Students from my Social Problems of Philadelphia class helped to organize “Green Day” at the Jackson School to unveil the rooftop garden we built. Green Day was the largest community event ever held at the school. Here Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and Principal Lisa Kaplan cut the ribbon on the garden.
Photo: Jim Mundie
Over the past few years I have taught classes at the University of Pennsylvania on economic inequality, work, labor, public policy, and research methods.
My teaching is guided by the conviction that higher education in the social sciences should help students understand the pressing economic, social and political questions of our society. I see my role as providing students an understanding of the central insights of sociology in the areas I teach while helping them develop skills that allow them to think sociologically. Regardless of the particular topic under discussion, I want students to understand how research is the outcome of a systematic process of research design and sense-making using empirical evidence to adjudicate between competing theories.
Recently some of my classes have involved community-based-learning (CBL). CBL in my classes is part of a long-term partnership with Andrew Jackson School in south Philadelphia, the school my own children attend. Jackson is an under-resourced neighborhood public school. It is very poor – 95% of Jackson’s students are categorized as economically disadvantaged. But Jackson has many strengths, including a dedicated staff, engaged community and incredible diversity - there are 30 countries of origin and 15 languages spoken among the schools’ families.
My classes work with various community partners - including Friends of Jackson, an organization my wife and I started with other Jackson parents - to support the school. The primary focus of my classes has been supporting Principal Lisa Kaplan's vision of developing a “green” science curriculum. This vision is based in the recognition that many of Jackson’s students are suffering from environmental challenges and injustices ranging from poor nutrition to extraordinarily high rates of asthma. At the same time, emerging green jobs and technology and the City of Philadelphia’s goal of becoming America’s greenest city hold out the hope that meeting these challenges can be an opportunity to teach students knowledge and skills that will give them both short-term benefits and long-term prospects. In my recent classes students have researched, designed and built a number of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education-focused resources at Jackson including a rooftop garden, a greenhouse with an aquaponics system, and a mushroom farming project. Much of this work has been supported by the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility at Swarthmore College and the Netter Center for Community Partnerships at the University of Pennsylvania.
The projects my classes carry out are not just community service. My students learn things from doing them that they cannot learn as effectively - if at all - in the classroom. The CBL components of my classes turn abstract issues of educational inequality students read about in books and discuss in the classroom into real-life challenges and concerns they wrestle with as we move back and forth from the classroom to the community trying to produce tangible outcomes with minimal material resources.
In April of 2015 I gave the Annual Community Based Learning Lecture at Johns Hopkins University's Center for Social Concern about these CBL classes.