The Excitement of a New School Year

The Excitement of a New School Year

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A fresh and new academic year is underway here at the University of Maryland, just as it is in all of the area grade schools, and one still can breathe in an excitement, born of a sense of endless possibility, on the part of students, teachers and those who work particularly hard to advance the idealistic missions of schools, whether college or pre-K. The picture above, obviously an idealized trope, nonetheless captures what we all hope will be children's responses to learning - joy. For in that joy lie the elements of curiosity, of bold questioning, of daring wonder, of protean re-creation of one's self through education. Would that it were true, at least everywhere. In far too many places and in far too many schools, audacious hope is lacking. If you can bear with me, I want to suggest an idea I have, a modest one using digital tools, that, in the hands of someone(s) gifted enough to pull it off, may offer a fresh start for the kids in those schools.

Yesterday here at Maryland I attended a public event, "Pre-K to Prison Pipeline: Changing the Odds for Boys of Color," that so overflowed with attendees that one of the speakers admitted to being both "glad and sad" at the turnout. While depressing that such a subject has currency in a country so prosperous as ours, in especially sharp relief with the recent commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (there still is much work to do), it was heartening to see so many interested in and at some level committed to changing what all agree are horrible outcomes for so many kids, especially boys, who have lost that spark of hope evident in the kids and their backpacks in the picture above. Why a Pre-K to prison pipeline? Because it seems that it is in school, of all places(!), where attitudes set in and harden about what might be expected of boys of color, both on the part of the teachers and administrators and the boys themselves. One speaker, Dr. Oscar Barbarin from Tulane University, revealed that his work and that of others demonstrates that boys of color, on par in every way with boys and girls in other cohort groups up to Pre-K, begin a gap in achievement with those other groups between Pre-K and second grade that helps bake in their achievement limits down the line. Utterly depressing. Another speaker, Dr. Pedro Noguera of New York University, related anecdotes and data confirming Dr. Barbarin's work but also observed that the most successful schools he has studied push a strong counter-narrative - these schools actively develop a student's sense of agency and through that restore hope. Good, effective relationship-building is key, in which teachers are "working with the (kids) energy rather than crushing the energy."

My interest in this topic has many roots, but it was actualized at the Baltimore Think-A-Thon I attended this past May, the brain child of Dr. Sheri Parks, where I deliberately sat down at the table "Breaking the School to Prison Pipeline." There I met some amazing and creative thinkers, most all of them practitioners of Art, be it visual, music, theatre, and we engaged in a not-successful but not-pointless big think about how to tackle this problem, a problem all understand has no one solution because of its many facets and because so many factors contributed to its creation. I've tried to keep up a bit with that group so that we might not lose what momentum we generated, and it is in that spirit that now I want to share with you my modest idea for a way to try and to get this wagon out of its rut and on to a better path.

Kids need hope. Developing a sense of agency in their life is critical to their overcoming some fairly daunting circumstances courtesy of both a culture and a structure that works against them (hat tip: Dr. Noguera). How might that happen? What if kids could take power over their circumstances through fantasy, through storytelling, through art? What if some digital magic facilitated that in a big way, leading to stories shared with the larger community? What if these stories started to replace the rut-of-existence stories that have leached away the hope, the wonder, the sense of possibility?

John Shipman and I currently are developing and will be offering a different sort of course next spring exploring AR (augmented reality) and university museums, a topic of convergent interest because John is by day the director of the Art Gallery on campus and I teach and have taught on museums and its imapact on culture for the Honors College here at the University of Maryland. Why the AR bit? Well, because I think it will be a form quite pervasive in fairly short order (think Google Glass), and I think it offers museums interesting challenges and possibilities. But that is another story for another day.

It is because I have been actively thinking about AR that I think it forms the skeleton of this thought, this brain wave I had a couple of months ago, a brain wave at the start of this narrative I want to emphasize represents for me a fusion of the best work and ideas thrown out by particpants at the Think-A-Thon. I could not quite leave behind this notion I had during the Think-A-Thon of "walk a mile in my shoes" as a way of connecting stories and storytellers and storylisteners to each other and through those stories generating empathy and understanding. Very vague, I know. Here's my brain wave:

I would love to help facilitate a weekly AR comic series, "Walk a Mile in My Shoes," wherein the visual  and narrative work of a single student or group of students telling a story about their community is rendered, by them, as a geo-located AR comic book. To me, if this could take off, it could be quite powerful because it centers the work in the community, there is a point of pride (who wouldn't like to show off their "invisible/visible" creativity? "It's right here!"), active art-making within and without schools is taking place, a healthy competition might displace the unhealthy competitions that exist, at a certain point there might even be city-wide AR comic book competitions, but really the focus is on local. That's what I have. Realizable? Why not?

So, here's why I think this can work. The technology already is there.

Manifest AR, an art collective, just exhibited works like this in and around the Corcoran for a brief show. This is storytelling in the neighborhood, just one with a particularly powerful address.

So, now imagine a child (or a group of children working together!) storyboarding a comic book and creating its elements (think contoured drawings, sculptural elements, aural elements, etc), elements that then pop-up on your smartphone, tablet, whatever, as you"walk a mile in their shoes," tracing out the story. Their tale, real or imagined, now moves in space, in a blend of that-which-you-see and that which-is-invisible-until-activated. Hey, Marvel comics is already sort of getting in on the act. Why not us?

If you read this and it inspires you and you think, "hey, I can do that. I'd like to make that happen in a community," then please do it. Take this idea and run with it. Hope's waiting and so are the kids. I'll keep working the solution, too.

Have fun. Have hope. Be an AR superhero.