit was published via Blurb, “Home? Teen Refugees & Immigrants Explore Their Tucson” at www.blurb.com.

While working to bring the exhibit to Washington, D.C., the Finding Voice program grew and developed in new directions during the 2007-2008 school year. Julie Kasper and Josh Schachter helped students research, write about and photograph their personal experiences with health, war and immigration. The students hosted three interactive community forums during the school year about these three topics.  At the forums, students dialogued with the community about their lives and together identified actions to address shared issues and concerns. Beyond the forums, the students decided they wanted to reach a more public audience and had their photographs and writings about war and immigration installed for one year in 22 bus stops throughout Tucson. As a result of this street art exhibit and the “Home?” work, Finding Voice was one of three arts programs nationwide selected as a model case study for “Animating Democracy” by Americans for the Arts in 2008.

Finding Voice continued to expand and translate into fresh projects between the August, 2008 and May, 2014. During that time, students addressed numerous personal and social issues through their writing and art. They researched, met with community experts, interviewed family members, visited academic and business institutions as well as various non-profit project locations, videotaped their peers, wrote essays, poems, stories, drew pictures, made photographs, created lino-cut posters which they posted around their campus as calls to action, presented plays, shared digital stories in the Arizona International Film Festival, planted trees, set up an organization to unite refugee youth city-wide, participated in civic engagement processes to (re)envision Tucson, and much, much more. The topics were selected by students each year and the processes and products were determined by the students in collaboration with their teachers and in response to their targeted audience and project purpose.

Just as the focus and project design has changed each year (and sometimes twice within one year), so too have the student demographics shifted over the years. Finding Voice originally served only advanced level English Language Learners in the early years of the project, but expanded to serve all English Language Learners (from true beginners to recently reclassified/English proficient students) and some non-English Language Learners during the 2012-2014 years. Other shifts in countries of origin have followed the trends of national and local immigration and refugee resettlement patterns.

As of May, 2014, the Finding Voice Project founders/facilitators are exploring new options for their work with diverse youths both locally and globally. New directions are being charted and new homes and patterns for this work are being explored. This website serves as an archive of the work that has been completed to date (January, 2007-May, 2014), but there is more to come in new formats, new venues, and unpredictable ways. Stay tuned!

Note: In addition to the production and sharing of multi-modal texts each year, students at Catalina Magnet High School have also contributed to an annual Catalina Magnet High School publication, “Finding My Voice” (available as PDFs on this website’s Home page).


Finding Voice Frameworks:

• Project-Based Learning using Understanding by Design (UbD) principles
• Student-Driven: Students identify project themes and then help plan, implement and evaluate the project(s)
• Interdisciplinary & Hands-on: Integration of Arts into Literacy Development
• Systems thinking used for learning and examining issues
• Place-based: Both local and global awareness is fostered
• Focused on applying skills through civic engagement processes

Finding Voice Goals:

• Advance students English language skills in writing, reading, listening, and speaking
• Foster academic & career success by teaching 21st century skills
• Cultivate media and visual literacy skills
• Develop agency and community connections
• Engage immigrant teens in their new homeland
• Heighten cross-cultural understandings within the classroom, school and Tucson community

Finding Voice Process Although steps in the Finding Voice process vary year to year, they often include the following:

• Creating an energized & safe learning space (establishing norms, expectations, and rapport)
• Assessing students’ general academic, language, social, creative, and technology skills and needs
• Identifying students’ interests and desires (for the course & for their lives)
• Developing foundational language and visual literacy skills
• Identifying themes for potential exploration (based on student needs & interests)
• Exploring personal connections to the theme(s) through writing & the arts (narrative essays, letters to family/friends, poetry, photo documentation, metaphorical representation, illustration, skits, etc.)
• Researching the theme in a larger context (via interviews, surveys, online research, discussion with “experts,” photo exploration / documentation, site visitations / field trips)
• Engaging community partners (as collaborators, interviewees, experts)
• Identifying purpose and audience(s)
• Exploring genres and considering multimedia approaches
• Creating multimedia texts (essays, letters, narratives, poetry, drama, digital stories, posters, presentations, action projects, photo essays)
• Developing distribution and/or action plans
• Sharing work and taking action (through exhibits, presentations, community action projects, civic dialog, publications)
• Reflecting on and evaluating our work (students, teachers, collaborative partners)

Applications & Benefits of the “Finding Voice Model” in the Classroom:

• Facilitates the development of language skills in all domains
• Honors multiple intelligences
• Develops critical thinking and visual and media literacy skills
• Allows students to bring their own experiences into the classroom
• Engages students with limited literacy
• Creates opportunity for critical reflection and civic dialogue
• Heightens student engagement in other disciplines
• Provides a pathway for exploring the past, present, and future
• Facilitates cross-cultural and inter-generational learning
• Educates the public and illuminates misconceptions about youth and about immigration
• Develops students’ self-esteem and confidence
• Offers a creative outlet for healing and emotional and social development