Intercultural Connections for Social Change


“When we met with the other students it was difficult at first to intertwine with them.  Everyone felt uncomfortable with each other.  I think that it was only uncomfortable because we live in different areas of Chicago and there are huge differences between them.  I remember one kid told me that his neighborhood used to be full of white people but then a few black families moved in and the white people migrated north.  This really made me feel bad because people hurt him and his family not by discrimination but by avoiding them… In all, this project helped me explore topics of discomfort, expand my knowledge, brainstorm in groups, and allow myself to become an associate.  I grew up a little more inside from this experience.”

–9th grade participant in intercultural arts partnership


On a bright cold morning in early May, two groups of students met on the bridge over the Chicago River.  One group had come from the west side, from a predominantly Latino neighborhood, the other from the north, from a predominantly White neighborhood.  Every student had on a white T shirt on and a bucket in hand.  A young Oxfam activist walked up with an armload of sheets and spray paint and a megaphone.  She explained the experiential learning activity for the morning: Walking for Climate Justice.  Global warming is causing water shortages all over the world, such that people are having to walk farther and farther for water.  The students were going to learn about the issue in a civically participatory way, taking education to the streets by marching downtown holding buckets and banners and broadcasting the stories of some of the individuals affected by water shortage.  The students got to work, spray painting banners and making signs which they taped to their buckets, declaring access to water as a human right.  They then marched down Michigan Avenue to the Art Institute, passing around the megaphone and passing out fliers urging people to demand that world leaders prioritize climate justice.

This group of 50 students had been meeting throughout the year as part of an “Art on the Streets” partnership project, focused on learning about environmental justice in Chicago, and working on a mural designed to raise awareness about the toxic coal power plants in two southwest-side neighborhoods, Little Village and Pilsen.  But the weekend before the groups were to come together to paint the mural, Little Village, the neighborhood where the painting was to take place, was shaken by several shootings and the field trip – the culminating event of the year – was canceled by school administrators of one of the schools concerned about the violence.

The partnering teachers decided that instead of having only one of the groups paint the mural, they would create an alternate plan for the day.  They contacted Oxfam and arranged the climate walk, which broadened the day’s focus from a focus on the impact of pollution at a local level to the global level.  They made sure the day would still involve visual creativity, intercultural collaboration, and public action.

Students were disappointed about not being able to complete the mural, but some were able to stretch beyond their own experience to take stock of the much vaster problems people in Little Village were dealing with.  They also recognized that their school-to-school partnership was the priority, and the relationships they were growing with students in the other school were in some small way themselves a protest against the geographic separations that signal and enable injustice.

This day was relatively typical for the social arts partnerships, which live in the difficult spaces between neighborhoods that are normally filled with distrust or ignorance.  As a student commented:

 The art we all are creating really changes a city. We are just [small] groups, but adding more and more art and artistic messages is so powerful in beautifying a city, bringing out people’s creativity, and sending many messages within that art. Also introducing people to new people and having them work together in creative and socially active and caring ways can change the dynamic of the city (especially beginning on a youthful level as we are). Meeting new people and working together for the same causes really makes an impact on what type of relationships exist within our country.

In Chicago, schools and neighborhoods – with a few exceptions — are so firmly segregated that it takes deliberate and assiduous effort to make sure that Caucasian students will spend time with African-American students, Latino students will spend time with Asian students, and so on.  Thus, in striving to overcome segregation in our city, a growing number of educators are developing partnerships between schools and community organizations, as well as collaborative small group projects centered on shared exploration of the city, of social issues, and of students’ lives and communities. They are also experimenting with arts as a means of creating a wider, more dynamic spirit of community between diverse groups.

Developing these partnerships is not easy on the teachers or the students: it is uncomfortable and inconvenient to challenge the patterns of separation that define our lives.  As one of the participating students recently noted, “in society, people generally associate with people who are similar to them.  This can be seen with race, gender and culture.  This pattern of not wanting to branch out is common and the typical high school education lacks the social education that people who may not look like you are a lot like you.”  The more we strive to facilitate partnerships, the more powerfully we realize how much is set up for students of different ethnic backgrounds to never to look one another in the eye and talk together and explore common purpose. Multicultural days and diversity workshops are hollow at best, and at worst a lie, without this deliberate attention to BEING in a diverse environment – and preparing students to work toward creating diverse environments as they move into the larger world.

In designing collaborative experiential learning projects, teachers plan and work with other teachers both within the same school and at other schools, and often include interested students as co-leaders in the project.  These projects, which are not primarily academic in focus, communicate to students value for and commitment to social learning.  By earmarking social learning time throughout the year, schools participating in these partnerships help students to understand the ongoing process of partnership-building, which takes a different form from the discrete boundaries of academic units and projects: it weaves through and around the school schedule, sometimes according to a pre-arranged plan and schedule, and sometimes deviating from arrangements and popping up or changing suddenly.

Students and teachers come to understand that social learning includes logistical and relational problem-solving – and that sometimes these types of problems are inseparable.  The projects are fluid, intentionally adjusting over the course of the year in response to the students’ experience and to events and situations that have direct relevance to the participants (election issues or the issue of school closings in Chicago, for instance).  The collaborating teachers are resourceful, deft, and flexible enough to make changes as needed despite the amazing array of obstacles, because they care deeply that their students gain the exposure to new environments, new faces, new perspectives, that will help them to develop as intelligent and engaged citizens in society.  Partnership as a mode of democratic learning strengthens students’ social, intellectual, and civic capacities, and when it is neglected in our schools, isolation, inequality, and prejudice proliferate.

American schools live with a legacy of social division and social uplift that must be addressed in dynamic ways in order to enable democratic growth.  We learn our social habits in our schools, and since this country has not yet developed democratic habits – as evidenced by economic disparity and racial segregation – our schools are charged with becoming working laboratories for equality.

By fostering opportunities for connection, relationship, and shared inquiry, schools can empower young people – and their communities – to break through the barriers that limit the reaches of democracy, to work together for justice.  Social arts – the practice of integrating the growth of cross-neighborhood relationships into the structures of schools — enable students to appreciate diversity, provide natural and equitable forms of mutual enrichment, and deepen social awareness and social commitment.  When educators interrupt the patterns of segregation to enable young people to ally with one another across race, class, and gender lines, they build recognition of interdependence amongst different social groups that enables students to develop the power of solidarity within and around them.



Presence in School

“The scene that had the greatest effect on me occurred …after a board member demanded that the Principal “control [his] staff!”  Every teacher (the majority of the audience) walked out of the meeting in protest against the implication that they had less of a right to speak than or should be kept under control by authority.”

 As I read my Teacher Ed students’ papers at the end of the quarter, one strong theme emerged, which surprised me since I had given them total free rein in choosing the focus of their final questions.  The single idea that I saw taking shape was of presence.   It seemed to me that between the 17 of them, they had constructed a picture of what presence in education looks like, from the students’ connection to course material to teachers’ voices in school policy, as registered in the excerpt above (from a student’s reflection on her visit to a local school board meeting).

I wanted to try to draw that picture.  I decided to write back to them all together about this, explaining, “In one way or another, all of your papers helped me to see learning as rooted in presence – the presence of the student, of the teacher, and of the worlds, languages, cultures, experiences that stand behind each person.”  My students’ papers, constantly referencing one another and their own experiences, themselves communicated presence in an unusual way — they were immediate, reflective, and dialogic.  This will be a condensed version of that letter where I addressed each student’s paper; here I will touch only on a few, and will use pseudonyms.

Some students focused on ways that classroom learning can honor the day-to-day rhythms of students’ lives.  Brooke wrote,  “by acknowledging a student’s body of knowledge, opinions, and insights as valid within a classroom setting, a teacher can set up a respectful dynamic. Teresa points out the importance of allowing norms in students’ lives to interact with the norms expected in a school setting in order to make the knowledge presented in the curriculum seem more relevant.”  By recognizing a student’s life as a text enabling powerful learning, the teacher makes space for the whole person, rather than keeping real life outside the classroom door, which implicitly discounts parts of the student’s life.

Making space for the presence of the student in the room also creates space for the presence of the teacher herself.  Brooke confronted her fears about teaching students from less sheltered backgrounds than hers.  She drew together her questions about the risks that come with making space in the classroom for the real challenges of students’ lives with attention to cultural modeling, to offer a pedagogy based in conversations about the risks we share and don’t share. “Intentionally presenting scaffolding that more closely relates to the student’s body of knowledge presents a certain level of risk for a teacher who might have different life experiences that inform his or her reading of these scaffolding texts. This risk, made explicit by the teacher, might go a long way in establishing trust and respect in class.”  Valuing students’ language, modes of connection, and here-and-now experience builds students’ capacities while reducing the pressure on the teacher to be the source of understanding, enabling ALL to learn.

Philip urges the teacher to concentrate on empowering students to be present to one another: “we are constantly discussing how to connect with students and understand their perspectives; it occurs to me that one way to do so is to get out of the way and let students connect with each other through shared experiences and an ability to communicate in a language and on a level that we might not be able to access.”  Reciprocal learning involves nurturing students’ relationships with one another.  By focusing not only on output but also on response in both students and teachers, we develop capacities that cross divides between academic and social learning.  We learn to heighten the other’s presence.

Does the material we put in front of students heighten their sense of presence in the world?  When we teach literature, do the ideas, characters, stories feel present to students?  When many students in Chicago schools wrestle with attendance issues, whether because of illness, violence and lures in the neighborhood, or school pushout, it is vital to consider how to maximize students’ sense of presence when they are there.

It seemed important to my Teacher Ed students to not take for granted the purpose for learning; to be willing to ask oneself and engage with students about questions of purpose that, when put up against the background of real life, may not stand the test.  One student highlights this tenuousness by positing teaching as bridging.  He begins with an intriguing epigraph: “Bridges are perhaps the most invisible form of public architecture,” and goes on to question their sturdiness.  Cesar’s reflection, based in an image of a rope bridge in his hometown in Mexico, questions whether teachers know where they are leading their students and why.  These bridges we build through reading and writing are pathways. They take us from one point to another, but they are not significant in themselves. What if the bridge leads nowhere? What does that desire to learn for the sake of learning do for us?  I have been thinking about Cesar’s bridge since class ended.  In my response to him I wrote, “ I’m wondering what, for you, is the other side of fear.  Is it hope? faith? belief? or determination?  I’m guessing your answer to this question is what shapes your course as a teacher, as a thinker…Keep asking, keep being honest, but ask out loud — make sure others are hearing your questions and engaging them with you.”

A number of students stressed the importance of the voice, the questions, and multiple dialogic forums that teachers need to exercise as they become increasingly present in their practice and in the wider world.  They see that the world of teaching extends out beyond the classroom, in terms of external supports and the teacher’s ability to advocate for those supports.  I will close with the observation of the student whose reflection I opened with, describing the teacher’s public voice: “those same teachers who presented awards at the beginning of the School Board meeting spoke out in favor of the proposed change in the structure of the freshman year. As one teacher read aloud their letter to the administration, a group of at least ten teachers stood behind her in silent support.  The scene Flavia describes is one of teachers extending their presence into the public sphere, speaking up for policies that respect the integrity of every student and every teacher.