When Emmi Sprayberry sits down to plan her classes, she probably does what a lot of us do. She thinks about her course objectives and maps out a tentative timeline of activities that build toward those objectives. But for her, that is just the beginning. Her next step involves phone calls, emails, and meetings with potential community partners. In the case of this semester’s Graphic Design class, Emmi found herself sitting down with (1) the owners of Urban Foxes, a local small batch baking coffee and courtyard known for their pies; (2) Daniel Johnson, the owner of Significant Developments who uses art to connect community and businesses through creative engagement; and finally (3) Lauren Shields (Senior Manager of Advertising and Creative Services ) and Jennifer Hill (Graphic Designer), professionals that work for C Spire, a locally owned large network provider.
Planning a class is hard enough without the headache of all of these phone calls, but for Emmi, it’s worth it: “Teenagers have a negative view of education and don’t understand how, why, when they’ll ever use what they are learning in school,” she explains, “they need skills like independence and taking risks and figuring new things out.” To test her hunch, Emmi spoke to graphic designers in the work field and students at local universities to ask what they wish they had known before college, while in college, or after college. Overwhelmingly, the answer was that some sort of authentic community partnership would have made a difference in their learning. For Emmi, art is the perfect discipline to incorporate collaboration, interdisciplinarity, and innovation: “Kids want to know exactly what [an assigned art project] is supposed to look like, but in real life this is not how it works . .. they need to know how does brainstorming work, what are the right questions to ask on a project?” Sure this all sounds good in theory, but how does community engagement look in an actual class? Emmi explains more below.
The work for changing the Graphic Design 2 course started last spring, with lots of brainstorming and research. I began with the question: “What do I want them to learn and how do I want them to get engaged with the community?” I then made a list of all the amazing people and community members that might be willing to take a leap of faith and let high school students come in for collaborative work with their brand. The idea was to make sure that throughout the year students had the opportunity to work with multiple levels of businesses: entrepreneurs, small businesses, corporations, non profits, city-centric businesses. I always wanted to make sure that the businesses we partnered with were very Jackson focused – that they were about the community in which they live and wor , and that they give back in some way, enhancing life in Jackson. As I started to reach out and have meetings in the summer with these prospects, I began to map out a timeline to make sure the work flowed well, that there was this balance. Now does that mean it looks like currently what I envisioned? No. I actually think it’s better. I have had to make sure that I stayed flexible and adapted. So for the Fall Course we were able to work with Daniel Johnson, Urban Foxes, and C Spire. Each collaboration has a different focus and need and the students are getting to see commonalities about branding but also experiencing marketing and all the different aspects that go into the user experience with these company brands. They are also getting to see the differences between each company- their unique voice and story.
“Hopefully they all learn through this process and come to grasp and understand problem solving in a deeper way, but also are empowered and encouraged by who they are and that their voice and point of view matters and has worth.“
At this point in this semester, each business has come to the class and pitched to the students to present what their brand is, what they do, how the branding functions in the world, and what their need is. Once the pitches were completed, instead of the original plan of all the students working on one at a time all together, I decided it would be better to have more focused groups- playing to the the students’ likes and desires. I wanted to make sure that the companies received strong quality work and that it wasn’t watered down by quantity. This gave the students a chance for choice but to also be enthusiastic about their pick and really giving it their all. Hopefully they all learn through this process and come to grasp and understand problem solving in a deeper way, but also are empowered and encouraged by who they are and that their voice and point of view matters and has worth. So now we are in the process of designing for these three brands. Terrifying and exciting all at the same time.
The only thing harder than planning a community engaged learning course is implementing a community engaged learning course. When youth are tasked to do something authentic and difficult, such as designing a welcoming package for a large company for new customers, they are bound to make some mistakes. Real life is messy, and it doesn’t always come with clear rubrics or participation trophies. But it’s learning how to manage this mess, to get back up after failure, that makes CEL so generative. Stay tuned for part two of this story, in which Emmi shares (after the conclusion of the project) the ups and downs of Graphic Design (re)designed.