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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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A Vision of Education for Now: Reimagining School through Learning Communities, Science, and Technology


Ignoring the Science

No institution has been more resistant to reform than schools. Everyone has a list of reform inhibitors. Ironically, the most recent inhibitor is Accountability Testing aligned with the Common Core. Begun with the intention of providing equity, this very costly effort is failing and causing real damage to existing and successful progressive curriculum reform efforts.

This was predictable. Creating an accountability culture measured by standardized tests ignores the science of learning, management, and the elephant in the room — that we currently offer a very poor curriculum, certainly in terms of student engagement. We doubled down on top-down expectations and test-aligned content while doing little to better design and align learning experiences to students’ interests and needs.

The most essential Common Core is Self-Knowledge. The current Common Core is dominated by shallowly taught academics in pursuit of test scores. We need to realize that Common Core academic success is only possible when learner Self-Knowledge is seen as a significant driver of overall achievement. Continue reading

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Everyone Ought to Have a Ditch


Los Angeles River, Photo by Ryan Vaarsi

I spend a lot of time these days talking with teachers, foundation directors, environmental educators, and evaluators about how to most effectively shape environmental stewardship behavior. The $64,000 question is — what’s the most effective way to educate children who will grow up to behave in environmentally responsible ways? Or, more elaborately, what kinds of learning, or what kinds of experience will most likely shape young adults who want to protect the environment, participate on conservation commissions, think about the implications of their consumer decisions and minimize the environmental footprint of their personal lives and the organizations where they work? There’s a surprising dirth of information about exactly how this process works.

A number of researchers have studied environmentalists to try to determine if there were any similarities in their childhood experiences that contributed to their having strong ecological values and pursuing an environmental career. When Louise Chawla of Kentucky State University reviewed these studies (Chawla 1992), she found a striking pattern. Most environmentalists attributed their commitment to a combination of two sources, “many hours spent outdoors in a keenly remembered wild or semi-wild place in childhood or adolescence, and an adult who taught respect for nature.” Lots of time rambling in neighborhood woods and fields and a parent or teacher who cared about nature were frequently cited as causal forces in the development of their own environmental ethics. In his autobiography about growing up in Denver, lepidopterist Robert Michael Pyle describes the urban semi-wild place the inspired him. Continue reading

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Celebrating MLK Day: James Brown, Walt Whitman, and I


I was born in 1949. I will be 65 years old next month. Therefore, I remember Jim Crow and having to grow up in a segregated or racially separated South. I remember being relegated to improperly attended public restrooms, water fountains, and doctor office waiting rooms reserved for “coloreds.”

My mother and father were sharecroppers — which was considered fortunate for them at that time because they had ten children. They had two boys, one at the beginning and one at the end, and then eight girls sandwiched in between. My mother had me when she was forty years old. I was her seventh child, but I was first of her children who was allowed to attend a public school.

Black children before my age group had to walk or were driven on mule drawn wagons to a “one room, one teacher teach all,” school that was being held in their local churches. Black people were not allowed to attend public schools nor ride public, county owned buses.  Continue reading

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Applied Destruction

From the Inside — Thoughts on Place-Based Education at a Community College


When I first started including service-learning projects in my computer courses more than a decade ago, I was seen as somewhat of an oddity. Service in a technical course? That had to be wrong. Since the service-learning program at my community college had been in existence, service projects by in large were included in social science, language, and science classes. The only career classes with embedded service were expected to be in the medical fields. They made sense there.

But service in a technical course? What was that about? Many felt, and may still feel, that adding service-learning or place-based education to a career technical (CTE) credit class was taking valuable time away from learning needed job skills for a career. I begged to differ, and I still do. I have been a strong supporter of adding community work to CTE courses for two main reasons: community service that is tied to course technical skills and outcomes engages students in real-life practice of the very skills the course is striving to teach, and this pedagogy shows students that the CTE skills they are learning can lead them to becoming a vital part of their communities, in addition to being employed, when they graduate. Continue reading

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Why I Never Wanted to Teach


Photo Credit: DNAinfo/Andrea V. Watson

I am a high school teacher in the city of Chicago. In the last four days, I’ve lost two students to gun violence. Currently, I am numb and discombobulated.

Each day, I walk into my classroom and declare “today will be an awesome day.”

On a good day, a bunch of chaotic amazingness takes place and my babes leave at the end of the day having learned what I set out to teach them.

On an awesome day, a bunch of chaotic amazingness takes place and I leave at the end of the day having learned what my babes unintentionally set out to teach me. This exchange is one of the most rewarding aspects of teaching.

I was not optimistic about this career path. I reluctantly answered the calling on my life out of obedience. I knew that if I became a teacher, my students would eventually infiltrate my heart when I wasn’t looking. And when that happened, I’d be a sucker with a bullseye on my forehead. I couldn’t risk this ruining my “no nonsense” image and my street credibility.

Fast forward five years. Continue reading

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Hands-On Robotics Engage Students at Cape Fear Elementary School


IMG_0055In the Fall of 2015, as part of an effort to bridge achievement gaps between subgroups, our Principal, Charles Chestnut, suggested applying for a technology grant through General Electric. As a co-director for GEAR-UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) in the early 2000’s in South Carolina, I knew the Lego Robotics class we offered was very popular with our high risk students, so I went with that as the meat of the grant.

I contacted the Lego area rep who steered me toward the Lego WeDo Robotic Kits. When the grant was accepted, we ordered enough equipment for our initial target groups: EC students; the SED (Severe Emotional Disorder) students; Occupational Therapy students; the Hispanic summer camp; and a regular education 2nd grade classroom. These groups had the biggest achievement gaps in end of year testing compared to the high performing students. Our population is in a rural area, with a high free and reduced lunch, and many students from single parent or blended families. Continue reading

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Civic Action Projects — Overcoming the Overloaded Curriculum

steve-head-2OK, here we are in the new year, facing many challenges in the education world (and looking for ways to overcome them). Here’s one:

More and more school districts try to insure students’ learning by prescribing almost every minute of the curriculum and the day. The intent may be understandable, but good teachers know that students learn and grow best when making many of their own choices and slowing down to go deeper into topics and issues that excite them. And many of those teachers want to use civic and social action projects to help young people to become engaged citizens in their communities — as public schools were intended to do.

So the challenge: how to incorporate meaningful, in-depth projects into the days and weeks of the school year and still meet all the curricular demands loaded on us. Here’s how some schools and teachers do it.

  • Use scheduled social studies periods. Middle school teachers at William at Brown School in Chicago are making social issue projects the core of their second semester social studies curriculum. Of course, they must fit the projects around required curriculum, such as U.S. history in 7th grade. And they must track how activities for the projects cover various Common Core standards (which are still in place in Illinois). This is not difficult, since projects readily involve plenty of informational reading, argument writing, research, and public speaking.
  • Link projects directly to elements of the curriculum. At Polaris Academy, students pose essential questions of their own as part of their learning. When studying the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, they decided to ask, “Whose responsibility is it to ‘insure domestic tranquility’?” This ultimately led to a project to help reduce gun violence in their neighborhood, through public service announcement videos and neighborhood events. And they came to feel that they themselves could step up to help. Various steps in the project were simply built into the writing, speaking, research, social studies, and math curriculum.
  • Start small. If you are new to civic action, it can help to start with a short project that can be easier to fit into your schedule. The Mikva Challenge soap box curriculum guides students to create and present speeches on issues of their choice, and it can be completed in class periods over a week or less.
  • Establish after-school clubs and programs. While after-school programs are not integrated into the classroom curriculum, they can influence the climate and activity in the entire school. At Alcott College Prep High School (not a charter or private school, in spite of the name), the club that named itself the Social Justice League has worked to promote democracy and supportive student culture across the school. Over several years they held assemblies, welcoming events for incoming freshmen and their families, and events for exchanging ideas on school and community issues. They lobbied to get to interview principal candidates, gained representation on a faculty committee and developed a set of “civic goals and agreements” for the school. As a result Alcott was recognized as a “Democracy School” by the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition.

Even if you worry that the effort can be challenging, just keep in mind that students will remember these projects long after they’ve forgotten the boring chapters in the social studies textbook — and learn more about civics, government, writing, and more in the process.

Steve Zemelman is Director of the Illinois Writing Project, works on student civic engagement and restorative justice in Chicago schools, and writes about these efforts in his blog at and in his book, From Inquiry to Action: Civic Engagement with Project-Based Learning in All Content Areas.

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CAPitalizing on a Great Idea: A Collaborative Community Project


Our successful service-learning project was born naturally and organically from a course I was teaching at West Chester University (WCU) in the Department of Early and Middle Grades. One evening back in October 2012, I was explaining to a class of early grades education majors that if you find yourself lacking ample teaching materials and you are low on funds, with a bit of creativity, you can easily recycle every day materials to help teach youngsters basic math and literacy skills. I then demonstrated how you can take ordinary caps from milk, ice tea, and water bottles and write a letter, a number, or a number symbol on top of the cap to create inexpensive learning manipulatives for youngsters. What evolved from that evening has become a thriving service-learning project between me, over fifty WCU early grades students and twenty-three high school special needs students and their teacher who now create CAP KITS for elementary students both locally and internationally.

The tentacles of this community-service project reach far and wide and have many components. In this story I will explain what we created, which we call CAP KITS, and those who created them, whom I refer to as the CAPS CREW. As the story get deeper and more interesting I will explain the places the CAP KITS have reached, and the additional community partners who have joined us in strengthening this project as it grows larger and more encompassing. In the end, I share the positive impact the CAP KITS project has had on the special education students who assist in making the kits. Continue reading

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Breaking Through with My Least Favorite Teaching Assignment


I had been a Community College Instructor for over ten years, and I honestly did not know what to do about this one class: Business Editing Skills. Its description in the course catalog included the words spelling, punctuation, grammar, and proofreading. It was a course designed to give Administrative Assistant degree students solid English skills: a commendable goal. But the Administrative Assistant degree is embedded in our Computer Applications Department, and I was a computer software instructor. I could expertly find my way around any Microsoft software and teach my students to do the same; and, truth be told, I had strong English skills — but that didn’t mean I wanted to teach spelling, grammar, etc., etc. I was hired as a full-time faculty member with the understanding that I would teach all the department classes that the latest retiree had taught, and that included Business Editing Skills.

I gave it the old college try and got through teaching the course for a number of years. But there was no excitement — for me or my students. Grammar exercises were tedious and spelling repetitious. I mixed things up with catchy videos and proofreading children’s books, but the bottom line remained the same. It was my least favorite course to teach, and I wanted to hand it off to another instructor as soon as possible. Getting through a course was never my desire; if I couldn’t find a way to teach it well, I didn’t want to teach it at all. Continue reading

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