Students and educators in Iowa City rethink the purpose of school

Photo by Zak Neumann

Across eastern Iowa, teens are getting ready to head back to school. But about 100 teens from Iowa City and surrounding areas never left school for long, spending part of their summer breaks examining education in workshops offered collaboratively by the Iowa Youth Writing Project (IYWP) and Reimagine Iowa City Public Education (RIPE). The programs were supported by G!World, an initiative in Johnson County offering growth and mentorship opportunities to junior high and high school women of color; gallery and performance venue Public Space One; and the Dream Center, which offers programs to youth and adults aimed at strengthening families.

In its first major initiative, RIPE partnered with IYWP to offer summer enrichment to area teens, an extension of the programming that IYWP offers throughout the year. The summer workshops not only continued IYWP’s work of encouraging voice and creativity but also engaged students in an experience designed to “embolden [them] to deconstruct, decipher, and depict the learning experience.” Participants were presented with the premise: “You’ll spend nearly 12,000 hours in school by the time you graduate — why not spend a few hours considering how it could be different[?]”

RIPE, founded in 2017, encourages community discussion around education in all its forms and in all its venues. In its founding statement, RIPE suggests that “this is the perfect moment to consider what we want our schools to evolve into, to dream up how we can respect and challenge our kids, and to imagine how we can attract and value our educators.” The statement adds that Iowa City just had one of its highest school board election turnouts ever and that the Iowa City Area Development group has made a decision to prioritize K-12 education.

The summer workshops offered students in grades 8-12 opportunities to engage in discussion about their own education and learning experiences and create based on those discussions. Throughout each week, with the support of workshop facilitators, participants created theater, screen prints, performance or digital presentations that reflected their conversations. Facilitators included University of Iowa students, community members and local educators. Participants were able to enroll at no or low cost thanks to the combined efforts of the sponsoring organizations.

The IYWP has been bringing local artists and writers to supplement and enrich curriculum and programming in area public schools and community organizations since 2010. Founded as an outreach collective by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the IYWP is committed to keeping arts in classroom, Director of Summer Programming and Program Assistant Director Lisa Roberts said the organization offers school and site-based workshops throughout the year for learners of all ages.

In addition to ongoing programming, IYWP offers special classes; for example, a comics workshop, a session about erasure poetry and the chance to write about mental health issues. The IYWP also offers its own summer workshops, as well as courses available for credit through the University of Iowa.

“IYWP strives to create safe spaces for all students to develop their voice,” Roberts said.

RIPE participants paint a mural. — photo courtesy of Jennifer New

Jennifer New, founder of RIPE, said that impetus for her organization is her belief that “things need to shift” in public education. Although New, who is also associate director at the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies at UI, has not taught in a classroom, she comes to the project with experience as a curriculum writer for Microsoft, PBS and other clients. She also founded the educational consulting firm Synapse Learning Design.

RIPE calls for an inclusive approach to discussing education, and poses rhetorical questions designed to stimulate thinking about a variety of educational topics. The questions on the RIPE blog — such as, “What do you think people need to know to be successful adults? For that matter, what is a ‘successful’ adult?” and, “What is the purpose of public education? What was it in the 1800s? What is it now? What will it be in the future?” — are familiar to the schools and teachers grappling with them daily at district-level meetings and in classrooms across eastern Iowa. RIPE aims to bring these questions to the students and community.

This summer, Charlie Kouns of Asheville, North Carolina, a founder of Imagining Learning (an organization aiming to “tap into the inner wisdom that students implicitly hold”), led listening sessions as part of the summer workshops. The listening sessions follow a prescribed format that encourages participants to brainstorm, reflect and then share their ideas by painting them on a large canvas. This summer these sessions, New said, included teachers who were inspired by the reflective process, as well as by their connections with other teachers.

RIPE’s founding statement quotes writer and historian Rebecca Solnit: “I want better metaphors. I want better stories. I want more openness. I want better questions.” This idea was the inspiration for the initial conversations among the founders that then extended into the impetus for the summer workshops. Their hope for the summer sessions was to allow participants to think beyond the boundaries that exist in traditional education and to create new ideas to inspire learning, New said.

As RIPE looks toward the future, New said that the organization is planning to share some of the students’ summer work with school leaders soon. Going forward, RIPE anticipates collaborating with Brooklyn artist Tracy Malloy and Chuck Peters of Cedar Rapids. Peters has a special interest in education and is planning to lead a series of community conversations about education this fall.

New said RIPE also hopes to maintain its collaboration with Kouns to continue holding listening sessions in the community. Plans are in the works for screening the 2015 documentary Paper Tigers — about a high school implementing trauma-sensitive programming — at FilmScene in Iowa City.

In collaborating on the summer workshops and planning upcoming programming, there is one clear goal of RIPE. “We want to have a real dialogue about what is being taught [in our schools],” New said, “and how it’s being taught.”

Laura Johnson is a career educator who taught Russian and English for 23 years in Georgia, Illinois and Iowa. She is a poet and writer living in Marion, Iowa. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 248.

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