Melvin Bray arrives at The Canterbury School in Greensboro, NC, Wednesday morning, 2/4/15, and is greeted by 160 pleasant yet understandably dubious middle schoolers.
Together they launch the school's annual 3-day middle school service-learning catalyst event, known as "In My Neighbors Shoes". Each grade level has spent the year learning about and, in most cases, getting to know persons who are either disabled (5th grade), of faiths other than christianity (6th), recent immigrants (7th) or from a working poor background (8th).
Melvin talks to the students about the difference between solidarity with others and charity. He then joins teachers in leading an activity in which students identify assumptions they hold about the people they've been studying. He suggests they might be better off actually getting to know people, learning from them what matters to them, sharing stories and observing rather than assuming (all acts of solidarity).
One of the unique features of the DesignShop methodology Melvin uses as a basis for his work is graphic facilitation in order to create visual interest and document group discussions. Caryn Hanna is the graphic facilitator on this project. She lends her skills at a distance from her studio in Asheville via the phone in Melvin's pocket. Above and throughout are the notes Caryn captured from the event.
Next, students break up into grade-level groups to begin to articulate assumptions they have concerning those they've been studying. Melvin spends about 20 minutes with each grade-level helping to create context and spark ideas. Below are 6th graders naming their assumptions about people of other faiths, then asking the question, "If my assumptions were true, what kind of world would that create?"
5th graders naming their assumptions about people with disabilities and then asking the question, "If my assumptions were true, what kind of world would that create?"
The GOAL is to get students to see for themselves that the world that would exist if their assumptions (stereotypes, misconceptions, prejudices) were true looks a lot like the world that does exist that privileges "normal" people like them. This should raise all sorts of red flags and questions those who consider themselves the norm.
The CHALLENGE now is for students to allow their actual observations to call into question their general assumptions. In a society predicated on valuing assumptions over observations, this is no easy task.
Regardless of their true emotions, students are sweet enough to say "thank you" when the day is done. Melvin leaves looking forward to hearing back from the students about their field trips the following day, during which they'll hopefully make some new friends and gain new insights.
Thursday morning students arrive excited to go on their various fieldtrips. Eighth graders start the morning planning their bus routes for the simulation in which they will engage. Their task: become familiar with the challenge of navigating the world with fewer advantages.
Meanwhile, 5th grade makes their way to The Circle School, a program for preschoolers with developmental disabilities.
Because of a late-morning first appointment, 6th grade begins the day processing through their assumptions about persons of other faiths--which focused almost exclusively around misunderstandings of Muslims. The benefit of naming one's assumptions, even when they leave much to be desired, is that one opens himself/herself up to being challenged by one's own observations... and transformed.