LETTER FROM NORMAL
The Art of Knowing and How We Get There
By JAMI SPENCER
Jami Spencer, a regular contributor to Community Works Journal, is an Assistant Professor of English at Heartland Community College in Normal, Illinois. She is also an alumnus of Community Works Institute’s (CWI) Summer Institute on Service-Learning. Jami is a veteran educator and practitioner of service-learning, incorporating place-based education, service, and sustainability in her work with college students. She is also a professional free lance writer whose work focuses on place based education, nutrition, and food themes. Jami and her husband home school their young children.
One day after class a student from the Congo asked me, “Do you think college can really change a person’s life?” I stuttered a bit and, rather than answer with the expected teacher response, I opted for a question to buy some time. “Why do you ask?” I said.
Alben had been working on an essay for a contest that posed the question at hand. He had reflected, attempted to write, lost sleep thinking that the answer had to be ‘yes’ but his experience didn’t match the positive response. We talked about this all the way to my office, and then some. Unlike many of my traditional college students from the states, Alben was concerned with actually getting something out of school. He hadn’t come to our country to simply get through the system. He had come here to change his life’s course, and he needed to believe that college was part of the answer.
A week later, I spent almost an hour with Alben working on revisions of his essay. Despite typical ESL grammar concerns, he was a critical thinker with many valuable and insightful ideas. His answer to the earlier question was this: his English teacher (me) had taken class time over several days (lots of it because her memory simply isn’t the best) to learn every student’s name. What? That was it? I expected a profound, albeit predictable, ‘college has shown me that I can achieve my dreams and be anything I want to be’ or ‘college showed me that if I work hard, I can accomplish my goals.’ But instead, what I considered an always already used classroom strategy of learning names impacted this student beyond my wildest expectations. For Alben, the profound moment of college thus far was simply my effort to know him by name.
On day one in my classes, students are given a blank note card and partnered with an unknown peer. For this particular composition class, we were focused on current food issues in our reading and writing, so the questions were: what is your favorite food, biggest writing challenge and what question do you have for the teacher. I also collected email addresses and asked students to bring in a small photo of themselves for the card. I then studied between classes in order to place a face with a name. I get the typical Facebook photo taken of the self, the party photo with drink cropped out, the couple photo, the baseball card image, the professional photo shot, and several refusals to add an image at all. But for Alben, who didn’t supply a photo, I guess the point was being important enough to me to be known as a person, not just another college student.
I belabor the “knowing” because if I see my student on campus, at the café, in the gym, or out in the community, I want to be able to say, “hey, John” and not just, “hey!” The name says “it’s good to see ya.” I also want to quickly associate this student with individual preferences and challenges, which is why I pose the questions about food and writing. But I’m not sure they want to know anything about me! The teacher is safer kept at a distance, as a professor, not a person. Knowing me means I am in their lives, capable of disrupting the comfort of today’s technological anonymity. Their questions, despite strong encouragement towards the opposite, are typical: why do you teach, how many papers do we have to write, how do I get an “A.” So I tell them the more personal stuff of my life anyway: my forgotten dreams to be a singer with Huey Lewis and the News, my plan to marry Mr. Roger’s of the neighborhood and my sister’s plan to marry Kenny Rogers so we could both be Mrs. Rogers, and that most embarrassing moment in high school when I ran into the back of a very large football player with my lunch tray full of mashed potatoes and chicken gravy (which inevitably ended up all over my very cute 80s silk striped shirt and suede teal skirt).
This Composition course was the first in which I would incorporate a service project. I had taught with a food focus in previous semesters, but students showed little interest and asked that I alter the final project from the food theme to an open topic. After much success with service-learning in my literature courses, I decided perhaps some hands-on quality time with seeds and dirt would create more interest in a food-themed composition course than the continued lecture, reading and discussion. This time around, I planned for my class to build a raised bed, organic vegetable garden at the preschool on our campus. Most of the children there come from single-parent, low-income households and have limited experience with gardening. My students would be paired with a child and each week we participated in a garden project: planting seeds, exploring new vegetables, journaling about the experience, reflecting on course connections.
I anticipated success, excitement, change in food philosophies from the apathetic to the enlightened and conscientious, and of course, higher quality learning. As a teacher that believes whole-heartedly in service-learning, I wanted badly for Alben to tell me that this project made college what he wanted it to be: a productive and meaningful learning experience. But he skipped our last service day and he struggled to complete the writing for my course.
Many students did write a final reflection that celebrated the time spent with their new three and four year old friends. Only a few of the college students had ever planted anything before, so the statements often claimed appreciation for the simple knowledge gained. They now knew how to plant lettuces and spinach, that the seeds inside a green pepper can be planted and will result in many, many more peppers, and that there is much work involved in planting carrot seeds because they are so tiny and difficult to thin.
Earlier in the semester a local “beyond organic” farmer spoke to us about his sustainable farming practices. Students were amazed most by his definition of a “family farm” where every member of his immediate and extended family work together on the farm. It was that sense of togetherness and community that impressed them. I noted in the reflections, as well, that while they were proud to know how to plant lettuce, they were most satisfied by the connections made with classmates and the preschoolers. Community works.
In a course where service projects will be a highlight and a requirement, it is vital that I work on a sense of community from day one. To feel part of a community, we must first know each other by name, and second know something about one another. I went into this semester with high hopes for the service project, anticipating it as the pivotal moment of community development. But I learned that sometimes, it is the simplest of teaching strategies, those “duh” ideas, that mean the most. Whether it was the carefully planned service project or the “getting to know you” note cards, facilitating a feeling of belonging was unanimously valued.
I am glad to see each student each class period. I want them to succeed. And I want them to know that we all struggle with writing occasionally, and some more than others. Like all sustainable practices, there is work, time and patience involved. I can’t help but dwell on a line from an iconic 80’s sitcom to illustrate what was gained from this experience: “you wanna be where everybody knows your name.” Perhaps there is something in human nature that leaves all of us with a desire to be known; so for community to persevere, that knowing is a necessity.
In our garden, we planted seeds, nurtured them and then waited for growth. In a time where technological advances occur constantly and actual community is often perceived as dwindling, I hope the simple and the complex tasks in my classroom result in a bountiful harvest for our future. For now, I wait.
MORE from the Journal! Essays l Articles l Reflections l Reviews l Literacy Corner l Events
© copyright 1995-2017, Community Works Institute (CWI)
All rights reserved. CWI a non-profit educational organization
CONTENT USE POLICY No material contained within this web site may be reproduced in print, by electronic or other means, without permission. All materials contained in this web site remain the sole and exclusive property of CWI, or the author if designated by arrangement.