Civically Engaged Project-Based Learning, Virtually

How the Center for Urban Pedagogy is pushing for more relevant, community-based learning in the age of Coronavirus and calls for racial justice

Fielding Hong is half-Korean, from a small, rural town in Iowa. Growing up, Hong loved learning but didn’t necessarily love school. As an example, he tells me, he was valedictorian but was still getting in-school suspensions. This experience cemented a key thing for him: learning needs to incorporate an element of whimsy that allows for students at all performance levels to access its benefits, and this includes learning that happens outside of the traditional classroom.

In his re-imagining, Hong works as the Youth Education Program Manager at the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP) to add relevance and imagination to the work of civic engagement. CUP thinks of civic engagement as “creating the communities we want for ourselves by working together to impact the issues that matter most to us,” Hong says. Most recently, CUP has partnered with Red Hook Community Justice Center in Brooklyn, New York to pilot a remote learning version of Urban Investigations, a project-based curricula in which a Teaching Artist and a group of high school students investigate social justice issues that directly impact their communities. They are adapting their civically engaged project-based learning for distance learning, and the young people they work with will be investigating police accountability and public safety. This is the third collaboration between CUP and Red Hook, and Hong can’t say enough about the way Red Hook engages BIPOC and low-income communities in navigating complicated policies and collaborating for solutions.

In the CUP and Red Hook partnership, young people are true co-creators with adults. A CUP-trained teaching artist and students work in partnership to explore how the places where they live are products of decision-making and power. “In doing that,” Hong says, “we hope to make those processes more knowable and tangible to them, and to help them find ways to be involved in that decision-making process.” In the age of COVID-19, CUP is learning how to move this work to virtual spaces. Participants interview stakeholders over video chat, use Google Forms to survey community members, and use Google Docs to analyze and annotate current events (ala artist Alexandra Bell). Hong says, “It’s really a matter of looking at what materials we have at hand and… asking questions that help us think differently about the places where we live. Questions like, ‘Why is this law enforced this way here and not there?’ ‘Who put this law in place?’ ‘Who decides what justice looks like?’” These questions get even bigger as participants dive into their explorations: what’s the current system? How could it be different? Who needs to be part of the discussion to see things change? What does accountability look like? How can we reimagine public safety? How do we rise to meet this moment and engage the people that are most impacted by unaccountable racist policing?

As the teaching artist for this partnership, Marianna Olinger is quick to say that there has been a steep collective learning curve in the transition from in-person programming to virtual. Olinger, a working artist and researcher with a PhD in Urban Planning, has been working with CUP for two and a half years. The young people she works with are clearly under immense amounts of stress, though they want to do the work, she says. She has learned that less content is better. Students now have the opportunity to check-out equipment, from digital cameras to printmaking materials. Olinger has built in space to connect with them one-on-one to gauge their interest, find out what’s working and what’s not. “The product at the end is a part of it, but it’s not the goal,” Olinger tells me. “The goal is that this is a transformative experience for young people.” Her hope is that by the time the complete the program they have experimented with art-making and research tools and experienced meaningful collaboration in a way that impacts their future endeavors.

The idea beneath all of this work is that creativity in thinking is a skill. Design thinking creates a process for being curious, figuring out the tools you need to answer a question, and moving forward. “We need to think about creativity as not something a few geniuses are born with, but a set of processes that anyone goes through. Imagining the world a different way is a difficult skill that needs to be taught,” Hong says. To teach young people how to engage their own creativity, The Teaching Artist and students start with a mini art project, giving participants the chance to work with materials that might be unfamiliar, gaining confidence in a new creative form of working — this gets them used to taking creative risks. Then they shift into training students how to interview people, film and report on those interviews. They turn insights from these interviews into something that can invest others in the solutions these young people are creatively producing. In a virtual world, participants will instead use their smartphones to investigate the world around them through photography, videography, and audio recording. CUP also purchased home screen printing kits for each student. “For the most part,” Hong says, “in each session students will be creating things through different modalities — digital and by hand. I think this will help balance different learning styles, mitigate zoom fatigue, and keep students engaged.”

This creativity in action positions young people to use their interests as entry points into civic issues. If that empty lot in the neighborhood had a Twitter account, Hong asks, what would it say? Questions like these help bring into the fold of civic thinking young people who would otherwise be left at its margins.