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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Making school more human

Detroit Future Schools


Do the Right Thing

It’s the second week of January.  Students have just returned from winter break.  With the bonus snow days, they haven’t been in school for three whole weeks. To get back into the swing of things, the third and fourth graders are revisiting their social contract.

It’s something they wrote themselves, with orange marker, on a big sheet of white paper at the beginning of the school year.  The contract lays out over a dozen characteristics they hope to embody both inside and outside of the classroom.  Stuff like:

“Stand up for somebody.”



“Do the right thing.”


“Say sorry.”


“Be happy.”

“Say please and thank you.”

“Take responsibility.” 


Nate Mullen is a visiting digital media artist with Detroit Future Schools.  He spends one morning a week at theBoggs School, collaborating with Jasmine Noble, the 3rd and 4th grade teacher here.

At the beginning of a recent lesson, he asked each student to write it down one aspect of the social contract, and what it means to them. 

From there, the students go back to their desks, take out sheet of paper, and begin writing.   

Once everyone’s had a chance to read their sentence out loud, the crayons come out.

The students are then instructed to make a drawing of their social contract characteristic.

Twenty minutes later, 8-year-old Jacob Wheeler has drawn a picture of two guys fighting. 

“This guy is, for some reason, punching this guy.  So I’m in the middle like whoa whoa people, back it up, back it up.”

Can you guess what part of the social contract Jacob’s drawing represents?

Stand up for somebody.

Take Responsibility

After the students finish their drawings, the photo session begins.  One student stands against the classroom’s green wall, acting out his or her most valued social contract characteristic.  Meanwhile, a classmate snaps a picture of them.  

Credit Zak Rosen / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Boggs School student Ajani DeFreece photographs Jacob Wheeler for a Detroit Future Schools class project.

The reason Detroit Future Schools used digital media, “is that we really believe that once you’re a creator rather than a consumer of media, you’re actually starting to imagine the world you want to make happen and make possible," says Mullen.

Next week, Mullen will bring his laptop to class. He and the students will paste their photograph onto their drawing, using Photoshop.   The end result is a mixed media portrait. It will hang on the walls of the classroom, alongside the social contract. 

Jasmine Noble likes to refer to the class’ social contract as a living document.

“It’s not just something that’s put up there and we don’t reflect on it. You know how sometimes in some schools or classrooms, you have that poster that’s been up all year.  Like the posters you get from the teacher store, like, ‘dream work makes the teamwork,’ like you know, something like that. And it’s a good phrase, but do the kids really know what that means?”

Today’s lesson is really just a primer for what’s to come.  As students grow older and wiser, they’ll take these skills out into the world and apply them to the social issues of the day. 

For example, last year, Detroit Future Schools helped an eighth grade math class at the University Yes Academy research the roots causes of Detroit’s crime and violence issues. 

The project was a combination of algebra, statistics, anthropology, animation and filmmaking.  The eighth graders called their project, What's Math Got to Do with It.

It’s not just about memorizing information and passing tests.  Detroit Future Schools are labs for exploring the links between education and community and the ways in which students can transform them.

This story is part of an ongoing series about The James and Grace Lee Boggs School in Detroit. 

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