Northern Illinois University

NIU Office of Public Affairs

From left - Iva Angelova, Chia-Pao Hsu, Michelle Pickett
From left: Iva Angelova, Chia-Pao Hsu, Michelle Pickett

From left - Colleen Stribling, Doug Muir, Laura Ruth Johnson, Anne Almburg
From left: Colleen Stribling, Doug Muir, Laura Ruth Johnson, Anne Almburg

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News Release

Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-9472

May 6, 2009

Humboldt Park residents teach lessons
not found in adult education textbooks

DeKalb, Ill. — To Laura Ruth Johnson, an assistant professor in the Northern Illinois University College of Education, Chicago’s Puerto Rican neighborhood of Humboldt Park is home.

To students in Johnson’s graduate-level research methods courses in the Department of Educational Technology, Research and Assessment, the bustling hub of Puerto Rican culture and politics is a fertile classroom of sorts. Students can conduct ethnographic research on learning amid the bakeries, farmer’s markets and street festivals.

Seven of her students spent six Saturdays last summer living and observing the ways of life inside the Paseo Boricua.

They looked for examples of mentorship as well as teaching-learning processes carried out in social and work settings. They found several of those in a dynamic community that actively involves its young people and grows its own leaders.

In June, they will present their research findings at a community conference in Humboldt Park. They already made a similar presentation at a conference in Philadelphia. The group also is hoping to write a journal article together.

“Most of them live near DeKalb, and few of them had been to this area before,” Johnson said. “They describe their experience in the community as transformative, and have themselves created a research community through their hands-on ethnographic work.”

“When we go to a place that we don’t know, we need to go with an open mind and an open heart; to let the knowledge come from the people there; to not impose our own views,” said Iva Angelova. “We need to be humble and grateful when people are willing to share their experiences.”

At the community newspaper – a monthly staffed mostly by volunteers – Angelova watched an exercise in flexibility. Reporters, photographers and editors traded responsibilities seamlessly to gather information and produce their publication. There was no firm hierarchy, she learned, but an ethos of collaboration that was open to new ideas and change.

“It’s a busy place,” Angelova said.

Colleen Stribling worked at the neighborhood café and bakery, sometimes as a server and occasionally clad in an apron in the kitchen.

She discovered the traditions of Puerto Rico simmering not only in the wait staff, all of whom know that efficiency is not nearly as important as good hospitality, but also in the community-based push for local businesses along Division Street.

Residents of the community support the business and keep it hopping by congregating there not only for food and coffee but also for lively discussions of politics and neighborhood news, said Stribling, an ESL teacher who spoke the most Spanish of any student in the class.

Social interaction between customers and servers provided the greatest lessons. Otherwise, she experienced little in formal training. “I could’ve been a huge nuisance,” she said.

“It’s knowing the people, knowing what they like,” Stribling said. “Making a mistake on an order is not a really big deal, but forgetting a name or forgetting to put sugar in coffee is a much bigger deal.”

Chia Pao Hsu attended a Bombazo, a social gathering all about singing, drumming and dancing.

“They commit themselves to educating the next generation about Puerto Rican culture,” Hsu said. “People are hugging, talking. You feel like it’s a celebration.”

Bombazo leaders encouraged her to experience every role in the ensemble by learning the vocal parts, playing the drum and dancing the steps.

On her own, Hsu realized the essence of the Bombazo is the communication between singers, drummers and dancers. “They really need to understand each other,” she said.

The local farmers market attracted Anne Almburg, who found culturally relevant fruits, vegetables, baked goods and crafts as she learned about a related project: A resident of the neighborhood is leading group exercise sessions for multigenerational customers.

What began as a walking program blossomed when the woman watched exercise videos to learn and then added her own love of dance to the mix.

“A large portion of the people in the community have diabetes and are overweight,” Almburg said. “Thirty to 50 people are exercising three times a week. The people in the class have said they’ve lost weight, their blood pressure is down, they don’t need insulin, they sleep better and they’re happier.”

For Almburg, who exercised with the group, the lesson was in leadership. The woman simply wanted to help her neighbors and became a community leader in the process.

Now, Almburg said, the lessons of Paseo Boricua will transfer into classrooms surrounded by cornfields. All of Johnson’s students are teachers at some level.

“This was an observation of a community perpetuating its heritage,” said Almburg, a Title I teacher at DeKalb’s Jefferson Elementary School. “I can take that to where I live. I can take it to the students in my school.”

Stribling realized multiple benefits from her experience.

For one, she said, “all of us are moving toward major dissertation projects. We know now how to observe well, to ask questions, to participate in real experiences, to negotiate our entry into these places.”

But the six Saturdays also opened her eyes to other places and other people, she said.

“What I think I know is true is not what everyone thinks they know is true, and that’s important to me,” she said. “What I don’t know was more rewarding.”

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