Peer visit to New Community Project
29 Oct. 2015
If the yam is the power that be, NewComm is Thanksgiving dinner. I am so grateful to have had the chance to visit the New Community Project and observe Chidi Asoluka and his students work on deep thought and collaborative strategy for Urbanstead, a non-profit working to bring food security to areas in and around Francisville, Philadelphia.
The atmosphere in the class was one of intellectual, chilled-out buzzing. This was, I reckon, the consequence of some of the relational and discursive politics that have developed in the class and also reflections of the personalities in the room. While this felt natural, I know that this is also the fruit of some intentional practices that Chidi and his students practice day in and day out. The room was like a curated gallery of collective personality: there were record sleeves mounted to the walls, groovy tunes to welcome the students to the room, thought maps to excite my curiosity and to remind students of the work they had done, art to serve as touchstones of their contact with other non-profits and to share Chidi’s aesthetic … I felt more like I was in my rad friend’s artsy atelier than an English classroom.
I wanted to observe NewComm because of the allure of a course wherein the work is the both the process and product of meaningful, purposeful student voice. While Chidi occupied the central location of the Harkness table, the students were the ones at work. The class had defined phases, including collective NewComm businesss (this day it was fundraising and the sale of the NewComm sweatshirts to raise money for Urbanstead). The individual NewComm departments then met in break-out sessions to consider issues relevant to their particular areas of expertise—marketing, programming, and fundraising. There was also one student leader whose job it was to float around and pollinate, spreading information amongst all of the different departments. The class felt like co-creating, like a powerful embodiment of GA’s mission.
While I didn’t understand all of the particularities of the students’ work, I was impressed by the depth and quality of questions that they had to consider as they strategized for Urbanstead. I heard students grapple with discussions about community, business strategy, privilege, access and disamenity (food deserts, legal and pecuniary hurdles, success, culture, education, race, and so many other meaningful topics that even I don’t handle with that type of eloquence. Because the class format changed from full-team discussions to break-out sessions, there was abundant space for student voice, and, though there were group leaders, I heard everyone talk. Often learners ask questions akin to “Why do I need to know this?” and I couldn’t imagine any NewComm student asking the same thing. It was 100% clear why these students were there and why they were engaging with each other about these topics—and I could tell that they all believed in this project. Personally, I found this very rewarding because I struggle with language learners who question the relevance or importance of French or Chinese, and this serves as a reminder to me that I must find ways to make the course speak to the students’ world that students engage with more quality if they see meaning in the material and if there is a purpose to the engagement.
Again, though I wasn’t able to understand all of NewComm in one visit, I did recognize the power in the format of the class, and I was moved by the ways in which Chidi and his students teach and practice the process of the work they are doing. The students were validated and affirmed in their interactions with each other. I was particularly inspired to see Chidi genuinely celebrate with the students. He took time to savor their successes with them and remind them that their thinking was good, big, heavy, and real (“This is exciting! Can’t you feel it?”). At one point, Chidi was so sincerely stoked by the conversation that he nearly hit himself in the head with his computer and didn’t even notice it. These moments can be so powerful because the work is so big, so daunting that it’d be hard to sustain if we didn’t celebrate along the way. In the same vein, at the end of each great idea worthy of celebration, Chidi encouraged the students to look forward, constantly connecting their discussions with a purposeful forward momentum (“I want us to have a next step.”).
Chidi also taught presentational process as he reminded students to take time with their thoughts and speak slowly as they shared-out what they had processed in their department meetings. Finally, I was struck by the particular way Chidi and the NewComm students let discussion answer the questions it needed to and nothing more. There was no pressing need to answer all the questions and make the conversations tidy. Many were left open or ended with a request that someone make a note of the topic and learn more later. I think that it’s important for learners to see teachers let conversations develop organically and be what they are meant to be, resisting the urge to make them finished and tidy. I love the message this sends, one that learning is ongoing and that it will extend beyond the literary circle or the classroom and that sometimes we can’t get the learning done, even if we’ve got all the ingredients and we’re all in the room and we want to bang it out—sometimes it just doesn’t work like that. Or maybe it’s the process itself that we are meant to learn and less the end-goal product.
As it were, NewComm left me percolating with questions long after my visit, and I even took a detour to El Vez that night to consider the restaurant as it came up in the class discussion. I strolled in front of the restaurant to consider it in the context of NewComm discussion (Stephen Starr restaurants, each of which is a researched reflections of the neighborhood it’s in.). It made me wonder to what extent are restaurants or institutions a reflection of their neighborhood or do they create the neighborhood? Do you build what you are or what you want to be? Then what are the implications on integrity and authenticity if you build something that aesthetically or philosophically leaves the context of the neighborhood? These questions reminded me of Peel’s (the programming department) question “Do Urbanstead’s goals change the community?” Clearly my NewComm learning is ongoing, too.
Thank you, Chidi, for the opportunity to visit this class. It was powerful, inspirational, and purposeful, and these kids are in it with you for real.