Anyone who spends time in a classroom knows that a school is much more than a school. Just drive around your own town past a local school and read the marquee with its announcements of meetings, activities, its words of wisdom and encouragement. Schools are more than academics and tests. Perhaps this diversity of purpose is most apparent in community colleges. Today’s contributor to “Teachers in Their Own Words” demonstrates what schools can, and do do, for their students, our communities, and ultimately, our country. Elisabeth has been teaching Sociology at the community college level in Western Massachusetts for over a decade, drawing on her academic credentials as well as her social work experience. Many of her students are older, many are struggling to define a new and better life, many are from different cultural backgrounds. Sounds perfect for a Sociology class!! Although Elisabeth, with a touch of academic alchemy, puts that diversity to good use it is the students, she writes, “with their compelling and diverse backstories, who create a unique and sustainable learning community and experience.” “Community College—When a School is More Than a School” will give you some much needed hope at a time like ours when hope and tolerance are in such short supply.
Community College–When a School is More Than a School
On the first day of a new semester when I enter my Sociology classroom in the community college where I teach, voices quiet and faces turn, reflecting emotions that range from excitement to boredom, caution to enthusiasm, by turns welcoming and wary. We momentarily assess each other, wondering silently, “What will I learn this semester?” I usually push through this initial silence by offering a joke about the registrar’s list.
With that list in hand, I am faced with my own Anglicization of names, revealing a cultural bias and a real failure in language pronunciation. Within our classroom are names reflecting our country’s richness—Russian, Puerto Rican, Vietnamese, Irish, African (Burundi), Ukrainian, Mexican, Indian, Jordanian, West Indian, Jewish and Greek ancestry. We discuss how a last name only provides a glimpse into a journey and may not accurately reflect one’s cultural heritage. As I slowly call out their names—Egor, Idaliz, Hafiz, Huyen, Jose, Jamari, Chris, Britney, Thandi—they acknowledge that they are “present”, even as I, for lack of a better word, “mangle” their names. Some students will gently redirect me to the correct pronunciation.
Slowly the “us/them” paradigm is replaced by “me/we”, and it serves as the foundation on which we build our collective experience as it unfurls over 16 weeks. While I take personal responsibility for cultivating a climate of open communication and inquiry within the classroom, it is these students, with their compelling and diverse backstories, who create a unique and sustainable learning community and experience.
Together we explore what Sociology is. “Look around,” I encourage them. “All of you are Sociology.” What do we have in common? How are we different? And how do these differences influence not only our educational experiences but the road we walk on?
Sociology is the story of a 53 year old construction worker, weathered from decades of outdoor work, returning to college to study nursing. It is the 20 year old hearing-impaired woman who aims for a sense of normalcy and inclusion. It is reflected in the eyes of an African refugee who speaks three languages and whose goal is to become a medical doctor. Sociology is in the shuffling feet of a sweet-faced teenager who opted to finish high school by taking community college classes rather than struggle through an uninspired rural high school milieu. It is the story of a 38 year old father of three who requires further training to avoid discharge from the job he’s held for nearly 20 years. Sociology is also reflected in the eyes of a 26 year old former felon, in recovery from substance abuse, sitting close to the door, unsmiling, unsure of his place. It is found in the story of a high school drop-out, struggling through the blight of urban decay and poverty, looking to escape the family “business” of drug-dealing and larceny by matriculating into community college. She will be the first in her family to not only graduate from high school but the first to attend college.
Through our discussions, students are able to hear different perspectives on human society. And as the weeks progress, many of their initial stereotypes and prejudices dissolve, and they are able to realize that xenophobia is a choice, a learned response.
And this leads to asking some profound questions of ourselves and others: What do we share? How are we the same? How do we differ? How do we, as individuals, cope with all of these cultural differences? How do we understand, respect and celebrate the differences between others? If “celebrate” is too lofty a goal, or an unwanted one, can we as a class aim to develop tolerance? We start to move closer to this goal by bridging the differences within our classroom, which is a microcosm of the larger society. This bridge is built through the development of shared classroom norms, through the curriculum, by cultivating a “first- name” basis within the classroom and by recognizing that learning is done in multiple ways.
Students do not typically start off embracing the value of tolerance, but it is rare that they, as a collective, do not end up working together to create a climate of cooperation versus divisiveness, of inclusion versus separation, of looking for the familiar in the perceived strange, which of course lies at the heart of Sociology. And, to a certain extent, this is the very mission of community college: that all individuals, regardless of their aptitudes, demographics and personal histories, have the capacity to learn, to grow and to contribute positively to their communities.