Monday, May 27, 2013

Remembrance, on Memorial Day

I walked in, did a double-take at the class demographics, breathed deep, and improvised. With help.

It was my first January term at Wofford. My program coordinator had called me a few months before I started the job, while I was squaring away details for my dissertation defense, and asked me what I wanted to teach for Interim. The proposals are technically due tomorrow, and we think we forgot to tell you. I mapped out a helter-skelter plan to study the culture of contemporary Greece and marked the box next to “grading scale A-F” on the form.

Only when I arrived on campus did I realize most projects were “honors-pass-fail.” Graded ones usually enrolled students in GPA trouble or athletes who wanted to pick up more weighted hours out of season.

Like my class: two camps. All male. Self-segregated: African-American and white, one row apart. Double take. Deep breath. Help.

One student sat between the two clusters. We started class. Andrew interacted with both sides with ease, drew them together. The class took their cues from him, and I was grateful. A quiet leader. A generous contributor.

The class developed an atmosphere of learning, fun, respect. When a student greeted me on campus by throwing his arms out sideways, Zorba-style, and doing a quick step, I figured it was going well. The last days of the term, we cooked Greek food at my house. Andrew manned the grill, chatting with others who peeled potatoes on the porch.

Not quite four years later, in December 2004, First Lieutenant Andrew Shields of the South Carolina Army National Guard, died in Mosul, Iraq, in a helicopter crash. I saw the news on TV, cradling my infant son on the couch after dinner. Called my husband into the room, told him the story again. He was the student who made that class work. Andrew left behind parents and siblings, including a twin brother. He also left behind a legacy of care; hundreds who attended his funeral recalled it.

This Memorial Day, nine years after his death, I’m remembering Andrew. And I’m saying thanks to all the quiet leaders and generous contributors, in uniform and out, who like him, have made the spaces we share better.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Horizons of the Possible

Two friends at the ARCH after-school program browse a book in the newly decorated reading room (photo by L. Perret, May 2013)

“This week at ARCH I saw a huge difference between the culture I grew up in and the culture of the children with whom I work.” The line in the student journal for my literature class catches my attention. I read on. The student describes a game the first graders play at a community partner site. The kids list two desirable professions and another they wouldn’t want to have. “The girls named three professions: a servant, a homemaker, and a nurse. I realized then how society has shaped their aspirations and how different their world is from my own.”

Aspirations. Horizons of the possible. That’s the tag line I’d give our extraordinary, ordinary day at Wofford yesterday. I read journals. Ordinary. We announced a new president. Extraordinary. Nayef Samhat addressed our faculty, his family and our trustees seated on the front rows of the auditorium, and he chose words to remind us of the extraordinary work of imagination, of education, in the service of humanity. The imagination to push horizons. The imagination to extend the limits of the possible for justice, inclusion, hope. The imagination to dream a better world.

I thought of my students, who this year have powerfully articulated how they’ve thrived in community, with their community. Reading journal entries is ordinary; what the entries document is extraordinary. The short film made by my Leadership and Social Change class (more on that soon): in technique, ordinary. What it celebrates and how they made it: extraordinary. In my students’ work, I see the exceptional, transformative, horizon-pushing reality of a 21st century liberal education: an embrace of teamwork; a growing sense of strengths; a connection of the theoretical to the right-at-hand; a real, honest understanding that “all of us are smarter than any of us” and that in a democracy, that matters a heck of a lot.

So at the conclusion of this academic year, I’m celebrating new horizons and the imaginations that dreamed them up. Three community engagement startups founded by Spanish majors this year. A brand new playground on its way to a community partner. A reading room there, underwritten by Bonner community funds and made reality through the initiative and imagination of a first-generation college student. The work my students have done is the slow, steady, determined work of investing in the lives of others. Of understanding the parameters of their own world. Of pushing horizons, daily, by acts of collective imagination and will. Extraordinary.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Going rogue

Logos from high schools with teachers participating in the inaugural year of the AVD grant funded High Impact Fellows program at Wofford College (April 2013)

“I’ve rediscovered my passion for my discipline and my teaching. Next year, I’m going rogue!” The teacher on the front row of our small auditorium looked energized. Those around her laughed appreciatively; some nodded. We were all debriefing from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations High Impact Fellows Summit held at Wofford College on an overcast Saturday in late April. For us organizers, Katie’s comment and the palpable enthusiasm in the room meant we could call our project a success. It had empowered others around a shared educational purpose, and it had the potential to benefit countless high school students.

The grant work (about which I wrote in a September blog entry) involved teams comprised of one high school teacher, one Wofford faculty member, and one Wofford student. The charge: produce, collaboratively, over the course of a year, a curriculum unit that would be classroom-ready and field-tested in the high school where the teacher worked. The project was a novel one for Wofford, and according to our external evaluator, an innovative one in general. Building teams from three different constituencies offered a unique opportunity for each person to learn from another one in the group. It meant an opportunity for reciprocity in a civic engagement project about “doing” education – a topic of incredible importance to our county, state, and nation. And like every innovation, which is also a disruption in the status quo, it meant all of us had a steep learning curve!

As project coordinators, my two colleagues and I learned a great deal. Organizational cultures in high schools and a liberal arts college are different. Logistics are tough when each team member is busy. We had flashes of doubt: Can we create a structure and promote a culture that invites each team member to contribute her knowledge and perspective to the task before them? Is it possible to translate what happens in higher education at a theoretical level into direct application in a high school classroom? After Year 1, our answer is “yes!” With the feedback from fantastic teams and our amazing evaluator, we know better how to make a shared space for collaboration happen next year. And like that teacher, we think we’ll be going rogue more… imagining ways that committed folks can do better work together, in ways that empower more than just ourselves. Join us!