Dr. Arina Bokas is a faculty member in the department of English at Charles S. Mott Community College in Flint, Michigan. She adapted Out of Eden Learn activities and other Project Zero frameworks for her first-year composition class.
On November 7, 2016, a day before the arguably most controversial presidential elections in the U.S. history, I was standing in front of my freshman composition class, ready to utter words that would take the last project of the semester in the direction that I had learned to avoid.
Admittedly, my over-the-years attempts at political discussions were often met with either an apparent disinterest or heated outbursts. In general, I believe, politics tends to divide people rather than unite. This semester, nurturing connections and discovering how in this world we ll are interconnected and affect each other’s being were predominantly the focus of all of our projects.
My students had just finished their commentary essay, which was largely based on the Project Zero’s Out of Eden Learn activities. Students took slow walks in their neighborhoods, saw familiar places with new eyes, and connected them to the bigger human stories. The atmosphere in the classroom during mapping, sharing student thinking, and discovering connections changed drastically, bringing a palatable sense of increased maturity, quiet understanding, and students’ respect for one another.
Yet, the world around us had been experiencing quite the opposite. Verbal attacks, threats, and misuses of information, flooding America for months leading to the elections, were making it increasingly clear how important civic responsibility, dispositions to postpone judgments and objectively analyze evidence, and skills to conduct a respectful argument had become for the future of our nation.
Could our shared humanity ever overpower differences in our upbringing, circumstances, and perspectives? My very diverse students felt connected at their hearts, but would they be able to stay open to ideas and evidence that might support something that they didn’t share? Would this project divide them into “us” and “them” or would they remember that there were only “us?”
I took a deep breath and announced to the class, “Today, we are staring on the last project of the semester – “I am a Citizen” investigative research paper. “
Project and Observations
“Out of Eden allowed me to understand the connection between the world and myself. No longer do I see others separately from my own world.” (student Jonathan M.)
From the time I introduced the idea to the students to the day they presented their investigations to their classmates, there were six weeks of bi-weekly class meetings. Students worked in groups of five on selecting areas (themes) for their investigations, sharing their thinking, developing tools for gathering information, compiling and analyzing data, and peer-editing each other’s work. Individually, they formulated their research questions, delivered group surveys to a specific demographic sample, analyzed secondary sources, wrote their reports, and presented their findings to the class.
Research portfolios that students compiled at the end of the project included the following:
- research proposal (a question of investigation, criteria, and hypothesis) submitted and approved prior to collecting any data);
- individual survey results (a group survey given to a specific demographic sample)
- bibliography ( students were required to examine original documents and statistics to draw their conclusions);
- first draft with peer edits (group members were also acting as peer reviewers)
- final draft
- reflection on the project and its effects on students’ understanding of their roles as citizens.
My observations, along with students’ project reflections and informal conversations, helped me gain some perspective on how the development of a strong sense of self as a human being in our youth could affect formation of their social identity as a citizen.
I believe that the groundwork done through the many discussions and activities of Out of Eden Learn impacted my students’ thinking about the world around them and created a strong human bond between them. This is especially important because most of secondary school and college students are in their transitional stage toward adulthood – the time when individuals start to question how their identity affects their lives.
One fact that I found very telling was that students showed a disposition to make connections and look beyond the obvious. Many of them expressed an interest in investigating the values of truth, ethics, and personal integrity through the lens of the society’s expectations of the President of the United States. Empowered by Out of Eden Learn ideas of human interconnectedness, students were intrigued to find out how the present political situation reflected on our collective human values, how these values changed over time, and how individual thinking had been affected by the society. The ideas of ‘template’ thinking, such as party line voting, choosing a lesser evil, never questioning old regulations, rules, or ways of thinking were also focus on many discussions.
“In the world today, everyone stays in his or her own lane. If it doesn’t affect me directly, it doesn’t matter. It seems more people than ever have adopted tunnel vision; they only see what is in front of them. I’m living proof of this. I’ve lived in my neighborhood for over four years and never cared to stop and truly look at the people who live around me. In politics, it is not any different.” (student April L.)
Another important discovery was that at no time were there any negative comments toward the presidential candidates, their supporters, or other students. And yet, my classroom was very diverse. My students came from Caucasian upper-middle class city suburbs; white-collar working class families, often struggling financially; and African-American families of Flint – a city marked by a considerable level of poverty among its population. In small research groups, there were teens from different walks of life, but they all showed courtesy and sensitivity toward each other. Working as researchers and seeking perspectives, students built a non-judgmental environment, where every view was welcome and considered.
“Even though this hasn’t changed my own beliefs, I have gained new perspectives on things and feel that I can better understand from where those on the other side of the issue are coming. I feel more responsible for how I express my own opinions and I am less judgmental” (student Jazmin H.)
Many dimensions of our identity overlap to shape our sense of self; they cannot be separated from one another. Similarly, in our interconnected world, no person or nation is truly independent. This is especially important for students to understand because in our society we tend to downplay the complexity, creating a rather simplistic, and often unflattering, picture of personal character and intelligence of others.
There is another way, however. Students need to realize that behind every decision and vote, there is a real human story, just as intense and valid as that of their own; behind political separation, there is a unity of human beings, each living his or her individual complex inner life. Having citizens capable of maintaining an open dialogue and working on a compromising solution is the greatest resource any country can have.