Residents take variety of approaches to education

by Eric Ginsburg

The word “education” often conjures up images of school, but to some residents, the differences couldn’t be more distinct. Drawing on a variety of educational approaches and applying them in countless settings, these residents are setting out to change what education and school mean altogether.

As the fall semester begins at various institutions, two classes in particular offer different approaches to education — they’re both open to the public.

For the third time, faculty at the colleges and universities are collaborating to teach “Reclaiming Democracy,” a course designed to emphasize critical thinking and collective action. About 90 students from Bennett College, Greensboro College, UNCG, NC A&T University, Guilford College and Elon University will join with about 10 community members to explore the relationship between education and democracy, studying local history and current realities.

“It has to do with recognizing that education crosses all types of boundaries,” said Spoma Jovanovic, a communications professor at UNCG. “This class is definitely one that fulfills the mission of higher education — to prepare people to address the problems and issues that face our society.”

The teachers all teach in different departments, providing an interdisciplinary approach as well as an inter-institutional one. Community members can sign up for the once a week, three-hour intensive class for only $60, and spaces are still open. Among other things, students will read Civilities and Civil Rights by William Chafe, providing background on Greensboro’s history.

Residents from all walks of life with some free time on Sundays can sign up for a new labor history class, which will use various films to nurture discussions on a number of historic and current labor struggles in the United States.

The class, which is being offered by the Triad chapter of Jobs with Justice, will span six weeks and will be taught by two long-time labor activists, Mark Dimondstein and Richard Koritz. Each week will explore a different subject in labor history, including the union struggle at Smithfield meatpacking plant, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in 1970s Detroit and the Industrial Workers of the World in the early 1900s.

Organizers of the event want to make the class accessible to all, so tuition is set at $5 for low-wage workers and the unemployed and $15 to everyone else. The film classes begin Sept. 11 and run through Oct. 16 at the Chavis Branch Library in Greensboro.

“The importance is that people will get a better sense of their own history, as workers,” said Dimondstein, who described the class as participatory. “The hope would be that people would be that much more active after the class.”

Al Brilliant, part owner of Glenwood Coffee and Books, believes education should be free whenever possible. For two years, he participated in a free school run out of the Hive community space. Every week, between 8 and 25 people gathered without any formal teaching structure, deciding together what material would be covered.

“Why do we need chancellors making $400,000 a year?” Brilliant said. “We had no registration, no teachers, no college bookshop and no basketball team, only learning!” The free school stopped meeting after Brilliant opened Glenwood Community Book Shop, now a café and music venue in a new place down the block.

A&T student Cherrell Brown wants to see different educational opportunities in Greensboro too, and she is working to make them a reality. By next summer, she and a few friends hope to launch a summer school.

Focusing on the African Diaspora, Brown and her friends want to offer a holistic approach where people from different age groups interact and learn together, forming a community.

“We don’t want to be a devaluing system where I am the teacher and deposit information to you,” Brown said. “Everybody is responsible for teaching each other.”

The approach reflects the educational pedagogy of Brazilian thinker Paulo Freire who advocated popular education and criticized a “banking” approach to education where teachers fill their students’ heads with information.

Brown, whose plans have been influenced by the Montessori school system as well, isn’t the only one whose approach draws on Freire. Deemphasizing the hierarchy between teachers and students is central to the perspective behind the free school as well as other projects in town like the healthy murals project on the retaining wall outside of the Greensboro Children’s Museum.

Like the teachers of the Reclaiming Democracy course, Elsewhere Artist Collaborative’s education curator Chris Kennedy wants to expand the definition of education.

“Education can be something malleable — something we can play with — an art medium and practice all in itself,” he said. “A school doesn’t have to be a brick building and a classroom doesn’t have to be a fluorescent cube.”

Before coming to Greensboro, Kennedy was part of the School of the Future in Brooklyn, NY. Located in a park, anyone who was interested was invited to participate by teaching a class, creating an installation or facilitating a workshop. In one month, 40 classes were offered, and the project is still ongoing.

Now at Elsewhere, Kennedy has a wide array of connections to education, including mentoring 7 to 10 interns that cycle through, Elsewhere’s weekly educational Playshops with kids, educational adventure tours and organizing a dinner party on Sept. 23 about teaching.

Reclaiming Democracy professor Sherry Giles was talking about the class when she said “we’re framing ‘education’ broadly,” but the statement applies to the projects as a whole.

Dimondstein’s words ring true for most of the projects as well.

“This is something people aren’t going to learn in the public schools or maybe even in the colleges,” he said.

The projects provide residents with an abundant selection of educational options that branch out beyond traditional concepts of education, school and learning.

Coupling the goals of making education more accessible and widespread, the projects nudge residents towards exploring what education means for themselves and to create communities while doing it.