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Jordan Conwell’s Presentation at Bates

June 20, 2012

Bonner Senior Celebration of Learning (Capstone)

Nancy Salmon, dance educator, recently sent me an email with the text of Jordan Conwell’s presentation that he did for his capstone project at Bates. I felt the message is powerful, whether we live and/or teach in a college town or an island school, small rural town or a suburban or urban environment.  Consequently, I know some of you will be moved by Jordan’s words. It’s not about the arts specifically but it is about community – something that the arts directly connect with all the time! Jordan kindly gave me permission to reprint this on the meatsed blog and shared a photo as well. Knowing that many of us are visual learners the visual helps imagine Jordan delivering it.

Good Evening. My name is Jordan Conwell. This month, I will graduate from Bates with a double-major in Sociology and Rhetoric. It has been privilege throughout my four years at the College to be part of community partnerships with the Lewiston School District and the Auburn School District.

The school community at Park Avenue School in Auburn has graciously welcomed me for the past two consecutive academic years (as well as for one semester during my freshman year). I consider my relationship with the school and my community partners there – Amy Heimerl, Robin Fleck, Chris Turcotte, and many others – to be my most rewarding community engagement experience.

In my work as a classroom aide in Amy Heimrel’s Kindergarten classroom, I’ve helped with tasks ranging from working with students on iPads and beginning reading/ writing skills to assembling pop-up books to making photocopies. Throughout, I’ve been able to marvel at a group of four-to-six year-olds who are learning, communicating, doing, and being.

This is what I wrote in the acknowledgements of my community-inspired sociology thesis:

To Mrs. Amy Heimerl, Mrs. Robin Fleck, Mrs. Chris Turcotte, and the students, faculty, and staff at Park Avenue School in Auburn, Maine- Thank you for allowing me to become a part of your school community, and letting me in on the tremendous joy, in spite of the many obstacles, that is embedded in the spirit of your work. Those of us with aspirations to think, write, debate, and legislate about education issues will always stand in awe of all that you do on a daily basis. You are, and always will be, the talent.

If the educators at Park Avenue School are the talent, that makes me a lackey, or maybe even a groupie. I hope that over these past few years I’ve been the best lackey anyone’s ever seen. Because the talent is doing some really important stuff. In talking about my learning, I’ll try to explain what they’ve taught me (even if they don’t know they have), and what it means relative to what I’ve learned in classrooms at Bates.

There is a sign in the teachers’ photocopy and lounge area at Park Avenue that reads, “I touch the future, I teach.”  I don’t teach, I just get to admire those who do, so I won’t claim to touch the future. However, I have looked into the future’s eyes and felt the warmth of the future’s smiles and laughter. I have unfortunately on occasion felt the acute hurt of the future’s distress. The future has the potential to be much, much better than we are. We, us adults, we are the past; we drastically affect the future’s present- sometimes for better, much, much too often for worse.

You see, we send children to school with backpacks full of our failings, insecurities, hatreds, the sub-group histories we hold at the expense of whole group dialogue, and – of course – our ideas of nation and tribe. We send them to school burdened with all of our stuff, and then we somehow expect the next generation to be better than us. Children are somehow expected to move up from their parents’ stations and be more secure, less hateful, more willing to dialogue across difference, and free of insular ideas of nation and tribe. But we blanket them with our world, a world of the opposite.

Where do schools come in, then? I think I’ve learned that educators are a radical present-tense. School days are moments in which they try their hardest to defend the future against us, the past, in order to free the future. So that it might realize its potential and be better than us.

  • We tell them that people who wear hijabs hate us; Educators tell them that people who wear hijabs are just as likely to be their friends as anyone else.
  • Media portrayals often tell young students of color that they cannot achieve in school; Educators tell them that they can indeed learn if they try. And then they say lets get back to the reading we were working on.
  • We show them our selfishness, our pettiness, and our me first-ness; Educators show them that everyone needs to pull their weight, but everyone also needs to look out for others and make sure they also have what they need to do their share. Educators tell them that you may be line leader now, but you won’t be line leader tomorrow. So it’s not in your best interest to discourage the person who’s behind you today.

We show the future the world as it is, while educators teach them to aspire to the world as it should be. But it’s not that easy; it’s not that prosaic. They know we fully expect them to do this whether or not we give them the support they need – financial and otherwise – and whether or not we get kids to school on time and whether or not we show up to parent-teacher conferences and whether or not we do anything more than change the channel when we see video of teachers’ unions protesting for the right to organize. While we continue to think the same thoughts and act like we don’t understand the world we create, and then perpetuate, we expect them to teach our children to be one million things we can’t be ourselves. Oh, and make them smart while you’re at it.

This is what I mean when I say that my learning at Bates College and my learning at Park Avenue School have formed a unique educational experience that neither could provide alone. Bates has exposed me to various points of view from which to understand the system that we adults create and perpetuate. Given my course of study, I am particularly well-versed in its social inequalities and its rhetorical discourses of power. I think I see the game for what it is, and Bates has given me the intellectual capacity to hold most of it in my head at the same time. After four years, I see in 3-D. But, in theory, there’s potential for me to see the system as a hopeless mess. I could read the A-Section of The New York Times and be depressed for hours.

But this is where Park Avenue School comes in yet again. Because what a theory can’t demonstrate and what words on pages can’t read and what a lecture can’t really espouse is that those of us thinking so hard about the system – working “across disciplines” as we say and trying to describe it in the most intricate and cutting-edge ways, even if it is in order to one day create change – we are surrounded by people who are already beating it.

More than anything, in my time at Park Avenue I have been welcomed into a community of students, faculty, and staff who are beating the system, who are working together to free the future. They hold together a fabric woven of various races, ethnicities, economic classes, religious backgrounds, levels of ability and disability, and nations of origin. They teach children skills, expose them to new technologies, and show them compassion every day, no matter what.

Although it isn’t always easy or perfect, people like Amy Heimerl and Robin Fleck create small moments of triumph and joy. If I’m not mistaken, those kinds of moments sustain them. And those moments have sustained me, too. Because you can only learn about what’s broken, in theory, so long before you’d like to meet some people who are trying to fix it…for real. When you’ve been exposed to the complete laundry list of problems, you’re excited to meet someone who says “This might only work for today, or it might not work at all, but let’s try this and see what happens.” Reorganized reading group, reconfigured classroom set up, new activity, improvised lesson plan. The future is one or two steps closer to freedom from our past.

And I thank them for allowing me to become a part of what they do so well. In accepting me into their community, they have also become a part of my Bates education. Because on Sunday, May 27th, 2012, I’ll accept a Bates diploma knowing that descriptions of the system are only as good as the understanding that educators (and many others) are everyday breaking that system’s rules – trying to get us to a better place populated by learners who realize ideals that we haven’t.

I think that I – and my fellow Bonner leaders, given their own unique, community-engaged learning experiences – know very well the conjunctive space between what the Bates mission statement terms “intellectual discovery and informed civic action.” I hope that we are ready, as the statement also says, “for the coming times.” If we have indeed planted our feet in the space and really do stand ready for the moment, we have to thank those of you representing the College and those of you representing our wider community, because you both played a part in it.

I’ve heard many discussions about the next few years at Bates College. They are sure to be full of institutional change, given the upcoming inauguration of a new president and impending faculty turnover. Efforts will be made to “increase the value of a Bates degree” and improve the College’s standing among elite colleges and universities. But I’m here to tell you, before these efforts even begin, that they won’t increase the value of my Bates degree one bit. Because my Bates degree and my fellows’ Bates degrees are different than most other Bates degrees. And I, for one, couldn’t be happier about that.

Their value is based on this combination or two-ness that I’ve been discussing. They have a certain reality and messiness based on our sometimes-uncomfortable knowledge that things aren’t that simple. But they aren’t that bad either.

  • Their value is based on a reciprocal relationship between what we’ve learned in the classroom and what we’ve learned and done with the community, with our neighbors.
  • Their value allows us to say that we graduated from Bates College, a school whose mission statement declaims preparing leaders with “a commitment to responsible stewardship of the wider world.” We are so prepared because the Harward Center for Community Partnerships and the Bonner Foundation and our community-engaged faculty mentors and our community partners encouraged us to engage with said wider world during our four years at said elite, residential, liberal arts college.

The value I’m talking about doesn’t have anything to do with the endowment, multi-million dollar capital campaigns, need-blind admissions, the ten-year plan, a student union, the General Education Curriculum, or faculty research productivity. It most certainly doesn’t have a thing to do with U.S News and World Report or what Brian Williams say about Bates tuition on NBC Nightly News, or how quickly the College responds to Mr. Williams.

If you think you can add value to my Bates degree in these ways, you fundamentally misunderstand the value of my degree. Thanks, but no thanks. I know community engagement efforts are secondary beneficiaries of these efforts, but that doesn’t change what I’m saying. Because I’m talking about priorities.

The value I’m talking about has to do with making sure that more Bates students graduate with Bates degrees like ours.

  • It has to do with closing the gap between the current Bates experience and the Bates mission statement, just like our community engagement has closed the gap for us.
  • It has to do with finally recognizing that calling our neighbors “townies” and other shows of disrespect for our community should be considered student misconduct issues of the most serious variety.
  • It has to do with the Princeton Review calling Lewiston the eighth worst college town in the United States of America, and whether or not Bates takes the time to respond to that at all.

The value I’m talking about hears a senior say, as one did to me, that community-engaged coursework was a quote “dumbed down” version of a college curriculum and that students don’t come to schools like Bates to do stuff like that. It responds with some examples.

  • Like Jacob Kaplove, Class of 2012, who takes what he learns in the psychology classroom and assesses the possibility for mental distress among local youth and their families.
  • Or like Rebecca Schmidtberger, also Class of 2012, who took a classroom of underachieving local eighth graders through the entire Feagels translation of The Odyssey.

It makes sure that every student, faculty member, department, and administrator knows that there’s nothing dumb about that. Actually, there’s something very Bates about it. The value I’m talking makes sure that students do come to Bates to do stuff like that, and that they are fully empowered to do stuff like that throughout their four years here.

In short, the value I’m talking about will allow the College to look back upon days when students spoke with humor and pride about “the Bates bubble” (as some do now) as a sad and regrettable stain upon this College’s history. Because that’s exactly what it is. It will then be able to discuss all of the efforts that were made to put, and keep, those days in the past, never to return again. That’s what the Harward Center, the Bonner Foundation, our community-engaged faculty mentors, and our community partners did for us. They popped the damn bubble.

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