Here is what I believe: everything under the sun can be read as a complex and intricate text. Therefore, all relationships, structures, institutions, companies, and people are subject to the same lines of criticism and analysis of traditional texts. This, to me, means that the study of texts, done overtly in humanities driven courses, becomes a necessary enterprise, one that needs to be treated with the utmost intentionality. I teach high school English, the ultimate study of texts, and the impulse as an instructor is to simply focus on, what I call, “decoding work”, work that simply relies on students finding the “hidden meaning” of the author. We ask, for example, “Why do you think the author chose to have the sassy character wear red hat and not a blue one.” We train students to respond accordingly: “Because red is a angry color, and this matches the character’s demeanor.” The answer, for all intents and purposes, is true, but if the instruction doesn’t elevate beyond simply decoding, I fear we are selling the texts short. We send a message to students that English is about finding the meaning of things, which is actually the complete opposite point of literature. Since literature is a the celebration and investigation of the oft-messy human experience, there can never be a true answer. There can only be the acknowledgment of the multitudes and complexities of the human experience. For example, when teachers fixate on say, the meanings of the mythological elements of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, we run the risk on missing the very human story of Milkman and his family. We run the risk of students only thinking Song of Solomon was simply some kind of puzzle they had to put together over the course of 300 or so pages. No, Song of Solomon is very much about the pathological elements of family. It’s about the mythology of balance. It’s about problematic elements of the pursuit of true love. It’s about all of these wonderfully complex human concerns that can be found almost every other construct outside of the novel. When we build a framework for students to tackle these real human concerns, they can start to see how these concerns play themselves out in other aspects of their lives. This is the promise of a focused instruction on texts: students are given the language to define and re-define the structures that exist for them outside of the classroom.
In the fall of 2013, I was teaching an elective course entitled Beyond Madness. It is a class that investigates how we all, regardless of race, class, gender, eventually approach a dark places in our lives. These dark places are often situations in which we are momentarily misaligned from the perceptions of our selves and the people around us. We lurk in the shadows, searching for answers, searching for something or someone to ground us again. I designed the class for high school seniors because of I believe they are constantly dipping in and out of dark places. It is the season of college admittance, dramatic romantic relationships, and bad decisions. They are constantly confronted with situation that cause them to question themselves and the people around them. The purpose of the class is for students to feel affirmed, to allow them to see that there are communities of people who have “been there”, that they, too, can be redeemed. At the core of the course is a discussion on hip hop culture, a multi-million dollar enterprise that was built on young men and women of color deep-diving into their own dark places. Our study was on Jay-Z and how he has masterfully made the articulation of dark places an art form. Well, my students were on the fence on whether it was truly an art form. Some students considered Jay-Z a master manipulator, one who uses the stories of his childhood to pad his pockets. After all, Jay-Z proclaims himself a hustler—“where is the art in that?”, my students wondered.
Our discussions naturally landed on the concept of money. This is a tricky subject at an independent school. It is The Thing No One Wants To Talk About, even though its imprint is everywhere. But something happens in circles, that doesn’t happen in rows. At the Harkness Table, students build comfort and learn how to be vulnerable and comfortable with each other. Within this construct, students can tackle anything, even money. That day, students spoke candidly about their desires to do whatever possible to get money. Money is freedom, so we should applaud Jay-Z for finding away to claim his own freedom. The energy of the class intensified hands shot up in the air. “That’s all fine and everything, but is that art, though? Can you call what he is doing art?” The response was mixed, but the entire class was engaged. One student, however, looked bothered by the discussion. This student—I’ll call her Carol—and I had a very good relationship. I knew she lost her father at a young age, and I knew the process of mourning his death changed her perspective on what was important in life. During the discussion, I watched her process what everyone was saying, until eventually she raised her hand. “Money,” she said, “is smoke. It doesn’t even mean that much in the grand scheme of things. It just doesn’t.” The other students may not have been aware of it, but I struck by Carol’s bravery and vulnerability in that moment. This discussion wasn’t simply some kind of decoding mission, where we were trying to find the hidden meaning of Jay-Z’s raps. These young people were wrestling with what it meant to be human. They were looking up at the grand architecture of history and trying to lay claim to their spot. And then: the bell rung. They closed their books and headed off to their math, science, art classes.
It became very clear to me that day that the Harkness table is not just a special thing offered at schools; it can also be productive, not just for the school that possesses it, but also for the community outside its walls. This is how The New Community Project was born. I wanted to take the energy that is organically created in the classroom and do something that the students can look at and say, Look what we built together. Look what we can accomplish.
The New Community Project is a yearlong program that uses traditional literary study as the springboard to design actionable community initiatives. NewComm participants read assigned literary texts and then meet together to develop a “narrative map”, a structure that outlines all of the major conflicts and thematic concerns of any given text. This narrative mapping allows students to see more clearly the architecture of human complexity. I will expound on this later in this book. As students are working on their narrative maps, they are also meeting, interviewing, and working with executive directors from a local non-profit organization. In our first full year as a program, our partner non-profit wasTree House Books, a literacy advocacy non-profit in North Philadelphia. For 10 years, Tree House has been a safe space for cultivating readers in a neighborhood that needs it the most. While they have many successes, the organizations runs light—they only have two full time members with a bevy of volunteers. To address Tree House’s needs, students became adjunct executive staff: they broke into fundraising, programming, and marketing teams. Using their narrative maps, each group compares and contrasts our assigned traditional text to the large body of text that is Tree House Books., through the lens of their small group focus. Using collaborative Design Thinking processes, the companies empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test practical responses that meet the organizational needs in innovative ways. Each student company then presents its research and recommendations to the organization, with implementation as the final goal.
That’s a lot of moving parts, I know. So let us take our time and move step by step. Each chapter of this book will unpack each phase of the curricular trajectory of the project: Humanity, Community, Sharing, and Making, each with guiding essential questions for faculty and students. Built into each section are activities, smaller projects, field trip ideas, and other helpful nuggets to provide the appropriate framework for student confidence and growth throughout this project.
Thank you for taking this journey with me.