Love Over Fear: A Lesson in Community

Upon my arrival to Chicago, a friend drove me through Cabrini Green. He explained its infamy, as well the city’s plan to demolish the decrepit public housing and turn the area into a mixed income community. A year later, I would set foot into this neighborhood for the first time, as I embarked on my student teaching in one of its elementary schools. The area, although foreign, felt at once familiar as I recalled my own childhood in the high-rises of ex-Soviet Minsk. Having left my community at an early age, I hoped that my presence there might help some students prepare for the difficult transition in their neighborhood.
    As I spent time at the school, I began to feel the impact of gentrification on the students; it was clear that some were confused, frightened, and angry about the changes. It was also clear that as an outsider—a middle class white woman in a school whose student body was 99% low income and black—I had a ways to go before students or staff would willingly open up to me, before I gained the courage to open up to them. I slowly began to re-think my initial pedagogical goals and decided to focus my art lesson on the students’ relationship with their neighborhood. I began to research the history of Cabrini Green and the theory of place-based pedagogy, noting the importance of self-representation in such a stigmatized area. To this end, I chose community mapping as a tool through which students could reflect upon, and eventually say goodbye to, their neighborhood.
    With the help of my cooperating teacher, I designed an art project for each of the middle school grades. The sixth graders used colored pencils and markers to illustrate story maps depicting places of personal relevance in their neighborhood. The seventh graders created human-sized cardboard sculptures representing their buildings and the deceased family and friends who had resided in them. The eighth graders took community photographs and wrote accompanying song lyrics, creating zine pages for a memory book of the graduating class. One page featured a snow covered demolition site backlit by a setting October sun; the lyric read:

Buildings are close people don’t know where to go
The poor and the sick out there in the cold
Gang banger and hustler makin their dough
Mom always say only God knows

All three grade levels were represented in a final art exhibition open to the public—the first of its kind in this Fine Arts Academy. A group of student docents were chosen to speak about their work as community members and visitors from outside the neighborhood gathered in the school lobby. Students became experts about their own neighborhood and artwork as they toured guests around the show, and spoke at length about the significance of their projects and the stories their art told. This event synthesized the work of each individual class, and gave the students an opportunity to share their memories: an opportunity to be remembered.
    The show received press coverage when a columnist from a prominent local newspaper interviewed young people setting up the exhibition. This was particularly affirming, because students learned that their stories were important enough to receive public attention. It also gave them an opportunity to dispel some of the stereotypes associated with their neighborhood. “When you watch TV, you hear, ‘Cabrini Green, Cabrini Green, those kids are bad’ . . . but when you come here you see how great we are” said one student, after being interviewed by the reporter.
    After the show opened, I took small groups of students on gallery tours as a way to critique their artistic contributions. For those who were engaged, it seemed to bring out a bit of hope. “Doing the projects [helped] to talk about our community and how we can better it and the situation we’re in,” said one seventh-grade boy. Others felt like the project helped them to honor and “give respect to the people who live and die there.” For some, the assignment was empowering: “Instead of people thinking we can’t amount to nothing here, we trying to show them they’re wrong… that no matter where we come from that us Cabirni childrens can make a difference up in this world” said one sixth grader.
    However, not every student felt this way. “I think about twenty-five percent [of the students] just did the project and didn’t think,” one eighth-grader confessed. While many of those who engaged in the project expressed a deeper connection to community, and were eager to reflect and remember, some simply choose not to participate. Others said that they didn’t understand the project, didn’t feel like I had talked to them enough, or didn’t like the medium they were using.
    Discussing the assignment with some who had participated less, I asked for pedagogical feedback. Some responses included “Be more strict,” “Talk more,” “Do different stuff every day.” Without provocation, the discussion shifted to race. “Black kids need encouragement. [You need to] learn how to treat them… [to] sit down and ask if there’s a problem… [I]f there’s a fight, don’t just call the security guards. Try to break it up… Be supportive.” They said that white teachers need to “communicate with students, don’t let [the students] scare you away… [S]tand up for yourself; don’t let them control you—it’s your classroom, control them.” Our conversation went on to cover how schools ought to be run, what students don’t like about their teachers, and why kids fight in the first place. This conversation solidified my trust in young people’s wisdom; they were right on about so many things.
    Hearing my students’ advice, I was interested in learning the responses of faculty and community members. Several had already approached me with heart-felt praise and support, however I was equally interested in the criticism. One student confessed that she had overheard a teacher question my intentions: “All she cares about is her grade,” this individual said. While I was not officially being graded for my conduct at the school, the fact that I was working on my master’s thesis was never a secret. I wondered if there were times when this overshadowed my interest in the students. Perhaps if I had been more transparent and democratic in my planning and facilitation, my academic goals would have appeared secondary.
    Another dose of criticism surfaced when a psychiatric staff member voiced his concern about student names appearing in a publication. This individual believed that my cooperating teacher and I had overstepped our boundaries when we asked students to create artwork about sensitive topics. He claimed that we had “opened up a Pandora’s box that [we] were not qualified to address.” Indeed, it would have been wise to consult with this expert had the records of those students under his care been legally available to us. However, this issue brings up a critical point: what topics are off-limits in a classroom? Is it unethical to discuss certain emotional issues, unless one is a trained professional? In our case, students were not prompted to reveal anxiety or grief; rather, they volunteered their stories, and chose to focus on parts of their neighborhood, both joyous and painful, that were important to them. Without appropriate follow up, could this sensitive exploration have done more harm than good?
    In a school where “helper” groups and individuals are coming and going, it is no surprise that some of the students and staff were reluctant to trust me. Asking my cooperating teacher for advice, I sensed his frustration with my naiveté. He said that my academic program held unrealistic expectations, and did a disservice to both myself and my students by creating an “artificial sense of membership.” He felt as though I had used his community connections as the foundation for my own practice. I never thought that I was using him, but indeed, his long-standing rapport and decades of respect in the school and neighborhood was something I was building upon. To me, this notion of borrowed networks seemed like part of the apprenticeship model, however, where is the line between borrowing and intruding?
    As I reflect upon my student teaching experience, one word keeps coming to mind: relationships. Building relationships, and failing to build them, has been the deciding factor of my success as an educator. When I think back to my students—their broad smiling faces, their outstretched arms, the pride they took in their work—I do not doubt my success. I truly did reach some of them. However, there were many I failed to connect with, failed to engage, failed to teach. In the same way, I recall my cooperating teacher, my true partner in crime, whose wisdom and silliness never failed to inspire. And yet there are countless staff and community members who I did not connect with, whose support I failed to gain. For me, pedagogical lessons are always those of the heart. I believe that I succeeded when my compassion overcame my fear, for when you are afraid you cannot trust and when you don’t trust you cannot learn.