Working with just over 100 students from Ferguson, St. Louis City, and Webster Groves, Missouri, all parties involved knew there were underlying prejudices to be addressed. I am in the business of measuring cooperation. We bring diverse groups of people together in “Higher-Order Thinking Bowls” and help them learn to effectively accomplish tasks. When hosting inter-school events (HOT Bowls), first we work with each campus individually to learn the games and focus on the academic area to be discussed. While meeting with the nearly all-white students from the suburbs one young man said frankly, “I am afraid to go to Ferguson next week.” He was watching the news and although the two schools are only 11 miles apart, there is a world of difference between the two of them. The teacher and I glanced at each other quickly and decided to let the kids talk about this themselves. I was so grateful to witness the ensuing conversation. The student’s fellow seventh graders argued that their peers in Ferguson were not that different from them. Because they had been studying journalism, they were aware of the fact that the media was solely focused on the negative events in Ferguson and that these seventh grade children, like them, lived regular lives. They even spoke of a responsibility to their neighbors and the community to befriend them–wow!
The following day, when I met with the seventh graders at Ferguson Middle School to prepare them for the big event the following week I told them about the conversation with their peers from across town. The moment I shared the fear expressed by one young man the entire class broke into an uproar. One of the more outspoken young men in class stood up, put his hands up in the air, and shouted, “I’m gunna’ protest!” Fortunately, a level-headed young lady in class stopped him in his tracks. She said, “No! That is exactly how the world expects us to react.” Their teacher and I had a great conversation with them about the way their city had been portrayed on TV and how they could reverse this negative image through personal interaction. The teacher and I guided the conversation with leading questions, but the 13-year-old 7th grade students did the majority of the talking. They reasoned through the need to be welcoming and to set an example for others.
The day finally came when three schools wealthy white, middle income diverse race, and lower income black met together on the front lawn of Ferguson Middle School. After a thorough icebreaker and assignment to small teams with students from each school represented, we had a fantastic day measuring cooperative learning. Students exchanged twitter handles and facebook info, groups of girls from one school invited girls from the other two schools to sit with them at our picnic lunch, and boys from one school spontaneously worked with boys from another school to pick up trash together afterwards.
Finding commonalities and overcoming differences is great, but the real mechanism for change in HOT Bowl events and our other workshops with diverse schools is empowerment. EnTeam’s events are effective because students are empowered to think for themselves through measuring their ability to cooperate. HOT Bowl participants face a challenge (academic, social or physical), and overcome it together. Engaging in an academic challenge, gaining confidence in one’s self, making new friends, and earning respect are all taking place simultaneously.
EnTeam Organization measures cooperation. We help students study together effectively. By building bridges between communities academic achievement improves, attendance rates increase, behavior and engagement improves, teachers enjoy their work, and prejudices are transcended by respect.