The Dream Lives On in New DMPS Urban Leadership Course

Implicit in the dream that was shared half a century ago today was the new class that met this morning at Central Campus.

It’s called Urban Leadership 101 and that’s an accurate enough course title given that the objective is to raise up a generation of informed and inspired community activists, but it barely hints at the cross-curricular goings-on. Take this morning’s session for instance. In honor of the occasion the class detoured from a unit on immigration for an exercise built around Dr. Martin Luther King’s iconic speech in Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963.

It was part American History, part Government/Civics and part English as the class watched a slide show of images from the event, wrote down their impressions and then shared them in a free-flowing discussion. Based in the principles of hip-hop culture, students engage in an in-depth study of social movements shaping history and urban settings across the United States.

The groundbreaking new course is taught by Emily Lang and Kristopher Rollins who dash from Central Campus back to Harding Middle School after beginning their days with UL 101. It’s like jumping into the day from a trampoline for teachers and students alike.

Rollins prefaced today’s class discussion with the admonition to not be shy about sharing thoughts with visitors in the room. He needn’t have bothered because there’s no silencing these young people. Even though the school year has just begun, some of the students have already bought into the Rollins/Lang mantra about youth being heard/youth aren’t the future; they’re the present through their involvement with Movement 515, the after-school spoken-word poetry program led by the partners in rhyme. And the newbies catch on quick. They seem to sense immediately that this is a safe place to open up and be real.

Words like sacred, courageous, sorrow, reverence and spirit are the jargon here. Outbreaks of goose bumps are frequent. The atmosphere is collegiate. When heads bowed to write the only sound in the room was a pack of pencils racing to convert powerful feelings into equally powerful words. Vivid metaphors don’t go unnoticed when they’re used to illustrate a point.

“There’s so much positive energy in here,” said Mario Cruz, a junior at Hoover. “It’s pure and honest and I know they (Rollins /Lang) bring out the best in me.”

Whatever they ask of their students, Rollins and Lang are prepared to do themselves, intentionally blurring the lines sometimes between them and their protégés.

“We remind them all the time that we can learn as much from them as we teach them,” Rollins said. “Our effectiveness depends on our ability to build relationships. We are challenging them to become the people we talk about in class and convincing them that they are capable of that.”

Or as Lang puts it, “We want to equip these kids to become change agents in their community.” As opposed, say, to settling for a high school resume padded with student council offices that dress up a college application without impacting the status quo.

There is no teaching manual for a class this innovative. The curriculum is coming on the fly. But the co-creators are nothing if not resourceful. A good example is their plan to bring in some ELL students that are brand new to America and DMPS as part of the current unit on immigration. That sounds like an idea that will offer great insight to their own students while also welcoming strangers who, if they’re feeling at all intimidated by new surroundings, aren’t likely to in Room 2101. Can you say win-win?

“I’ve started to think and talk about things that never occurred to me before,” said East senior Kathryn Garcia. “Maybe I’ll go into politics. In this class no one’s scared to raise their hand and say what they really think.”

When it’s over, music relevant to the lesson plays instead of a bell ringing while the class packs up to move on to whatever’s next. On their ways out, everybody stops to shake hands with their teachers. Expressions of love, casual but real, are exchanged.

They call it Urban Leadership but it could just as well be Modern Family. Kids from all over the world and all across the socio-spectrum judging each other not by the colors of their skins, but by the contents of their characters – like a dream come true.

Photos from Urban Leadership 101 Course

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