Associate Professor, Rhetoric and Language
Director, Martín-Baró Scholars Program
Only now in mid-summer am I able to truly take stock of the impressive collaboration that took place over an entire academic year between the Martín-Baró Scholars and the Faithful Fools. First, let me say that the entire process (described above) could never have worked as well without the compassionate and generous cooperation of the Faithful Fools—and Sam Dennison in particular. Not only are the Faithful Fools sui generis, they are sui generous!
What made it work was ostensibly simple—total commitment to patient, compassionate, experiential learning on the part of the Fools—and absolute faith that first-year students could rise to the challenge of our project—both in conducting poet interviews and in book preparation. However, as anyone can tell you who has ever worked in “community-engaged learning” (that’s the term I far prefer to “service learning”), genuine collaboration is anything but simple.
It began with summer meetings more than a year ago to chart out the arc of our year together. Both Kara Knafelc, co-instructor of MBS, are so grateful that Sam and Carmen Barsody of the Fools allotted so much time long before the students ever stepped foot on campus to plan the logistics to ensure a meaningful learning experience. It is little wonder, then, that the Fools were awarded the McCarthy Center’s Community Partner of the Year Award, which they richly deserve.
And while we had to adapt our plans on several occasions, as is necessary with any complex project, the lines of communication between MBS and the Fools remained more than open when scheduling changes became imperative. Students also adapted admirably to technical and software challenges when they arose. (Producing 11 edited interviews and 190 pages of poetry is, as you might guess, anything but easy to manage, even with a group of committed students who work for an entire year.) I am so proud of the immense efforts of the MBS students who were clearly driven by more than simply a deadline during the last 6 weeks of class. They understood that they were honoring people’s voices and lives through their work, and they wanted to get every detail and nuance correct.
Another aspect that helped immensely: Sam and Carmen came frequently to class to discuss details in-depth—and all the while they listened to and prioritized student voices and input, allowing students an amazing amount of creative and artistic freedom. These sessions took many hours—they were not just perfunctory visits. Sam, for example, spent quite a lot of time with us going over video recording options and techniques, as well as time in our CIT lab on manuscript preparation using InDesign (which every student had a hand in learning).
As a class we spent numerous sessions on site with the Fools (at least 10 sessions) and I echo Sam’s sentiment expressed above—and the students’ sentiment—that even more time there would have been ideal in terms of experiential learning.
Also crucial to our entire year was the incommensurable experience of the Street Retreats, which the Fools have now organized on a monthly basis for more than a decade. And while 5,000 or more people have walked alone for hours without wallet or phone through the Tenderloin’s streets, no two walks, no two experiences, have ever been the same. Our students were invited to participate in a Street Retreat in September 2014 as a kind of orientation, as a way of understanding that the Fools’ home on Hyde St. is indeed an extension of the streets. (Of course Kara and I also walked, and also took away valuable lessons from the neighborhood as well.) We finished our year with another Street Retreat in late April, at the semester’s crescendo, and it was clear in our final reflection that our MBS students had matured immensely. (The Street Retreats, I hope, will become the subject of a much more in-depth blog entry in the future.)
If there’s any advice I’d like to impart to others working in community-engaged learning, it is simply that there are no shortcuts to creating the conditions for a meaningful experience for students. Planning, I believe, shouldn’t be done primarily from campus. Get in as many meetings as you can off-campus, preferably on-site with the community partner long before class begins. Enjoy each other’s company and take your time. It really doesn’t feel like work when we get to share our enthusiasm and compassion and love of learning alongside the Fools.
As Sam (and Carol Burnett long before her) said, “I’m so glad we’ve had this time together.”
This blog is a companion piece to the Faithful Fools article posted earlier in the week. Read it here.