Opinion
Curriculum Opinion

Writing the Neighborhood

By Ariel Sacks — April 04, 2011 7 min read
Teacher Ariel Sacks

Last year, along with 12 other teachers, I collaborated with the author Barnett Berry on the book Teaching 2030: What We Must Do for Our Students and Our Public Schools—Now and in the Future, which presents a vision for the future of teaching. One of the things we recommend, in light of predictions that urban environments and infrastructures will become increasingly unstable, is that K-12 schools work in much closer connection with their local communities in order to truly serve the needs of students. We can’t build community-school connections overnight. But I’ve found an exciting starting place in a journalism project that actively connects the learning in my classroom with the realities students face outside.

When I began teaching seven years ago in a middle school in New York City’s East Harlem, I was finishing up my master’s degree program at Bank Street College, known for its progressive education philosophy. I was taking the famous “Tiorati” course on inquiry-based science curriculum, taught by the late Donald Cook. In this course, we teachers went out into the woods and investigated the natural world. We discussed points of interest, formed groups with others who shared our interest, and conducted real research on our topics. My topic was toads. Cook gave daily lessons to frame the process and provide us with the skills and resources needed to advance in our respective studies. In the end, the groups presented their completed work to one another. The remarkable thing about the process was that every major life sciences concept emerged from those presentations plain as day: the life cycle, habitats, adaptations, and so forth. In this approach, the learner had lots of agency and creativity in guiding the learning, and yet we all landed at the same objectives a traditional life sciences course would have set out for us.

I was also learning about a classic Bank Street neighborhood-study expedition for social studies in which students take a walking trip with clipboards and trip-observation sheets. This study was normally done with young children, but I thought, “Why couldn’t I do this with middle school students? What if I applied the process from the Tiorati science course to an adolescent version of the neighborhood study? What concepts would emerge from that landscape?”

That spring in East Harlem, I took a stab at the neighborhood study with my 8th grade transitional English-language learners.Since then, I’ve built it into a full-blown interdisciplinary journalism study. Last year, I adapted it to the neighborhood surrounding the school at which I taught in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

The process goes like this:

Exploration. We begin with a walking trip. I design trip sheets that ask students to map the blocks surrounding the school, write the names of businesses, sketch ornate buildings, and record observations of people.

Of course, the students always start out complaining. “Aw, man, this is not a real trip!” they say. “Who wants to walk around this boring neighborhood?” But they return completely energized and have tons to talk about.

Next, students respond. I ask them to share their “noticings” and “wonderings” in a class discussion. There are no right or wrong responses. I record each one on chart paper.

Topic Selection. I ask students to look at the list and identify the responses that are most interesting—that is, those the class might want to investigate. I star these selections. Then each student gets three colored stickers to place next to the items they believe are most worthy of study. The items with the most stickers become the focus of the rest of our study. Students fill out topic-selection sheets with their top three choices for research, and I use these to assign small groups to each topic.

Though the process is prescribed, the content is entirely created by students, which is empowering. The topics range, for example, from graffiti to small businesses to racism.

Research. Students search the Internet and the public library for articles and books about their topics. I teach them note-taking skills and make sure they generate questions from the information they find. Usually there is surprisingly little in the way of publications about the different neighborhoods in this city. I tell students they will be entering uncharted territory!

Then we prepare to do some original research of our own. This is where things really start to get interesting. In their groups, students create person-on-the-street surveys about their topics. I teach them how to create yes/no and multiple-choice questions that will yield clear numerical data.

In the classroom, students come up with deep, probing questions. For example, last year’s students asked the following:

• Have you witnessed a racist act in Crown Heights?

• Do people in Crown Heights prefer to shop at stores run by people from their own race/culture?

• Why do people join gangs? a. peer pressure b. to make money c. protection d. dropped out of school

• Do you believe an individual can make a positive difference in Crown Heights?

Conducting Surveys and Interviews. When it comes time to actually go out and conduct the surveys, students tend to get cold feet. “What if someone is rude to me? What am I gonna do?” they say. Or, “I can’t ask real people these questions!”

So we spend an entire period role-playing how to approach people about participating in the survey. We discuss the situations that might come up and how to handle them. I also talk to storekeepers in advance and compile a list of willing participants.

This second trip out is always a transformative experience. Quickly, students discover it is exciting and interesting to survey strangers on the street. Shyness dissolves, and I have to make sure they don’t run too fast up to strangers and cause alarm!

The vast majority of people on the street welcome the chance to connect with students. The conversations my students have had with adults from their community are quite profound. Students learn about the history and social climate of the neighborhood, and begin to see the connections between their academic work and real people.

There is something so gratifying and hopeful about these interactions. The kids’ questions are taken seriously, and they listen intently to their elders. This is in contrast to the usual scenario on the streets, in which teenagers are regarded as a public nuisance. By the same token, many of my students are often pent up inside their homes, because of fears that the streets are too dangerous.

The kids return from that trip saying, “This was the best trip ever! Can we do more?” Back at school, we tally and analyze the data. Based on their findings, the students also select one additional person—it could be a parent, a politician, or a neighbor, for example—who they think could give them another perspective on their topic, and they prepare open-ended questions for this person. These interviews are conducted over the next several days and they often give the students a richer narrative context to work from when they start their writing.

Writing. Before getting to the writing assignment proper, my students and I do some pre-writing exercises. I have them give very short, informal speeches on their topics. Then I ask them to do some exploratory writing until they land on a big idea or critical statement around which they can build an article. I teach them how to use quotations and citations, and, since many of their topics are interconnected, I distribute all the survey data and interviews we’ve collected as primary source materials. Then the students identify their intended audience and write hooks and conclusions that attempt to engage thataudience.

Finally, I have them compose what I call a “feature article.” The articles are expected mostly to inform but also to include analysis and interpretation. I allow the students to include personal experience as one piece of evidence but not to let it drive the whole essay. The minimum length for the piece is five paragraphs, but some students end up writing several pages. The students tend to be very eager to share and make sense of all the information they’ve gathered.

During this project, we cover the skills of research and essay writing of any traditional language arts class, but we gain so much more. There are interdisciplinary connections at both the skill and content level. The study is also empowering for students in their identity formation. They see that their academic skills and understandings suddenly have power within the rest of the world they know. After sharing their articles, in a concluding discussion, one ELL student said, “I learned that we make history here in East Harlem. We are important.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 04, 2011 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook as Writing the Neighborhood

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