Best moment: Connecting with the community through academics (part I)

It’s almost time for eighth grade graduation, so I’m preparing myself to say goodbye to my students and also looking back on this year.  One of the very best moments–and one I will never forget for as long as I teach–came at a high point of one of my most challenging curriculum pieces. We had been conducting a journalism project on Crown Heights, the neighborhood in which my school is located and many of my students live.  It is also the Crown Heights of the Crown Heights Riots of 1991.  The neighborhood is home to majority West Indian immigrants, and there is also a very visible minority community of Chassidic Jews, who mostly do not attend public schools.  Racial and social tensions continue to exist, despite many changes since 1991.

As a class, we had conducted a walking trip in the neighborhood, taken lots of notes and made observations on what we saw. We read articles and watched film clips on a variety of topics related to Crown Heights.  Based on all of those observations, students formed groups around topics of interest they chose for their journalism projects, which included education, businesses, violence, crime, the future of Crown Heights, transportation, riots, religion, racism, language and culture, and employment.

Students recorded questions they had on these topics for further investigation.  Then, in their groups students created their own surveys with questions related their topics.  The survey questions were both thoughtful and bold.  Here are a few examples:

Have you witnessed a racist act in Crown Heights?  yes   no

Have you been the victim of racism in Crown Heights?   yes    no

Do people in Crown Heights prefer to shop at stores run by people from their own race or culture?  yes  no

Do you believe an individual can make a positive difference in Crown Heights?  yes   no

Why do people join gangs?  a. peer pressure   b. to make money   c. protection   d. dropped out of school

Do you believe Crown Heights will one day become a nonviolent community?  yes    no

Next it was time to prepare for the trip out into the neighborhood to ask people on the street these questions.  After writing such provocative questions, when students were faced with the reality of asking them to actual people, they became very nervous.

“What if someone is rude to me?  What am I gonna do?”

“Can I be rude back to them?”

“I can’t ask real people these questions!”

“It’s almost Halloween, gangs are out to cut people!”

“Nobody’s gonna want to answer our survey anyway.”

We spent an entire period talking about how we would approach people to participate in the survey, and what they should say.  I assured them that I and one other teacher chaperone would be with them at all times to make sure they are safe.  I also told them that I had spoken to store owners and clerks in the area where we would be going.  I had a list of willing participants, which they could stick to if they felt uncomfortable approaching strangers.

Students decided on, “Hello, I’m conducting a survey for an English project on Crown Heights.  Do you have a minute to answer our questions?”

We then role-played the many different reactions people on the street might have to the pitch–how someone might say yes, and how someone might say no.  We role-played what students should do if someone responds rudely (basically, say “thank you,” and move on), and also what someone might say if they are not sure if they feel comfortable with it or not.  The students came up with the full range of possible responses and great ways for them to deal with it.

By the end of the period, I felt pretty confident that students were ready for the big day when we would conduct our surveys of people in the neighborhood.  The data would become original primary source research for their journalism pieces.

Stay tuned for Part II: The Trip  (which was really the best moment) 

[image credits: foodmapper.wordpress.com]