Noticing the Homeless: Civic Engagement through Aesthetic Education

Heidi Upton
St. John’s University, USA


This article examines the implementation of an arts-related pedagogy in a freshman course called Discover New York (DNY) offered at St. John’s University in New York City, analyzing the ways in which an educational methodology known as aesthetic education develops students’ perspectives and skills that situate them in relationship not only with their own city but as citizens in their own lives. This examination of my version of DNY, a course that requires an academic service learning component, addresses the issue of how an adaptation of the educational approach known as aesthetic education can provide students with new perspectives on nagging social problems through their participation in classroom activities and real-life field experiences grounded in the creative process. An important course goal for students, beyond the borders of the course itself, is to enable them to develop and retain a sense of personal agency that is the only path to real civic engagement.


Civic engagement is an activity requiring creative participants. Students in my classes, though, arrive at college in the cloud of their prior education, passive and uneasy. Frequently, they have significantly more experience as recipients of information than as active, creative participants in their own education. The traditional model of education from which they emerge has trained them in particular skills of mastery while neglecting others. Robinson suggests that our very educational model is based on a version of the factory, with distinct subject silos (math, science, etc.) focused on a particular “intellectual model of the mind” that elevates deductive reasoning, all accomplished while drawing a strong line between those who are academically and non-academically inclined. And although creativity is as important as literacy to a fully formed mind, the traditional model often educates students outof their creativity (Robinson, 2010).

Imagination, the ability to conceive of things that are not yet realities, is the province of the creative mind, the catalyst to wanting to know more, and the basis of civic engagement. Creativity is a process that includes divergent thinking, the ability to entertain a multitude of possibilities, and the gaining of understanding by approaching core ideas through a multiplicity of models. And these are just some ways now identified as key to learning in the new age (Gardner, 2006).

Educating students to become engaged, participatory citizens becomes a challenge within the traditional higher education model. As Mendel-Reyes notes, “For the masses, citizenship education is boring; dry textbooks, with endless charts of the three branches of government and ‘how a bill becomes a law,’ and rote assignments to memorize the Constitution and the Amendments are effective lessons in passivity. Despite the occasional mobility of individuals, active citizenship and economic security have become the privileges of a few rather than the rights of all” (Mendel-Reyes, 1998).

Addressing a methodology grounded in an emphasis on a more balanced approach to education, one that incorporates creative work that seeks to promote engaged citizenship, this article suggests one pedagogical strategy that is designed to help students develop, through active participation in their own education, the feelings of empathy and efficacy necessary to true understanding and absolutely essential to the development of a sense of civic commitment, celebrating a form of democracy that for our students “does not yet exist,” mirroring the frame of mind that Greene proposes when she states, “I am what I am not yet” (Greene, 2000).

The analysis that follows is divided into three parts. Part one explains the Discover New York class model so that the reader understands the nature of this non-traditional, interdisciplinary course. Part two describes the traditional aesthetic education process, clarifying the steps involved in encouraging a student’s relationship with and understanding of a particular work of art. And part three analyzes the adaptation of the traditional aesthetic education active- learning approach to the social-problems focus of my own class, DNYhome.

Discover New York: A description and analysis

Discover New York (DNY) is a required course taught by a variety of faculty members at St. John’s University to all entering freshmen, no matter their major, through the lens of expertise of the particular professor teaching the course. DNY encourages students to engage both intellectually and personally with the city that not only houses St. John’s University but also serves as home to people from literally all over the world. Academic service learning, a required component of the course, poses a challenge for those who teach it to provide relevant academic connections between the course and community service experiences. With a continual emphasis on critical thinking and information literacy skills as the primary pedagogy of learning, the course focuses on the city as laboratory.

The author, a teaching artist trained in the educational approach known as aesthetic education as developed at Lincoln Center Institute for the Arts in Education, brings and adjusts strategies of this approach to teaching Discover New York in a version that focuses on issues surrounding homelessness in New York. Students in a class using this approach learn to look at the world in general more carefully, allowing the aesthetic aspects of things—the colors, the textures, the shapes, the qualities of these things, to become evident. Situating the world in aesthetic space in this way, with themselves in relation to it, they become “connoisseurs” of what is before them, able not merely to look, but to “see,” to make connections between and among the things they see, to place them in a wider context and to make meaning of them in personally relevant ways (Smith, 2005). This article focuses on descriptions and analyses of how these noticing skills are applied in the course.

Aesthetic Education as Pedagogy

The core elements of aesthetic education—inquiry, art-making, contextual explorations, and reflection—serve as guideposts in building curriculum that focuses on a particular work of art or text under study. The aesthetic education pedagogy as I use it has a foundation in the educational philosophy of John Dewey whose books Art As Experience and Experience and Education provide grounding for its processes; the writings, lectures, salons and presence of Maxine Greene, author of several books on educational theory, and whose lectures at Lincoln Center Institute are collected in Variations on a Blue Guitar; and the work of EricBooth, author of The Everyday Work of Art, who champions the development of aesthetic education skills as they apply to all manner of contexts.

The Discover New York class (DNYhome) focuses on the topic of homelessness in New York City, guided by the core elements and pedagogical strategies of aesthetic education.DNYhome is true to two main ideas: firstly, a basic belief in the value of art that challenges us by its presence to confront ourselves in relation to the world, a concept based in the thinking of Dewey, who saw the arts as a “manifestation…of the life of a civilization” (Dewey, 1934); secondly, a belief that access to processes that encourage civic engagement, similar to those processes that enable engagement with the arts, is part of our right as humans and is important and belongs to us all. Above all, I argue that civic engagement, like engagement with the arts, is an activity requiring creative participation.

Levesque-Bristol et al. resonate with Mendel-Reyes when each contends that the form of engagement described here is best achieved when it is a choice exerted on the part of the individual Levesque-Bristol, Knapp, & Fisher, 2010; Mendel-Reyes 1998). As noted by Levesque, Sell, and Zimmerman in their model for learning and motivation, when instructors involve students in the decision- making process and craft creative activities, this creates choices for students, which then enhances students’ perceptions of autonomy in the learning environment (Levesque, Sell, & Zimmerman, 2006). DNYhome seeks to encourage student participation in and decision making about the artistic process while at the same time engaging students in a study of a particular segment of our society: the homeless. Students are asked to develop their creative skills, making aesthetic choices through the processes of art throughout the semester as part of the course.

Essential to the class are authentic experiences that result in opportunities for art-making and creative reflection using multiple modes, all with an abundant provision of contextual information surrounding the text of

homelessness. Experiences are many and include the integral element of academic service learning work at one of three sites in the city that provide services for the city’s homeless population. In addition, in cooperation with these sites and their particular needs, several projects have been developed in the course that allow students in DNYhome and those who are homeless to work creatively side by side, focusing on concepts within a particular work of art, with subsequent attendance at a live performance or visit to an art exhibit. There is also an ongoing project from semester to semester that brings DNYhome students and children at our family residence site together in musical skill building.

In Art As Experience, Dewey argues that frequently, art objects become separated from us, that a “wall is built around them that renders them opaque.” He suggests that once art is taken out of daily life, society, our very culture, and put in rarefied, almost sanctified places where it is now housed, we cease to believe it belongs to us, even though art itself is our birthright (Dewey, 1934; Booth, 2001). Our “text” of homelessness is no different. It seems apparent that empathy as well as a sense of ownership and agency today is absent not only from our connections with artists and their works of art, but in the “real world” in an absence of a sense of efficacy in relation to the larger world’s societal ills.

Similar to the way the arts have become marginalized in our daily lives, awareness of and connection to social situations that impact the entire social fabric have become disconnected for our students as well. Aesthetic education methodology, developed to help guide those who are disconnected into authentic and personally relevant encounters with works of art, can be employed in social contexts as well. Providing aesthetic experiences, within which “the mundane world or the empirical world must be bracketed out” to allow the beholder to enter the “space in which the work of art exists,” can also become an approach in situations requiring social imagination (Greene, 1978). Situating anything one encounters in aesthetic space allows the “beholder” to begin, through the very skills of awareness practiced by artists who strive for “coherence, clarity, enlargement, intensity” in the making of their art, to witness the world more clearly (Greene, 1978). It is this world we wish for our students, one that is indeed relevant and able to be entered consciously. Service projects that connect participants, through aesthetic awareness, with the complexities of the situation at hand, addressing these and reflecting on them using the skills and processes of the arts, have a greater chance of finding relevance not only for student service providers but indeed for those being served.

Students who Dewey suggests find the learning process steeped in ennui and boredom, disconnected and foreign as are their studies from “life outside of school,” must somehow be guided to develop skills that return them to Thoreau’s wide “awakeness,” to connection to the world in which they must live (Thoreau, 1963; Dewey, 1938, 1997).

In the case of DNYhome, my students initially seem to lack connection to their own education, wait to be told what to think, memorize it, and then, after the test, get on with their lives. They are uncomfortable with the absence of right answers, uneasy with ambiguity. This sense of disconnection poses a fundamental problem if we are assuming that these very students might someday find ultimate solutions for the nagging social problems that continue to plague our social fabric. Somehow, these students who wait in my classrooms to be filled with knowledge must be trained to make their own learning, approaching opportunities for meaning making with eyes and minds wide open. The kind of participation needed here echoes Pateman’s notion of participatory democracy, in the basic sense that in order for citizens to be able to participate in their government they must, simply put, participate (Pateman, 2012)!

In DNYhome, the intention is not to ask students to provide solutions to such an entrenched problem as homelessness. I ask them simply to begin to participate by bearing witness; I ask them to be fully present and awake to the city and all of its inhabitants, especially those who find themselves without a home. Most importantly, I ask them to reflect on what they now know using the processes of art, for this kind of knowledge may well be inexpressible through discursive means (Langer, 1957). Somehow, they must come to understand, as Williams suggests, that “to bear witness is not a passive act”(Williams, 2010).

Bearing witness does not become an alternative to action. Rather, action must be embodied by the kind of witness-bearing aesthetic awareness outlined here. Acknowledging, describing, and analyzing what one encounters in all of its complexities—its colors, shapes, sounds, gestures, and relevance to one’s own life—is the necessary first step to action. Connecting what is without to what is within provides a context for dialogue and encounter. Works of art provide opportunities for these “perceptive encounters.” The skills used and practiced in these arts encounters can be transferred, then, to all manner of social confrontations (Greene, 1978).

Academic service learning, supported by the aesthetic education model, provides an ideal active arena for students to begin to feel connected to this “larger world.” Its incorporation into DNYhome affords a real-world opportunity to connect inquiry in the classroom to service experiences. In addition to class work, tasks such as serving food at a soup kitchen, delivering food from vans that travel to locations throughout the city, caring for children at one of the city’s many family shelters, or participating in one of several creative projects become opportunities for aesthetically focused participant observations and reflection (Liebow, 1995). DNYhome, woven as it is with creative, participatory, reflective, and contextually rich material is grounded in the assumption that the kind of deep noticing emphasized by an aesthetic education approach can be extended in a sequential process beginning with the immediate self and proceeding to the active noticing of the other and culminating in a deeper, more empathetic understanding of the larger social context. And service work, noticed and reflected on aesthetically, is key to the course, providing essential experience that becomes the platform for further growth.

Of course, as Dewey notes, not all experiences are educative; in fact, some experiences can be merely entertaining, and others, actually mis-educative (Dewey, 1938, 1997). One cornerstone of the DNYhome course development, therefore, is ensuring useful and relevant experiential education inside and outside of the classroom. Experiences provided must connect students to the larger world aesthetically in ways that awaken them to their own participation in that world (D’Apolito, 2011).

The class is based on the scaffolding of a variety of experiential activities that directly address the course content and that relate to and inform each other as they proceed. These activities invite students to make authentic connections to their own world and in so doing, help them internalize the process of active noticing; they ask students to make meaning of these connections in the context of homelessness, thereby encouraging them to translate their newly developed personal awareness into the social sphere; and finally, they encourage them to apply these skills to their future education, indeed, to assist them in making deep noticing a lifelong exercise.

Scaffolding Personal Relevance, Empathy and Agency

Specifically, then, the intention of the course is to ask students to reconsider their regard of the homeless person as a stereotype and, through a process of inquiry, to build the skills of noticing in order to become more alive to and aware of what is around them, able to imagine things as if they could be otherwise (Liebow, 1995). Creative work such as photo essays, made up of photographs students themselves take, story-telling (imagining the life of one homeless person: how did this person come to be here in front of me?), and service narratives fulfill the core elements of art-making and reflection. And contextual information, in the form of texts, articles, videos, and visits from representatives of the various service sites, provides students with a variety of ways to consider the myriad issues surrounding homelessness in our city and in the world.

All of this is accomplished in a reiterative sequence of activities and assignments that revolve around three main levels of engagement: noticing the self (activities that involve elements that create personal relevance), connecting with the other (activities that connect personally relevant elements to those that address the plight of the homeless), and connecting to the social sphere (activities grounded in elements of personal relevance that bring to light complex issues that form the basis of social ills). The following table may be useful in explicating this process:

TABLE 1: Scaffolding the Learning Experience





Noticing self

Immediate Context

Awakening to the personal context; going beyond the commonplace.

The Paper Bag Activity The Arts and Social Justice

Symbol & Metaphor Activity

Connecting with the other

External context

Imagining the other; encouraging empathy; developing agency

Voice thread Activity Photo Essay Assignment

Six Word Story and Back Story

Encountering social complexity

Interactive context

Grasping the social situation.

Participant Observation Service Learning Reflections

Final Projects

Tables, by their very nature, put things in boxes, and the boxes in Table 1 delineate activities and their places in and connections to particular foci or purposes. However, to grasp the ways in which activities relate to one another overall in DNYhome, it is helpful to imagine another kind of structure, one in which energy and focus moves back, forth, and around activities that inform and influence one another. In particular, when considering, for example, skills and activities that relate to “noticing the self,” it is important to see that this “stage” is present in all activities, directly or indirectly. If we are to understand a work of art or a social situation, we must first be present to it, “lending our lives” to it as it comes into being in our consciousness (Greene, 1978). Although it is possible to be told how, when, or why a certain thing exists, it only truly exists for us if we find some way for that thing to exist for us personally. If we are to make sense of the world around us, it must be a world that we consciously inhabit and wish to bring into order for our own sake. Therefore, the reiterative nature of activities in DNYhome asks students to find personal resonance in all experiences and activities, whether in the field or in related art-making reflective activities.

Inquiry, a key element in this approach, begins with a kind of “deep noticing,” a heightened awareness of what is there, which results in a personal transaction with the object that is noticed. Such aesthetic noticing requires a participatory form of attention, a “going-out” to the object, a beginning “to impart aesthetic existence to the work, to be present to it...” (Greene, 2001).

In a variety of ways, all course components seek to encourage student engagement both in and outside of class in ways that help catalyze students to “uncouple from the ordinary” the elements of their world they take for granted (Greene, 2001). As the activities move through and around the three main stages of engagement, they involve students in inquiry into concepts that surround our main issue: homelessness. They encourage the creation of personal connections with what may previously have been overlooked, they require reflections on a variety of issues using works of art as catalysts for social thinking, and they suggest explorations of the possibility of civic commitment as a life path. Some activities help raise awareness of less traditional ways of knowing. Many encourage in them a more “participatory stance” in their own lives as well as toward larger social issues, such as homelessness (Greene, 2000). Overall, course activities aim to weave together opportunities for students to engage in creative work, igniting their imaginations and inviting them into a world of their own

making. In order to provide an illustration of how activities flow through and among the three stages of engagement, several of the activities outlined in Table 1 are described in some detail below.

Description and Analysis of Selected Scaffold Activities

One technique useful for encouraging deep noticing of self and connecting with others is the photo essay. This is a major assignment of the course requiring a scaffold of activities that prepares students for the kind of creative work essential to the assignment. Preparation begins with the Paper Bag Activity, an experiential workshop that addresses the stage of personal relevance. The activity asks students to consider what of their own personal belongings they might need should they find themselves homeless. This activity leads into a guided exploration of a work of art, a photograph of a bag lady in Manhattan by photographer Thomas Hoepker (Hoepker, 1983). Students are able to connect more deeply to the question of what might be in those bags she carries, having recently dealt with the issue of personal valuables themselves. Inquiry into aesthetic qualities present in this photograph and additional photographs that focus on homelessness in New York City begins to build students’ skills of noticing they will need to take their own photographs. Indeed, this inquiry opens to students the general notion of the photograph as an art form and the specific notion that photographs can be agents for heightened social awareness.

Essentially, the activity also moves them from the sphere of personal relevance into that of the larger world, using the materials and processes of art.

The Arts and Social Justice workshop activity follows. Having just explored photographs that reveal information about homelessness in the city, they now go further into an investigation of connections between works of art and actions of justice in the world. Asked first to consider the symbol for justice itself, students must now consider what injustice feels like by identifying when in their lives they themselves have been its recipients—an activity that addresses the personal sphere. With music now the focus, a listening activity ensues that includes analysis of pop songs whose lyrics address issues of injustice in the world.

Students are invited to contribute music of their own choosing that addresses issues of justice. In this activity, once again personal relevance and active choice are the basis for deep investigations of larger social issues.

Following the Art and Social Justice workshop, representatives from our service sites visit class to share information about themselves and the needs of their particular site. In this way, students have the opportunity to meet people who have chosen the particular path of social justice as a career, evidence in the flesh of civic commitment. Further, they are able to begin to envision themselves as social actors engaging in complex social situations. In order to help students directly connect the photo essay to the complex social situations represented by the various service sites, a professional photographer also visits the class to lead them in considering their world more carefully by understanding the photo essay as an art form. Together in class, they view, analyze and discuss photo essays and the elements of which they are made. Students practice taking photographs on campus that connect to issues surrounding life as a freshman.

It is useful to analyze student responses to certain assignments in order to ascertain their reactions to the experiences and to assess their level of engagement in the class. In direct preparation now for the creation of their photo essays, the Symbol and Metaphor Activity provides such an opportunity. Students are set to the task of viewing objects and concepts in the world as metaphors and symbols for extraordinary meaning. This assignment aims to develop students’ skills of looking at the world itself in more complex ways. They must begin to see for themselves how things they thought were a given may not be, after all. Before they can imagine that the person handing them change across the counter might live in a homeless shelter—one of those who Liebow terms “less visibly homeless”—they must brush up on their imagining skills at a more basic level (Liebow, 1995).Through the use of an online tool called Wallwisher, they provide examples of terms and images that fit into the category of metaphor or symbol.

Some students rely on the expression of common symbolic and metaphorical concepts, for example: a dove can symbolize peace; or no man is an island. Other responses, though, reflect a more complex train of thought, for example: walls can symbolize isolation or imprisonment from the world/outside/everything. They can be literal, or self-imposed walls. Some responses especially strive to make meaning of the world, for example: Life is a jigsaw puzzle; love is the display, but the corner pieces hold the main struggle.

Another element in the photo essay “scaffold” is the Voice Thread Assignment. At this point in the semester, other activities, such as readings in the course texts and online articles and videos, support gaining information in the

context of homelessness. Woven together, participatory activities such as the voice thread assignment and more traditional assignments such as assigned readings and responses ask students to actively connect one way of knowing (absorbing and making meaning of written word) to another (observing and reflecting on visual information), thereby encouraging, through transmediation, more personally relevant pathways into the course focus.

Service learning experiences, contextualized by the exercises discussed above, are vital to the course fabric, providing opportunities for intense and explicit observations of homeless individuals in specific contexts. Just as vital, and indeed both prerequisite to and concurrent with service observations, is that students learn to move through their daily lives with aesthetic attention with homelessness in mind. The voice thread here is made up of photographs that serve as possible catalysts for viewing images as containers of information which create pathways into issues surrounding homelessness. Accomplished in class and online, multiple perspectives come to light through the establishment of a community of inquiry.

The assignment requires several layers of actions and thought, for example: examining an image for symbol and metaphor in the context of homelessness; reflecting on specific issues already explored through contextual analysis assignments (linear text or video) and connecting information in these media with the medium of the image presented; and articulating an authentic personal response that specifically addresses and connects information within the image with the appropriate and relevant contextual information.

For each image, students receive guiding ideas. For example, in this image, they are led to consider the concept of “trace”: when one explores the city, one sometimes finds only traces of homelessness.

Responses prove to make connections with this concept in most cases, for example:

I see scraps of newspaper, magazines, and clothing (perhaps). This place might be a hide out for homeless people during the night. Since, they can’t be there at day time, so they just left some of their garbage there. They might come back when it’s night time again. Hm, the building behind it seems like a government building, another irony of life.

In the response above, evidence is found not only of attention to the guiding concept, but of a deeper look, a discovery of further information leading to more complex thinking. This activity and others described here prepare students for the ultimate task: making their own meaning of an amalgam of acquired information (text readings and viewings) and personal experience (aesthetic regard of the world and of their service), and expressing that meaning through the processes of art (the photo essay).

As the semester nears a close, students work on the Six Word Story and Back Story, which is a reflective assignment requiring students to compile information they have gained throughout the course concerning homelessness in the city, and imagine some of these issues applying to one person they have encountered in their service experience. They must then write that person’s “back story” that explores his or her path to homelessness, using storytelling as art form, finally distilling the story into a title that has six words only. Some story titles: Just Trying to Get Through Today; The Ups, Downs, and All Around; Lost Musician Sings a Sad Song; Long Lines, Similar Faces, Little Hope. This kind of activity addresses multiple stages of engagement, beginning with personal experience, weaving in connections to the canon of thought regarding homelessness gained through text readings, and the application of all of this, through the use of the imagination, into the life of the other.

In my view, requiring students to imagine the life of another through this creative writing exercise differs from a more traditional approach of reporting and reflection. I require service reflections as well in the course, but the story assignment asks students to put themselves in the place of the other through the processes of art. For a moment, in this way, students remove themselves from the center of things. Thus displaced, they have the chance to articulate experience in new ways, in ways that enable them to “name what [they] see…the hunger, the passivity, the homelessness, the ‘silences’” (Greene, 2000).

Final Projects: An Assessment of Learning

As the culmination of the course, students are required to create a final reflection, known as the Final Project, on the experiences of the semester. Given their choice of mode of response, some students stick with the tried and true essay. Many, though, more comfortable now with creative work, prefer non- traditional modes of reflection offered them in the form of word clouds and Prezis.

Many students choose the word cloud format for their final project. This non-linear approach to reflection, used extensively during the semester in class and now available to them as an individual reflective tool, provides a way for them to collect thoughts from all their experiences in unique relationship to each other.

Several of the word clouds submitted do not indicate a comprehensive understanding or integrative reflection on the work of the entire semester. Such word cloud responses were similar to shallow and brief essays. Other students, however, create more detailed word clouds, incorporating terms that venture more deeply into the stuff of the course; they produce in this way the equivalent of fully developed essays, visually, that are accompanied as well by explanations of terms used, in essay or narrative format. Here is one such response, hyperlinked with extensive explanatory discussion excerpted briefly here:

This course has challenged my definition of home, homelessness, family, and hope. It provided a transition for me from my life at home, to the beginning of the rest of my life in college and after. As I begin this journey to the rest of my life, I am still confused and jumbled inside and I think a word cloud, which is a jumble of words, depicted my convoluted feelings perfectly.

The Prezi format affords students the opportunity to use text and image, in a nonlinear way, to reflect on all components of the semester. The two examples excerpted here reveal direct connections each student makes through aesthetic awareness gained from course activities, some of which have been described above, and an increased awareness in their situated lives, with the world in general and with homelessness in particular.

Student One sums up her semester’s experience in DNYhome using a combination of text and image:

She goes on to express some realizations regarding the relationship between text readings and service experience:

She finds personal relevance in creative work that extends beyond the focus of the course:

She understands a key course concept that connects aesthetic awareness with social consciousness:

From her observations it is possible to assess the connections she makes with course content, and with the larger world, all from a personally relevant standpoint. As hoped, she has become aware of complexities surrounding homelessness, specifically by seeing the embodiment of acquired information in a homeless person; she has developed skills of participation and observation in a socially relevant sphere; she has gained a sense of agency through the creation of her personally photographed photo essay.

Student Two reflects on changes made to her life in general and in more specific ways, through the development of aesthetic awareness in the world.

Notable here is the path of this student’s learning. Initially, the student reflects on a change in paradigm regarding her daily life—a personally relevant observation directly related to noticing. She applies this state of mind, this wide awake approach to the world, to a social issue: homelessness. Observations she may not have had or noticed reveal themselves. Next, she envisions new possibilities for herself; as a result of exposure to the arts and the processes of art she yearns to be a photographer. Finally she realizes that there is more to the world than she previously thought, an awareness achieved by “stepping back and taking in life’s beauty,” an explicit example of aesthetic awareness. These signposts along the student’s learning journey reflect results directly connected to aesthetic education methodology (Table 1).

Summary Discussion

General course objectives that appear in the syllabus include these promises:

Students will gain an understanding of and empathy for aspects of the lives of homeless in New York City.

Students will develop skills in articulating their experiences and those of others using the materials of photography, words, music, and Students will develop research skills that have direct impact on real world issues and their academic work in the future.

The sample final projects offered for examination demonstrate that these objectives are met for at least some students. A more intangible goal is also met in their creative work, though, one that is not easily put into academic language, but best understood through the languages of the various arts. I want my students to possess the means to articulate through creative means what they know as a result of deep attention. Put simply, what I want most for my students is that they learn to look again—at the city and, specifically, at its people—and to ask questions about what they find. I want them to wonder about the person sitting across from them on the subway, or on the bus, or walking just ahead of them on its busy streets. Armed with skills of aesthetic noticing and reflection that make them more sensitive to the world, they have the power to bring themselves to these moments of connection. Here there is the possibility of developing true empathy and understanding as students, supported as they are by their contextual research and experience, confront with eyes wide open the complexities of a troubling part of their world.

Essential to this endeavor on behalf of my students is the effort to demystify social issues such as homelessness, remove them from inaccessible locations, and return to them the efficacy that comes with a sense of belonging and ownership. Because of their participatory experiences, they may now believe that they might make a difference in their own world. As traditional aesthetic education methodology creates personally relevant pathways into works of art previously assumed to be the province of specialists and experts, the adaptation of this methodology into DNYhome opens possibilities for new perspectives on homelessness as a problem that is part of all of us and, as such, is within our power to approach.

First steps to take in this direction described here in this article are beginning to notice what is there to be noticed, making authentic personal connections with these things, paying attention to experience through aesthetic regard, and reflecting on experience through creative work. These create essential antecedent conditions necessary for true civic engagement and participation. It is not enough, I contend, that we place students into service opportunities that may serve the community but do little to ignite our students’ enduring passion. We must inspire in them a curiosity, a sense of agency, and a desire to know more in an effort to prepare them to be active participants in the community to which they belong.

Experience, as noted earlier, comes in many varieties. The experiences we provide our students must be those that encourage them to deeply notice their lives through multiple means, including the perception of their lives through senses perhaps long forgotten or disregarded. These experiences must allow the application of acquired information into the affective realm. Creativity needs to be brought back into the classroom. Ideally, experiences like these are imagined

and crafted “by teachers who themselves are learning, who are breaking with what they have too easily taken for granted, who are creating their own moral lives” (Greene, 1978).

No matter the topic, no matter the subject, no matter the discipline, it is from classrooms that celebrate aesthetic awareness and the creative process that will emerge students who are invested in outcomes that they themselves imagine, believing in possibilities as yet undiscovered. One way to ensure the kind of lasting learning that goes beyond the classroom and that may lead to the potential for lifelong civic commitment is to adopt curriculum strategies such as outlined in this article.


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About the author:

Heidi Upton

Assistant Professor, Institute for Core Studies, Bent Hall 339, St. John’s University, Jamaica NY 11439.

© 2013 Journal for Civic Commitment

Community College National Center for Community Engagement (CCNCCE) sunsetted October 1, 2015. Mesa Community College hosts content from The Journal for Civic Commitment, published by the CCNCCE, to ensure it remains publicly available.

The important work of the CCNCCE was made possible through the financial support from many civic-minded foundations and organizations, including the Corporation for National and Community Service’s Learn and Serve America-Higher Education program, the Kettering Foundation, Campus Compact (through funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), Arizona Community Foundation, Arizona Foundation for Women, Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold Foundation, and The Teagle Foundation.