When Lily, a student in my History of the Novel class, noted that both of her project partners were unable to help her videotape an interview, I offered to help out. I'd already thought about observing the observers, going out to watch my students work on the ethnography project I'd assigned. I had a free period and she needed help. It seemed like a good moment.
This project asks students to consider how we read in communities and how the individual act of reading becomes a social and communal one. It invites them to consider what it means when we read together. Students have chosen groups ranging from 1st graders, to Bible study groups, to an anarchist reading group that won't allow audio or video recording. They completed observations and interviews, and then made videos to share their findings.
This has been an experiment for all of us. I've never done ethnography, and most students haven't done video work. While I tend to enjoy risk and novelty in the classroom, this project has been a stretch. More than once I've wondered if it was too much to ask students to observe a group twice and conduct some follow up interviews. Yet it also seems like the bare minimum to create an understanding of a community.
The most difficult part has been finding time for students to do the visits. Students have met Bible study groups at 6:30 in the morning, missed classes during the day to observe at the lower school, and pursued anarchists’ itinerant meetings around the cities on Tuesday evenings. Colleagues have been mostly flexible as students missed classes, but some have been frustrated by late notice or extra accommodations, the challenge of anything that doesn't fit into an eight period school day.
At times, trying to create or keep momentum on a long term project has been a challenge. We're still reading novels and writing papers. While we work on project proposals and questions, the reading sometimes feels distant. So today's experience with the 1st and 2nd graders reminded me why we do the extra work creating project based learning.
At the lower school that morning, I set up the camera and tripod, Lily went to get some students to interview as a follow up to the observation her group had done last week. The three girls sat down on the couch, two blonde twins and a little girl with glasses and missing front teeth. Lily told them her name and asked them theirs. The twins answered first, then the middle girl exclaimed, "My name is Elizabeth, but I go by Lily, too!" Big Lily started asking questions, and soon after the other Lily asked, "Are you Chinese, too?" Hearing that she was, the girl blurted, "And I don't even speak Chinese!" All three girls talked about their reading with remarkable insight for seven year olds, describing the books they liked, and the pleasures of different kinds of stories. At times they giggled and leaned into each other, and took polite turns answering questions. In a brief pause, apropos of nothing, little Lily stage whispered to big Lily, "I'm adopted" continuing her revelations, pursuing a connection to this young woman, this powerful image of herself in some distant future.
After we finished the interviews, my student Lily and I discussed the power of looking back in time, of nostalgia, certainly, but also of reflection. I was struck by the power of experience, unlike a reading or a lecture or a discussion, to prompt us to consider our histories, our lives more deeply. She asked if she could return and volunteer with that class second semester, and I noted it was certainly possible. But mostly I was reflecting on this experience of messy, complex assignments rooted in community that taught much more than I could ever have intended.