14 SES 02 A, Community Participation & Agency against Educational Exclusion
This paper examines ways in which a local school could become the connective tissue of a segregated community. In the paper we present and analyze the first cycle of our transdisciplinary action research carried in Ledine- one of Belgrade’s suburban neighborhoods. Our action research aims to understand relationships between the local school and the community, with an attempt to strengthen the bond between the two in a way that addresses growing social segregation trends. In this research we engage both educational sciences and urban studies to deepen our understanding of local urban and educational processes.
Context - where do we start from?
Ledine is an ethnically diverse neighborhood in the suburbs of Belgrade dating back to 1961. Over the years, the neighborhood has been rapidly growing as an informal settlement, as did most of Belgrade’s outskirts (Diner et al, 2012). The local elementary school remains the only educational and cultural institution in the area, and the schoolyard remains the only open public space used for gatherings and free time activities. The school itself started to reflect growing social challenges in the neighborhood - once a culturally diverse space, the school has morphed into a place of growing racial segregation, poverty and social exclusion (Statistical Office of the Republic of Serbia & UNICEF, 2014). The school has a total of 350 students, 38% of which are ethnic Serbian, 40% Roma and 22% of other nationalities, mainly Albanian. This school year (2017/2018) marks the first time that the first grade consisted of 100% Roma students, none of which had access to books in own homes (data found in the School’s development plan). This distribution of students does not represent the diversity present in the community, but rather suggests that underprivileged citizens enroll their children in the local school while many of the middle-class neighbors choose other schools for their children. Despite this trend, the school remains a refuge of togetherness and a source of resilience and coexistence in the neighbourhood. This condition was the starting point of our research.
We developed a theoretical framework based on works in critical transformative pedagogy and critical urban studies. The idea of a school as an agent of change that empowers students to become agents is the central point of this research. We promote and use processes of learning and unlearning as, firstly, emancipatory, critical practice that challenges the status quo through learning, dialogue, and action (bell hooks, 1994; Freire, 1975, 2008; Apple, 2006, 2010), then, learning as co-construction of meanings that originates at the intersection of perspectives (Ball, 2000; Piaget, 1976; Vygotsky, 1996), and finally, learning as embodied experience fueled with imagination and playfulness (Ellsworth, 2005, Brown, Patte, 2013). Our approach is to acknowledge everyone's presence and specificity (hooks, 1994), and to create spaces of learning by being in “a discussion regarding an experience of learning that has little to do with learning as compliance... instead, with the experience of learning that gives rise to that unmistakable, naked, vulnerable look of simultaneous absorption and self-presence.“ (Ellsworth, 2005). By relying on findings from educational fields and critical urban studies, we examine cities as systems of constant conquests of freedom, and public spaces as agents of practicing, supporting, restraining but also creating this freedom (Hou, Knierbein, 2017). A specific aspect of these relations of oppression and freedom are found in the urban periphery. Its freedom lies in its informalities, but at the same time, these informalities create grounds for oppression from the formal system, which exhibits negligence and a lack of sensitivity for the urban reality in the periphery.
Our work is a participative action research study focused on initiating change in the community with educational, performative, and spatial interventions. The first cycle of this action research spiral, addressed in this paper, includes planning, acting, observing, and reflecting (Zuber-Skerritt, 1996; Carr, Kemmis, 1986) during one year of implementation. As the first precondition for grassroot change, we have recognized already existing motivation (Eliot, 1991) in school, school staff and in students as main collaborators in the action research process with who we agreed on values and strategy. In the planning phase, activities included urban explorations of the community and analysis of the state of affairs in the school (co-creation of the School Development Plan). In the action phase, we conducted the following activities: - Mapping of the public spaces used by children for play: In a guerrilla action during early morning hours, we placed baskets filled with colored chalk around the neighborhood and started drawings on the streets. The following day we made a photo diary of the way children used the chalks to transform the streets into spaces of play; - Summer school for around 50 aged 5 to 13 - some enrolled in the local school, some who dropped out, and several preschoolers. During week-long activities, we organized workshops involving music, storytelling, and crafts, all with the idea of starting a conversation about how children perceive their ideal school; - Performance about the children’s ideal school: In a series of workshops with local students aged 9 to 14 we prepared a performance with three ideal school classes. One explored the relationship between school and home; another dealt with multidisciplinarity and the understanding of key concepts learned in school such as life, happiness, love, evil, death, madness, good, and the last one explored a world of books and libraries where storytelling was a tool used to expand and rethink the understanding of the written knowledge. The phase of observation included creation of photo and video diaries of all activities, evaluative questions directed towards visitors and participants of our workshops, as well as reflexive logs made by leading researchers. In the reflecting phase, we conducted a workshop with children and school staff in a form of writing a blog diary. This phase is ongoing and gives basis for the revision of future plans, it includes analysis of materials collected in the observation phase and of the products of our activities as well.
With the materials described (photo, video, blog diaries, workshop products, reflexive logs and evaluative questionnaires), we conduct content analysis and divide expected research outcomes in three areas: perceived change of the relationship between the school and the community (what kind of transformation is visible in the school and what is visible in the community, what is the quality of this change); actor satisfaction with the process; qualities of community spaces of learning inside and outside of the school (what are the newly created spaces they recognize, how are they used, what is the relationship between using these spaces for learning or playing, who uses which spaces and how, what kind of spaces are missing). Special attention and the sharpest focus is on the children’s experience, their discourse, understanding and feelings regarding the process, meaning that the majority of the analyzed material is created by them. First results show high level of satisfaction and new hope regarding both the neighborhood and the school. What we also perceive is that a sense of belonging to the school and a sense of pride for being part of this school among children is also rather high. Spaces of learning are still developing and not perceived as very new. These are all aspects that constitute solid and fruitful ground for future actions that will include design and building of spatial interventions in the schoolyard and in other public spaces in the community.
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