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

After all that preparation, we finally took a leap of faith and went out into the neighborhood to conduct our original surveys on issues of interest the students had identified relating to Crown Heights.  These included businesses, education, racism, violence, opportunities, religion, the future of Crown Heights, languages, and more.  As I explained in my last post, there was much nervousness from students, and a little for myself, I admit.  A number of eighth graders claimed they were not going to survey anyone, for fear that they would be received poorly by strangers and that conflict could arise from the interaction.  That was not how it turned out though.  It went GREAT.  Better than great, it was transformative.

After the first brave student timidly went up to a stranger asking for them to participate in their survey on an issue in Crown Heights, it was like open season, surveying people on the street.  Most participants happily spent a few minutes with our enthusiastic and polite students, wearing their school uniforms and holding clip boards and pencils.  A few strangers were hurrying somewhere and were apologetic when they declined to participate.  And just one or two people were a little gruff when they said no.  My students took it in stride and did not waste a moment moving onto the next person.

Despite the initial nervousness, my biggest problem on the trip was getting students to realize that if they RAN up to a stranger, trying to beat out their classmates, the person might be a little taken aback!  Take your time!  Be aware of how you look from the outside!  Those were classic middle school teachable moments 😉

By far the most stunning experiences of the day were the real conversations my students got to have with adults from their community about their community.  For example, student got to ask members of their community whether Crown Heights could ever be a nonviolent neighborhood, and why, and what it would take to make that happen.  They got to ask adults if they believed there was still racism in the area, and if so, how did it manifest?  They heard many adults’ perspectives on the purpose and value of an education.

There was something so immediate, gratifying and hopeful about these interactions.  Kids got to be investigators, got their questions taken seriously, and listened intensely to their elders.  This in contrast to that classic role of teenagers being somewhat of a nuisance to adults on the streets, or alternatively, being pent up inside their homes, because of their or their parents’ fears that the streets are too dangerous.

I repeated this trip three times, with three different classes.  Each time as we made our way back to the school, kids skipped up to me and said, “This trip was the BEST!  Can we do it again?!”  Throughout the year students have randomly said, “Remember the Crown Heights trip? We should do more stuff like that.”

Afterwards, students tabulated the results of the surveys and had real original data to respond to in their articles.  Individually, for homework, students also conducted in depth interviews of adults in the community on their topics.  We held discussions in class, and finally students wrote their articles.

But the trip itself holds a special place in my memory that I can’t shake. Ever since, I have been thinking about what made it so special.  It was one of those teaching experiences where time stops and everyone involved experiences a kind of flow of genuine curiosity and realization of our own efficacy as human beings and learners.  One thing I have come up with is that in this study, there was no glossing over of the harsh realities to which so many children in this neighborhood are exposed at too young an age.

So often in school, kids are asked to put all of that aside to “learn.”  I’m all for exposing students to new ideas and experiences, but what’s to say that we can’t guide our students to learn from familiar content as well? Isn’t learning a universal process of observation, experience, reflection, asking questions, investigating, and creating? On the flip side, sometimes, in effort to connect to kids’ lives, teachers may bombard their students with depressing texts that depict the realities of “the ghetto” in a way that does not bring new light to the situation. I’ve seen kids respond to these texts glumly and react out of boredom or frustration.

In the Crown Heights study, [an adolescent version of the neighborhood study progressive elementary schools have been doing for decades, and which Bank Street College became famous for training teachers to implement–see Bank Street Founder, Lucy Sprague Mitchell’s book, Young Geographers for more on where this comes from and how to do it], we look at the realities of a neighborhood in an active way through an academic lens.   Kids investigate their own questions–which is also in contrast to the “Essential Questions” that teachers often devise for their classes.

I must say, this study was one of the most challenging endeavors I have attempted in my teaching career so far, on both an organizational and emotional level.  But I will remember it a defining moment of my teaching career, on which I will continue to build in years to come.