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Week 7 (Makeup): Teaching Hope

Prompt: What have you learned about community engagement through the Teaching Hope planning process? What else do you need to learn about Teaching Hope to better your understanding and how will you do so? Reflecting on what has brought us to this point in the quarter, how have our prior experiences prepared us for this opportunity?

The Teaching Hope project was interesting because it helped me look at how a project develops. I was concerned because at the time, we didn’t really know what Teaching Hope did, what their goals were for the meeting, or how we would segue from the rest of the program, and even while we were writing questions for it and talking to Mark, I didn’t have all my questions answered, but it all went surprisingly well when the event happened. I learned that when implementing a project, sometimes the best way to learn how to do it right is to try something and see what happens. This is true in other fields as well – I read a little of “The Mythical Man-Month” in Software Engineering, and the author points out that the first version of any software system is basically a throw-away learning experience. However, while my meeting-holding skills have certainly improved, I’m not sure what else to take away from it. When we asked what Teaching Hope did, we got a different answer from each school group. What would Mark call an ideal Teaching Hope program for a given school, and why? Mark mentioned that he held the meeting just to keep the momentum going, so is he just making this up as he goes, or does he have a plan? I need to learn more about when planning is worthwhile and when my plans won’t survive contact with reality.

Our prior experiences were useful because we learned to ask questions. While I’ve had an overview of whatever we were getting into each week, a lot of times the interesting parts were things that weren’t covered on the online materials. For example, when we visited Elementz, I didn’t expect to get a discussion about 3CDC. When we visited Hughes, I got to hear about STEAM (STEM plus Art). So as with those experiences, I had to come up with questions on the fly. The questions we prepared going into the session were really useful whenever we ran out of discussion on a topic, but when we just needed a little nudge while staying on topic, I’d ask a question about what we learned.  So this was in some ways a chance to apply our skills on a community project, even if it was just a small segment of it.

Week 5 (Makeup): Hughes again

Prompt: How have your own experiences in the educational system compared to or differed from those we talked about during our visit to Hughes High School? What does it mean to say there is a national “achievement gap” or “opportunity gap” and what are the repercussions? Realizing that as University Honors students you could be considered the top 1% of the country in terms of your educational opportunities, where do you go from here?

When I was a student at Sycamore, our classes weren’t tightly linked in the same way that the Hughes classes are with STEM. They repeatedly emphasized how much they made teachers collaborate on assignments and work in teams, starting with the interview process. That was mostly absent from Sycamore, except when two classes were in similar subjects. For example, my World History teacher urged us to take AP Euro when the time came to pick next year’s classes, and all the Chemistry teachers collaborated regularly on demonstrations, culminating in a really spectacular Halloween demo. So collaboration sometimes developed on its own, but it wasn’t enforced and there was no overarching theme of STEM. It seems like Hughes is the sort of solution Block would like: one that solves a problem by creating connections in the community.

Saying that there is an achievement gap means that some groups of students (low-income students and African-American students) are doing much worse – the gap is measured in years – than others. In other words, our education system is not helping every student reach their fullest potential, which means the country as a whole is not as educated as it could be. The fact that it is limited to low-income students redoubles the problem, because without education, their families will continue to stay at a low income and have less chance of ever narrowing the gap.

Malcolm Gladwell, in “Marita’s Bargain,” explains that the main cause of the achievement gap is a difference in retention. Even if the school is perfectly effective, over summer vacation, students tend to forget things. However, students from high-income backgrounds have opportunities to keep their skills sharp over the long break (such as through summer camp) and so they pull ahead during the summer. So if I’m going to get involved with some effort to close the achievement gap, my summer break is probably the best time to start.

Week 10: Gentrification

What kinds of reactions and mental images are conjured by words and phrases such as gentrification and urban renewal/revitalization? Thinking about the context of community and our previous discussions, what questions do you have for the leadership of 3CDC as we prepare for our visit?

“Gentrification” has a negative connotation, as does the word “gentry” in general.  The term calls up the silly mental image of a rich man, the stereotypical 1%-er in a suit and tie, deciding to put a massive McMansion in the dingiest part of Over-the-Rhine.  I suppose that image also says a lot about my mental image of Over-the-Rhine, that it seems impossible to improve it to the level where a rich businessman would fit in.  However, I would say that it’s a useful image because it’s a reminder that low-income people are a part of OTR and any attempt at revitalizing the area has to account for that.  “Urban renewal” has a much better connotation to me.  It suggests cleaning things up and making things better without making suggestions about the sort of people who benefit.

I already talked a bit about what 3CDC is doing in my post about Elementz (week 4), so I suppose the best questions to ask would focus on whether what they are doing is the best way to achieve their goals.  How will you know if your plan is effective?  Are there any similar urban renewal efforts you can compare this to?    How does your approach to urban renewal promote connections in the community, or to put it another way, how do your new developments integrate with the existing environment?  What will make people want to live in your new buildings?

UPDATE:  As it turns out, these questions got answered in the course of their presentation, and we came up with much more interesting questions instead.  There are a lot of cool details in 3CDC’s plans, which I’ll expand on at a later date.

Reading 9.5: Johnson and Society

What’s the challenge of discussing individualism when it comes to accounting for the role of privilege in community engagement? How does acknowledging our role in social systems move us away from this context of individualism?

What does the path of least resistance mean in this context? How do we move beyond it?

What are your thoughts, reactions, and ideas as you read this article?

The trouble with discussing individualism is that it’s too narrow a focus for the problem of privilege. You can’t look at a single person in isolation and say if they are privileged or not, because privilege is something you get from the society you’re in. Similarly, we can’t point to a single person and say “He’s a bad guy! He’s oppressing others and taking privilege for himself!” Privilege is subtle and built on the actions of many people; one memorable example Johnson gives is “Whites can succeed without other people being surprised.” Not an impressive privilege, but it’s a privilege blacks don’t have. The good news is that now that we know the nature of privilege, we can consciously point it out in our lives and think of ways to fix it. However, despite rejecting individualism, we have to be willing to act as individuals. Johnson calls this “Gandhi’s paradox” – a single individual makes no difference, but we won’t get anywhere unless a lot of individuals take action. In some ways, this is a twist on Kant’s categorical imperative – act the way you would want everyone to act.

The “path of least resistance” is connected to this problem. Since privilege isn’t an individual problem, a single individual can’t see the relation between their own actions and their status in society. It’s hard to say that something is wrong with your situation when you, personally, haven’t done anything wrong. This, like many psychology problems, requires us to constantly second-guess ourselves. We need to notice all the subtle details in our thinking that guide us into giving privilege to others or oppressing them. In general, take a moment to think whenever we make an instinctive decision, because those decisions are probably the path of least resistance.

The main thing that kept catching my attention as I read this article was the concept that society only works because we’re willing to accept it, a concept I’ve seen repeated in several forums. One of the first assignments in AP Psych at my school was to break a social norm and see what happens. Realistically, nothing ever happens besides a few awkward moments, but it never fails to surprise and entertain people taking that class. Once we become aware that we don’t have to make decisions based on what we think is “normal” or “weird”, we have the ability to change a great deal.

Week 9.5: Bones

Week 9.5: Conduct an internet search to find news articles, video, or other coverage relating to at least 2 of the recent events and activities highlighting Northside. Use these articles and what you learn as the basis for your Reflection & Analysis blog entry (due Wednesday, November 23), focusing that entry on ONE topic listed. Remember to properly cite your sources.

The death of David “Bones” Hebert – what are the details and what was the resulting community outreach in spring of 2011?

On April 14th, 2001, Jason Weller called 911, reporting the David “Bones” Hebert, a local musician in Northside, had robbed his apartment and cut his hand with a sword. Police found Hebert walking his dog with a friend a few blocks away. Hebert had a knife, and the police shot and killed him. Anything beyond these bare facts is murky, as many parts of the story are unknown and some of the evidence doesn’t make sense. For example, the knife was found over 25 feet from his body, and it seem unlikely that Hebert could have thrown the knife away after being fatally shot. Hebert was a small, thin man (hence the nickname, “Bones”), so it seems strange that he was violent enough to pose a threat to the police. With nothing but the police officers’ testimony to go on (the police car’s camera was off), the case will most likely remain a mystery, and Prosecutor Joe Deters closed the case, saying the officers committed no crime.

More interesting than the killing was the response of the community, as many people were friends of Hebert. Over a hundred people packed into the city council’s chambers to demand answers, and people also held several events in his honor, including a “dirge march” by musicians and “Bonesfest,” a weekend musical memorial. His death clearly struck close to home for many people (in the “defended area” of Northside), so this could severely affect the connections between the Cincinnati police and the local community. Whether or not a crime was committed, there are enough strange things about the case that many people will suspect that one was, so the police need to quickly assuage these suspicions and show that people can trust them. This news story has mostly fallen off the radar, and I couldn’t find any followups after Deters’ response to the case, so it’s possible that the matter blew over, but I think the city could have done more to explain what happened, and what it’s doing to prevent a repeat of the incident. Deters’ blunt denial of the crime seems too brief.

Works Cited:

“BONESFEST.” David Bones Herbert. Cincinnati Enquirer, n.d. Web. 30 Nov 2011. <http://www.davidboneshebert.com/BONESFEST.html&gt;.

Osborne, Kevin. “A Shot in the Dark.” CityBeat. Cincinnati CityBeat, 04 May 2011. Web. 30 Nov 2011. <http://www.citybeat.com/cincinnati/article-23220-a-shot-in-the-dark.html&gt;.

Perry, Kimball. “Deters: Officers ‘committed no crime’ in shooting of ‘Bones’ Hebert.” Cincinnati.com. Cincinnati Enquirer, 23 Aug 2011. Web. 30 Nov 2011. <http://news.cincinnati.com/article/20110823/NEWS010702/110823016/Deters-Officers-committed-no-crime-shooting-Bones-Hebert&gt;.

Week 8: Teaching Hope

This week, we were given the job of organizing a chunk of a Teaching Hope meeting.  We were supposed to facilitate discussion among the students and teachers who were there in order to help them understand what the Freedom Writers program did and how they could improve the program at their own school.  We generated quite a lot of interesting discussion, but it didn’t always go in the direction we intended.

The problem I remember most vividly was that the goal of keeping it positive which drove our choice of questions didn’t translate too well into discussion.  When we asked “What needs changing?” to our combined group of students and teachers, we ended up with nothing but complaints about the school administration.  While this was occasionally informative, we spent far too much time on a single problem, in an already tight schedule.  We should have been more proactive in moving the discussion around to generate more ideas – the group we merged with hadn’t even finished the “What would you change?” question in the small group.  This problem of having some dismal comments drag down the discussion cropped up to a smaller extent in the small group:  One girl was in a neglected pre-STEM class at Hughes, and another found Tallawanda so boring that they hardly had any suggestions to contribute.  I have a feeling that despite what Block says, some problems are big enough that you just have to solve them before you can start building up your grand, ideal vision.

Our definition of community (a source of identity and interaction for a group) also has some interesting applications here.  Our small discussion group was an impromptu community, with a common identity from the Teaching Hope program and a common interaction from our facilitation.  Sometimes, we were able to easily spot common themes and add them to our notes (as I mentioned, everyone hated the administration), but other times the results seemed very scattered, so it was hard to find examples from one school that applied to another (Arlington Academy, with just 40 students and 4 teachers, was a serious wrench in the works here).  Nearly every program seemed to provide different services, so the umbrella of “Teaching Hope” wasn’t a strong identity (Palen would call this a “contrived community”).  However, when we managed to get commonalities, it was easy to segue between topics and think of comments for both.  Even if the commonality was something like “Both your teachers promised you X and didn’t deliver, do you know who to nag?”  So it’s difficult to foster connections within a community out of nowhere, but there’s a visible payoff.

Week 8: What is community (again)?

Prompt: How have we upheld our working definition of community that we crafted at the beginning of the quarter? Thinking about what you have learned, how might you consider altering this definition?

Our classroom community is a collection of people connected by purpose or circumstance, and can also be a source of identity and interaction for its members.”

The simple way to test this definition is to compare it to reality. Elementz and Hughes High School and all the examples from our reading are dedicated to “building community.” They are technically building a “collection of people connected by purpose or circumstance, [which] can also be a source of identity and interaction for its members,” but there’s more to it than that. We aren’t trying to build a community for its own sake, but because a community is a good thing to have. This is part of why I kept ragging on Block, because when you talk in broad terms about building connections in the community it’s easy to lose track of what that means in practice.

The simplest solution is to remove the “can also be” from the definition, so it is simply “A community is a source of identity and interaction for a group of people.” It must provide identity, because if there’s no distinction between people who are or aren’t in the community, it’s not a useful definition. And it must provide interaction, because that’s what holds a community together and makes it relevant. For example, in our classroom community, I can call up a classmate and ask what the latest assignment was. This requires identity (I know who to call), and interaction (I can talk to them). The idea of “identity” is a little slippery, as just because I personally think of myself as “middle-class” does not mean that others will view me the same way. Johnson points out in his essay, “Privilege, Oppression, and Difference,” that identities such as race or even gender are social constructs, and your identity is defined by how you are treated by others around you. This definition also gets slippery when defining interaction – The ways in which I interact with my community of friends are nebulous and I can’t make an exact list. Still, despite the fuzzy logic involved in defining a community, this is probably the most concise definition.