Alumnae Bulletin
November 2010

On Course:

360°: Changing Education

Education 270: "Identity, Access, and Innovation in Education"

By Dorothy E. Wright

Who decides who has access to education?

How have individuals, communities, and institutions developed creative ways to extend access to groups of people who have been overlooked or pushed aside?

What has changed as a result?

And what changes can we imagine— and set in motion—for the future?

These are central questions in Education 270, which explores social, cultural, and personal identity in relation to educational access and looks at ways in which historically disenfranchised communities create educational innovations—from Art in Action’s Turf Unity Music Project, in which young people learn to write, record, and perform music to “silence the violence” in Oakland, California, to Al- Bustan Seeds of Culture, which provides Arabic calligraphy and music classes in Philadelphia public schools.

Designed by Jody Cohen, senior lecturer in education at Bryn Mawr and Haverford, Education 270 is the foundation course of 360°: Changing Education, a cluster of interdisciplinary courses that trace how marginalized people have gained access to learning through various educational experiments, such as 19th-century distance learning initiatives, women’s colleges that aspired to academic excellence, desegregated elementary and high schools in America’s cities, and service-learning programs.

360°: Changing Education was created to celebrate and reflect on Bryn Mawr’s 125th anniversary, as the College’s founding represented a pivotal point in changing education for women. It is the first 360°cluster of interdisciplinary courses that focus on common issues, themes, and experiences for the purposes of research and scholarship— and, in some instances, advocacy.

Like points on a compass, the courses in 360°: Changing Education represent five perspectives:

  • Education: Identity, Access and Innovation in Education;
  • History: Women’s Higher Education in the 19th and 20th centuries: The History of Bryn Mawr College;
  • Growth and Structure of Cities: Mural Arts;
  • Biology: The Historical Role of Women in Genetics and Embryology; and
  • English: Finding Knowledge Between the Leaves: 19th Century Literature of Education.

From these different directions, all five courses approach the same central issues: the contemporary and historical relationships among educational access, institutional development, and pedagogical innovation. The 360° has a student consultant who is helping professors and students to track and fully utilize connections across the courses as part of the College’s Teaching and Learning Initiative.

Like magnetic north, Education 270 is the “reference point” and therefore the foundation course of 360°: Changing Education.

“As my colleagues and I were talking through our ideas for 360°: Changing Education, it became clear that the common issue in all of our courses is the question of who decides who has access to education, both over time and in relation to identity markers such as gender and race.

“I designed Education 270 as an entryway because it deals the most head-on with this central issue,” Cohen explains. “We will explore what it means to ‘carry’ one’s identity, ways of knowing, and knowledge into schools and the community.

“Access is a complicated notion,” Cohen says. “For example, our students will consider whether or not access is the same as educational opportunity, and to what degree educational opportunity affects outcome. We’ll also think about what constitutes meaningful change, how change is brought about, and what roles we can play in that process.”

Learning In Action
The five courses in 360°: Changing Education share a common interest in social activism as an agent of change; however, both Education 270 and Mural Arts are Bryn Mawr Praxis courses, Bryn Mawr’s experiential, community-based learning program, “so the activism component is explicit,” Cohen says.

For example, Education 270 and Mural Arts students are actively collaborating with the West Philadelphia community to design and paint a mural for Philadelphia District Health Center at 4400 Haverford Avenue. Part of the 125th anniversary celebration of Bryn Mawr College’s “Bold Vision. For Women. For the World,” the College is partnering with the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, its executive director, Jane Golden, and artist Shira Walinsky, and local residents to create a mural highlighting advances in the education of women.

This work is connected with a larger project of Bryn Mawr’s Civic Engagement Office. Zanny Alter ’09, Parkway West High-School Partnership Coordinator, AmeriCorp VISTA, is facilitating Praxis placements with Parkway 12th graders in the Student Success Block, where Education 270 and Mural Arts students will contribute to a curriculum that combines college access with arts-based programming.

“Usually, field assignments are not conducted with the field partners, but I hope that this structure will enable Bryn Mawr and Parkway West students not only to learn with and from one another but also to express what they’re learning together,” Cohen says. For example, Bryn Mawr and Parkway West students will collaborate on a blog about their experiences.

A Community of Learners
Cohen intends Education 270 to develop as a community of learners through readings, film, classroom discussion, writing assignments, and fieldwork. The course builds a strong foundation through readings, discussion, and written analyses of key decisions in the courts and in public policy that have affected access to education in relation to integration, separate or special services, equal opportunity, and equal outcomes.

“The open discussion and multiple opportunities to hear every voice is a unique aspect of Education 270,” says Adrienne Webb ’11, a psychology major who coordinated community outreach events for the mural project and helped to gather an oral history from West Philadelphia women. “We are directly confronting issues of access and identity in a very real and honest way by offering our own voices to the conversation alongside the scholars and educators that we are reading for the class. One of the most powerful exercises in the class was when Jody wrote, ‘What would an identity-safe school look like?’ on the blackboard. We were invited to respond by writing our thoughts about the question on the blackboard and discuss them.”

Jen Rajchel ’11, an English major who helped to develop websites for each of the courses, is excited about the opportunity to connect readings and viewpoints. “For example, we read an article for Education 270 that talked about the tensions between difference and identity in relation to racially diverse classrooms,” she says. “Thinking about self-perceived and externally imposed identity was complicated, and the process enriched my understanding of my readings about higher education for women in the History of Bryn Mawr course.”

The rich array of reading materials includes teacher Gerald Campano’s account of his work with immigrant children and literacy in central California, researcher Lisa Stulberg’s case histories of African Americans’ school choices after the Brown v Board of Education decision, and First Person, a recent documentary about the struggles of six Philadelphia teens.

“For the most part, my effort as a teacher is to figure out how to create a space in class that challenges and supports students in pushing their thinking using whatever texts are appropriate,” Cohen observes.

Early in the semester, students were required to express their own identities, including their history of educational access, in words and/or images. “My project, ‘A Game of Life,’ was about my life path and how lucky I am that I had teachers and other mentors in my after-school programs who noticed me,” says Jomaira Salas ’13, who serves as a student coordinator between Bryn Mawr College and Parkway West H.S. for the Student Success Block. “I want to make sure that every person at Parkway feels like they can connect with someone because mentorship has been such a big part of my life—it helped me get into Bryn Mawr.”

Each student is required to develop a two- to three-week unit of curriculum that takes on issues of identity and access, including creative ways of addressing challenges such as inequitable distribution of educational resources. Students are also required to write about their field experiences in ways that link what they see at their field sites with what they discuss in class.

Unfinished Learning
Finally, students will complete an “Unfinishedness” course project that considers what they have learned and identifies an area for further investigation through library and Internet research, interviews, observations, and other means.

“Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educational philosopher and activist, talked about human beings as intrinsically unfinished, which means that we always have the capacity to learn,” Cohen observes. “My notion of ‘unfinishedness’ in this case is that this course will raise a lot of issues that students will continue to study.”

Cohen is excited about having had the opportunity to develop a course that looks at identity and access in new ways. “I’ve never before been called to design a course that looks directly at the nature of knowledge in relation to educational access,” she says. “Through the course materials and their experiences, I hope students not only confront the challenges out there—which are huge—but also develop a sense of their own ability to effect change.”

In the end, Cohen hopes that this community of learners gains a deeper respect for the knowledge held by people of various social, cultural, and personal identities, and, with that, “an understanding of what knowledge could be: that it’s deeper and wider than what we previously thought.”

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