No one doubts the value of learning content. We all need to increase our knowledge in order to increase our skillsets. Content knowledge matters a lot more, though, when we understand its value to ourselves and to other human beings.

Case in point: the Homelessness Intensive taught by Dan Mesh and Susan McGraw. In this course, which was originally designed by longtime Hawken teacher Jack Breisch, students learn history, economics, sociology, ethics, and creative writing. This happens through a combination of guest speakers, field trips, research, literature exploration, and through deep, sustained connections with homeless individuals through an internship with an agency that provides services to those struggling with housing.

The end result: students who are deeply knowledgeable, skilled and empathic.

From Dan:

Nine days may feel like nine months in a class like Homelessness where experiences can challenge perspectives and give birth to a new way of thinking about social justice. Within two days, students navigate independently through areas of Cleveland that most people will never see.

In their service-learning partnerships, students interact with those experiencing homelessness and discover that they have much more in common than they might have expected. This human experience has helped make real the reading, class discussions and guest speakers, and (I hope) led to a quest for deeper understanding.

This perspective-altering experience almost begs for a way to express these impactful moments in writing. And so, students work to produce a Creative Non-Fiction (CNF) piece as a capstone to the Homelessness course. The goal is to find creative ways to convey a message inspired by experiences at their service partnership so that they are capturing the reader’s attention and emotion by “showing” more than “telling.” It begins with one paragraph from their first afternoon and grows to a polished, magazine-length piece of 5-10 pages.

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After visits from guest speakers and a trip to Eviction court, students move toward the final group project: a visual essay that analyzes the causes of homelessness and makes recommendations for ways to better address this reality that impacts over 20,000 people in Cleveland each year.

After it was all over, we asked the class a simple question: What will you take away from this class?

  • People need help and there are things going on that we are unaware of and can do more about.
  • So much, can’t write it down.
  • Homeless people are just people. They have the same qualities as me and my parents. I’ll try and be more interactive with the homeless in the future.
  • I took away so many things — the most important thing I learned was that I loved interacting with and meeting these women and children at Laura’s Home. They are such an extraordinary group of people there and I am so grateful to have met them.
  • I will walk away with not only an understanding of what people in my community must face but a newfound appreciation for employees like Ed and Ashlee that dedicate their days to helping them. I hope that in the future I can follow in their footsteps.
  • I will take away a better understanding of the odds stacked against those who are homeless, along with great empathy and concern for those who are homeless. I now have a greater knowledge of services and programs aimed to help the homeless, and can see the flaws of the system and how it allows so many people to fall through the cracks. I never realized how high the poverty rates are in Cleveland and how high the child poverty rates are in particular.
  • A much more grateful attitude towards my life and a much higher willingness to volunteer and help those in need.
  • I will take away a real experience where I got to learn an enormous amount about homelessness in general and some ways that Cleveland and shelters specifically go about trying to fix that problem.
  • A better understanding of the homeless situation in Cleveland and nationwide along with more empathy towards the less fortunate.
  • I am going to take away my newly acquired knowledge about homelessness in Cleveland as well as across the rest of the nation. I am also going to take this experience and have so much more empathy for those without homes, as I now understand what their background could have been, what their circumstances could be, etc.
  • How relatable and similar to us everyone at Y-Haven was. Almost everyone we interviewed I understood what they were saying or their life story or we would have a good time joking around even though we live in very different environments.
  • I will take away the countless stories I have gathered from each individual I have met throughout the three weeks. These stories have truly changed me for the better and I am very grateful to have had this experience.
  • I will take away the importance of service, something I will bring into my everyday life. I have a fascination with our criminal justice system and see that the system is really in need of reform. Meeting the people who have actively been oppressed by our criminal justice system was not only meaningful but inspiring. Whatever I’m going to do with my life, I want to be able to help and work with others. Truthfully, the most meaningful part was just listening though. Listening to these residents and their stories. I will never forget those men.
  • A deep understanding of homelessness and poverty and a better understanding of how I want to serve my community in the future.
  • I learned so much about what we do for our homeless and what we can do about it. My biggest takeaway is that we actually have the power to make a solid difference in this field (look to Chris Knestric and his work with the Homeless Congress as a prime example).
  • That homelessness isn’t just an issue of some people without houses, and many of them have interesting or very depressing stories.
  • I will take away how much I have learned about people who are so different than me, and what really happens to them. It seemed before this class that there was a huge barrier between homeless people and I but I am glad I went out of my comfort zone and really enjoyed it. I love working with people, and hopefully, I will become more involved in helping homeless people because I now really have a good understanding and empathy.
  • I have learned to stop making assumptions about a person before knowing their story. St. Herman’s is a great mix of volunteers, men of the house, and outside people. At first, it is difficult to distinguish who is who. But, I finally realized that those distinctions I was trying to make don’t matter. Each person individually showed me such great kindness and acceptance no matter their personal status… Once I was actually able to spend some time…in a homeless shelter, I learned just how dangerous and incorrect assumptions can be to a person and a community. Assuming isn’t fair for anyone unless I assume the absolute best first and foremost.
  • I want to end homelessness.

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