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Ethnographic Observations: Ark Community Charter School

             I arrived at the Ark Community Charter School at around 9:20 am on Thursday, September 22nd, 2011. The Ark Community Charter School is located in Troy, New York. As a charter school it is “a public school that is free from local district control, regulations and contracts, allowing teachers to educate children free from the administrative burdens associated with traditional public schools”, as described on their website. The group I was with included Jeff Finkel, Rebecca Ehrhardt, Lindsey Rappleyea, and Cory Goodenough and we were assigned to work with the 5th graders. Two other groups from the PDI V studio accompanied us.

             The kids were split into three groups of 7-8 children. These groups of kids were then rotated through the PDI students’ groups.  Our group ran an arts and crafts workshop on the classroom carpet area where kids would be able to make a collage using art boards, stickers, sequins, markers, and magazine pictures. The collages would show what the kids were interested in and how they defined themselves. Each of my group’s members also made a collage before the event to show the kids some examples and so that they could learn a little about us as well. Not only did we reach our objectives in learning more about the kids, the activity also allowed us to observe how to best deal with children.

             During the first session my group sat in one row and the ACCS kids sat across from us, with the arts and crafts supplies between the two groups. After introductions from both parties I explained the goal of our activity and handed out the art boards after showing them our personal collages. I had also prepared a list of questions to ask the kids to help them get started but the kids were very quick in grabbing supplies that the questions didn’t seem necessary (although in retrospect, they might have offered a little more direction).  Soon, a slight problem became apparent – it was very difficult to talk to the children while they were working on the arts and crafts. A lot of our interaction was them asking us to help them find a certain supply. I proposed to my group members that for the next group, we’d have the kids alternate between us so that we could concentrate on fewer kids and have them talk more and my other group members agreed. We did do this for the rest of the groups and it did work out better, although it probably affected our observations in that group members from the PDI group talked to fewer children (since the children were being further split up among the PDI students).

             Some things we were able to find out was that some of the girls were a huge fan of horses, but had never ridden one before. A boy claimed to be extremely musically talented, listing a variety of instruments that he had had the experience in playing – including some traditional African instruments. Another girl expressed her desire to be a singer but only sang at home. A few kids boasted that one of their classmates was an excellent artist and he drew a racetrack to accompany his racing car sticker on his collage. There was another girl who was very quiet and didn’t speak to anyone. Lindsey noticed that she had drawn ocean-themed elements on her collage so I decided to talk to her. I wasn’t very successful, but I did find out that she didn’t know how to swim. There was also a boy that seemed to be very taken by football and basketball – covering his collage with stickers that depicted sports equipment and magazine cutouts with some of his favorite athletes. He was very adamant that he will someday also be a sports superstar. This same boy also wanted me to teach him how to draw a boy kicking a football and a basketball hoop. I did so, but later felt bad because I didn’t want him to think there was only one way to draw something.

             I also had the chance to ask the kids some silly questions, like what kind of superpowers they would like to have. The top three results were telekinesis, super speed & invisibility, and telepathy. One boy even conjured an elaborate scenario where he would rush into a store, get all the things he wanted, and leave the money at the counter, without anyone noticing. In addition, role models of the children included similarly ethnic superstars like Alicia Keys, Rihanna, and Selena Gomez (one African American looking boy very vocally admitted to having a crush on her). Overall, the children seemed to act like normal kids that could be found at any school around the country. They were very ingrained into popular culture and mainstream entertainment media, except for a select few who couldn’t remember or say the last movie they had watched.

             Another topic I approached the kids with was how they were doing in school. Almost every child claimed to dislike the subjects they were learning, except for the girl (Girl1) who said she wanted to be a singer. She said that her favorite subjects were science and math. I found this especially interesting as mathematical proficiency does seem to be associated with classical musical talent (although I did not find out what genre Girl1 was most interested in). A favorite past time of an African-American looking girl was to walk in the woods with her friends. If she had the whole day to do whatever she wanted that is what she wanted to do. Also, on an unrelated note, during snack time I noticed that a fair number of kids preferred the celery to the graham crackers. I found this interesting because it suggested that the kids were aware of healthy food choices.

             A lot of the kids became very animated with the activity. A few of them asked if they could just stay at our activity instead of rotating, which I found flattering. There are a few things I wish could have gone better though. First of all, the collages (or maybe just the art boards) were a little too big and the kids weren’t happy with not being able to finish in time. I wish that I had seen a video or pictures of other projects being done with the kids before, so that I could have been a little more prepared. I also wish that I and a few of my group members were also a little more active in talking to the kids (one of our members agreed with what we were saying, but didn’t really offer much input themselves). Some of our group members were amazing though, and was very natural around them. Another thing to keep in mind was to not bring in the sequins, as I spent a lot of my time picking up the sequins (and then the kids would spill even more) instead of talking to the kids. The assignment might have also been misconstrued as a “decorating the art board” activity instead of an “art board that shows who I am” one. In this way I feel like my questions would have offered more direction if the kids had to answer them on the board – albeit it may be less fun for them.

             Overall the experience was a unique and extremely enjoyable one. I managed to gather a lot of data pertaining to what the children were interested in and am looking forward to designing an educational product that the children will take pleasure in.