“Literacy is about more than reading or writing – it is about how we communicate in society. It is about social practices and relationships, about knowledge, language and culture.”
– UNESCO, Statement for the United Nations Literacy Decade, 2003–2012
In early October 2011, just as the school year shifted into high gear, art collective Mammalian Diving Reflex approached our principal with an idea. They were looking for two teachers to work with them on an exciting community-based project called These Are the People in Your Neighbourhood. The project was intended as a collaboration that would ultimately provide participating children with an understanding of their neighbourhood culture, create a network of familiar adults, and give them more ownership over their neighbourhood. It would also provide Toronto’s Bloor-Dovercourt community, where our school is located, with a kids’-eye view of the neighbourhood, as the project would culminate in a Jane’s Walk led by the children. Mammalian Diving Reflex have worked on many exciting initiatives with children. Every one of their projects puts children in charge, with adults providing the space, support, and logistics to make things happen. Madeline Collective (a group that sometimes works with Mammalian), came in to help with logistics and documentation.
Believing in the importance of building school/community partnerships, we jumped at the opportunity to teach our students about Jane Jacobs’ vision for community engagement and planning. As teachers, we all strive to make the curriculum real and relevant, a living thing, and we thought what better way to teach our grade 4 and 5 students a host of curriculum requirements than by engaging them in this exciting project. Through These Are the People in Your Neighbourhood we worked on the whole language curriculum: oral communication skills, writing, reading, and media studies. We incorporated visual art and drama through presentations and even touched on the math/geometry curriculum when we taught mapping skills.
The children produced and distributed their own brochure about the project. Students used their questioning skills to interview community business owners and their writing skills to document their subjects’ work and lives along with their own experiences of the neighbourhood. They learned how to communicate effectively and to create dialogue about the importance of sustainable communities. Jane Jacobs believed that when people interact in their neighbourhoods they play a vital role in making their communities safer and more vibrant. Our students learned to feel connected with not only the business owners but also with the people of the community who came out to our Jane’s Walk event, spoke to the children, and asked them questions about their presentations.
The project began with students collectively brainstorming a list of businesses in their community and mapping these out on giant rolls of kraft paper. These businesses were then approached and asked to participate in the project. One at a time, over a span of four months, business owners came into our school and were interviewed by the students. In groups, students brainstormed questions to ask the business