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Building Community, One Student at a Time

BY JOE BROOKS, Founder, Community Works Institute

Each summer I have the pleasure to guide two of the longest running service-learning driven professional development events in the world, CWI’s Summer WEST, held in Los Angeles and Summer EAST in Burlington, Vermont. I am fortunate to work with some of the most dedicated K-16 educators from across the U.S. and around the world. Year after year, CWI’s Summer Institute have been an unforgettable week of inspiring collaborations, training, curriculum planning, and networking opportunities. Veteran guest faculty who join us, some for many for years, share model programs, provide guided support for curriculum planning. Unexpectedly rich collaborations are always at the mix. The dialogue goes deep but the outcomes are usually concrete. But the essence of the Institute cannot never be put quite in words. It is essential and it is work of the heart.

I can’t over state the importance of this event to my vision and enthusiasm.”
Julie Metzler, Director of Community Arts and Service
Kansas City Art Institute

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Sort No More: Creating Student Learning Experiences for the 21st Century


The learning system we’ve used in our country since the 1840s does exactly what it is designed to do. Brought to us from Prussia in the days when settlers traveled across America in prairie schooners, this system establishes standard grade level curricula to be delivered by teachers, and asks them to cover the content, test the students, and then move forward to the next lesson or unit. The system worked well enough to expose students to some basic reading, math, civics, and American culture in the days when higher levels of academic skill were not needed for most jobs and only a small fraction of students were expected to stay in school and graduate from high school. Much like the prairie schooner, it served its purpose in those times.

Prairie Schooner, circa 1840

By the 1890s the days of the prairie schooner were numbered. Mechanized forms of travel began to replace the wagon and team that had so dutifully carried settlers across the plains and mountains. But the education system continued to hold onto the same model for standardized delivery of instruction. While coming into the greatest era of information and innovation in the history of humanity, we’ve held onto a model of instruction that is designed to cover, test, sort students into winners and losers and then move forward in the standardized curriculum. Even while models of competency-based learning are all around us, we have held onto our educational prairie schooner rather than innovating and changing into a model that is far more effective for the vast majority of students. Continue reading

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My Desire to Learn


What kind of an environment does it take to promote learning? As educators and leaders, are we able to control and create the elements that support an optimal learning environment? So much has been written about school leaders and their roles as agents for change and support in school climate and culture. Many of us that have attended public school know that there is a subculture that functions well below the radar yet, still has an effect on the learning environment in a great way. This is what Barth calls the “non-discussables” (Grogan, 2013). Someone once told me that a child is unable to learn if they are hungry, thirsty, have to use the restroom, or are afraid. Well, I am living proof that you can actually learn under these conditions. But not optimally, I might add. And most likely the ‘what’ you will learn is probably not a learning objective defined in any lesson plan. The ‘what’ is a not often even considered an outcome by most school’s standards. School environment and culture is a complex system with many mitigating factors and outliers that contribute to what students learn, how they learn, and why they learn.

I was in the third grade. I loved my teacher. I was excited to learn. It had never occurred to me that someone would choose not to go to school. Yet, there were some things that I did not like. Continue reading

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Evicted: Teaching Through a Housing Crisis


From the Inside: Thoughts on Place-Based Education and Service-Learning at a Community College

Sometimes starting from scratch and going where no one has gone before is exciting; but a lot of times, it is just plain overwhelming! Initiating a place-based education project with a brand new community partner or in a class that’s never incorporated service before can be just what you need to re-invigorate your teaching; other times it seems too out of reach. Maybe you really want to add community engagement to your class, but you feel there are just too many pieces involved to pull it off.

For those times when you just don’t want to go it alone or start from the very beginning, try jumping into a project that already exists on your campus: some event or venture that has already been initiated and has room to grow. For example, my college has a program called “Everybody Reads” which focuses on one book a year in conjunction with our county library. Together, we select a book over the summer that will be featured in both country library events as well as in campus events and classes throughout the upcoming academic year. Each book is selected for its focus on a topic that is pertinent to our community. Continue reading

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Intergenerational Learning: The Great Migration


Maureen Boyle and Patricia McPherson are award winning New England journalists. Boyle is an assistant professor and director of the journalism program at Stonehill College. McPherson is the information literacy and outreach librarian at Stonehill, who has helped in the development of several classroom projects

At one end of the church hall, 82-year-old Ramona Jackson was telling the college senior how, decades earlier as a young nurse in Boston, she refused to give in to the demands of a patient who didn’t want a black person treating him.

“I said to him, ‘I’m sorry, darling, but I’m not gonna assign you to any nurse I’m going to take care of you,” she recalled. “You better get used to this face.” Continue reading

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Project Based Service-Learning: Students as Researchers of Immigration Narratives


“The more young people who get the opportunity to travel the world, live in other cultures and learn new languages, the more they will begin to understand our shared ideals and the shared opportunities to keep moving this world forward. ”

— Michelle Obama

Seeing the Between Two Worlds exhibit in Santa Fe at the Museum of International Folk Art inspired me to think about my New Jersey students’ journeys to the U.S. As an English as a Second Language (ESL) Teacher at Carroll Robbins Elementary School in Trenton, New Jersey, I wanted to design a curriculum that would inspire my students and meet learning goals for the classroom.

Many young people have traveled through deserts and across oceans to come to Trenton. As an ESL teacher at Robbins School, I am curious about and thankful for each child who walks through my classroom door. What are their experiences like? How do they feel about being immersed in a new culture? What strengths do immigrant children bring and how can teachers empower them to use those strengths? Continue reading

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Writing as Alchemy: Turning Objects into Stories, Stories into Objects


I. Lawn Chair as Trope

When Long moves into his next home, he will take only the things that matter most: his television, a Sony analog box that he and his wife purchased when they were married; his stereo, two giant Sony boomboxes, or blasters, from the ’80s; and his television couch, which actually is a plastic lawn chair that he resized by sawing off half the legs to fit his height. These are the items that fill his living space, wherever he settles. Together and separately they carry with them memories — stories — invisible to the human eye, although perhaps not to the human heart.

“The thing about a story is that you dream it as they tell it, hoping that others might dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head.”

Tim O’Brien, The Things That They Carried

Artifacts collect and tell stories. This, folklorists have long known. One broken Sancai Chinese vase, for example, from the Tang Dynasty at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC, speaks the cultural aesthetics of the time, as well as the availability of material and resources with which the piece was crafted. From there, we reimagine the interior of a Chinese aristocrat’s home. We see the nobleman admiring the ceramic. He is inspired by the three-color pottery — yellow, green, and white — before his eyes, and in this moment of elation, he tells his wife that when he dies, he would like the vase in his tomb — along with her and their servants. Continue reading

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Between Two Worlds: A Collaborative Curriculum Addressing Immigration through Folk Art, Media Literacy, and Digital Storytelling


Between Two Worlds Gallery in Santa Fe

Gallery of Conscience, Museum of International Folk Art exhibition Between Two Worlds: Folk Artists Reflect on the Immigrant Experience, 2014. Photo by Blair Clark. Courtesy of the Museum of International Folk Art.

Traveler, there is no path. The path is made in walking.

—Antonio Machado, 20th-century Spanish poet

Building Community through Collaboration

At the heart of all Gallery of Conscience (GoC) exhibitions are community-based collaborations that take place within and beyond museum walls. Through its community engagement process, the GoC develops ongoing partnerships that grow organically from exhibition themes. GoC collaborations vary in scope and nature, ranging from journals and story cloths created by English language (ESL) students, to a spoken word poetry residency with at-risk youth, a dialogue and moderated panel focused on transgender issues, and a peace quilt created by Palestinian, Jewish Israeli, and American young women with instruction from a Nigerian/Yoruba indigo resist-dye master. During the life of an exhibition, multiple partnerships take place concurrently, always drawing from and often contributing back to exhibit content and programming. In this article, as a folklorist and former GoC Community Engagement Coordinator, I present one such collaboration, based on the exhibition Between Two Worlds: Folk Artists Reflect on the Immigrant Experience (2014-16).

While in progress, this collaboration often seemed like a braid. The three “strands” of the braid included the Museum of International Folk Art’s Gallery of Conscience, Youth Media Project (YMP), and ¡YouthWorks!—three local community-based organizations with kindred missions and programs. The first partner was the GoC itself. Founded in 1953, the Museum of International Folk Art (MOIFA) seeks “to enrich the human spirit by connecting people with the arts, traditions and cultures of the world.” In 2010, former MOIFA Director Marsha Bol established the GoC, explaining, “As the largest folk art museum in the world, there is a responsibility to create a forum to discuss current issues that folk artists are facing around the world.” Continue reading

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Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: The Making of an Activist


My family would always joke around that I am not your typical person. It’s true. At 15 years old I was part of a play to speak out against domestic violence and HIV in the Latino community. I was also part of an Advisory Board at Girls Inc. to foster the voices and creativity of young girls of color. Now, I sit back and I’m grateful for the journey I am part of, a journey of struggle but also of love and community. It’s what I share with my students in my Sociology classes at East L.A. Community College — “trust in your journey and visions”. “Our ancestors already provided the path, they were always dreaming of us.”

My name is Carla Osorio Veliz. I am Guatemalan native but have been raised in East Los Angeles since 1991. Immigrating to the United States from Guatemala was not easy. My mom brought my brother and I as toddlers by herself to meet with my father. Leaving family and friends behind to travel north for what all immigrants think will be a better life. She imagined having a family united but things did not work out that way. Continue reading

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Using Technology to Rediscover Our Roots as Cultural Creators


Identity enhancing learning emerges from a felt-sense of purpose acknowledged and nurtured through sharing with others. By definition Learning Communities, as distinguished from our current more static institutions, create the circumstances to nourish richly creative interactions — so flow and creativity replace sterile textbook redundancy.

Learning Communities are non-judgmental, respectful, purposeful and enthusiastic. They are eager to nurture the mysterious process of discovering where and how the individual meets the world because these communities grasp that everyone grows in their own way from where they are. Ideally everyone learns to treat everyone else as an end in themselves, and no one is a means to another’s or an institution’s ends.

Learning Communities are flat rather than hierarchical. Administration’s task is to support and serve rather than to direct and manage. These principles of Learning Communities threaten the established order built on centuries of habits. But unless we shift our paradigm toward STEAM, personalized learning, and democracy we will not create the improvements we seek. Continue reading

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Why This Work Really Matters


During my childhood, my family lived a short bike ride away from a small creek that was a tributary to a large river that eventually fed into the Chesapeake Bay. My brothers and I would join the other neighborhood kids on our bikes and head to the creek to “explore”. The creek sat at the bottom of a hill. We would perch our bikes at the top of the hill, jump on, and let gravity take us swiftly to the bottom, feet raised up, for there was no need to pedal. What an exhilarating ride it was! At the bottom of the hill, the treasures of the creek awaited us. We would catch minnows and crayfish, practice skipping rocks on the surface, and wade in the cool, clear water.

The hill and the section of the creek we visited so often as children stood on property that is now fenced off and privately owned. Neighborhood children can no longer access it. However, for me, those memories are still very clear and very much a part of who I am.

We can all think back to our own childhood and recall vivid memories or places that meant something to us. These memories and experiences contribute to our sense of place. Sense of place is defined slightly differently by those in different fields, but in general, aspects of ecological, social, cultural, and historical identity all contribute to a person’s sense of place. Wendell Berry, a well-known American bioregionalist once stated “if you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are”. Continue reading

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