Walls to bridges at U of T St. George: breaking new ground in the co-learning classroom
Walls to bridges at U of T St. George: breaking new ground in the co-learning classroom
“[Wall to Bridges] brings together incarcerated and university-based students as classmates in…courses built around dialogue, collaboration, and critical thinking.”– Dr. Taylor & Dr. Davis
This cross-unit collaboration in community-based, experiential learning sought to establish Walls to Bridges (“W2B”) programming at both Trinity College (in Ethics, Society & Law) and the Centre for Criminology & Sociolegal Studies, and to set the administrative and pedagogical groundwork for more W2B offerings across the three campuses.
W2B brings together incarcerated and university-based students as classmates in for-credit postsecondary courses built around dialogue, collaboration, and critical thinking. Convening at the correctional facility, “inside” and “outside” students together build an egalitarian classroom rooted in serious, shared inquiry. This holistic co-learning pedagogy brings together diverse learners who might otherwise never meet, entails active, student-owned learning, and addresses urgent educational equity issues.
Building on and customizing UTM’s extant W2B programming, we sought to pilot two Walls to Bridges courses over three summers at the Ontario Correctional Institution in Brampton (OCI), and to take them through governance.
Our LEAF proposal was based specifically around a particular host site for course offerings, which were to be offered at the Ontario Correctional Institute (OCI), in Brampton, Ontario. Leading up to and at the time of the funding approval, the LEAF project made sense in the context of the OCI partnership, and the plan was based on OCI’s specific request and desire for growth of W2B course offerings. Alas, this fundamental component of our plan to pilot and evaluate courses there became untenable, as the facility ceased to be a viable working partner, not meeting baseline criteria required to make Walls to Bridges courses work logistically, ethically or pedagogically.
Department of Criminology & Sociolegal Studies, Faculty of Arts and Science
Trinity College, Faculty of Arts & Science
Professor Kerry Taylor
Dr. Simone Weil Davis
Year LEAF Granted
LEAF Priority Area(s)
Impact of the Project on Students
The W2B-inspired course piloted in collaboration with the City of Toronto’s Community Healing Project and Community Peers Project was a promising success. The collaboration effectively aligned with the W2B model and pedagogy, convening 11 registered UofT Ethics, Society & Law students and 8 auditors from underserved communities in the Greater Toronto Area at twelve online three-hour class sessions. Course participants shared diverse skills, experiences, and knowledge to engage in critical reflection, collective inquiry, analysis and solution-building. Participants strengthened their capacity to think critically, listen and learn holistically, and work together to creatively address some of Toronto’s central challenges in the context of a global pandemic.
Taking the course pedagogy and learning goals to the realm of remote delivery due to Covid was a mixed bag. Key benefits included enhanced access for parents of small children and people with transportation challenges, and increased ability online to step away briefly if overwhelmed. Some of the downsides were as follows: focus challenges in front of a screen; missing the instructive and ineffable power of physical presence; collaborative experiential activities (e.g. theatre games); informal conversation during breaks.
ES&L Students: The Ethics, Society & Law students were committed and engaged co-learners. Through their collaboration with the community-based students, they strengthened their analytical capacity and self-reflexivity through exposure to knowledge and experiences that disrupt dominant narratives relating to themes of autonomy, choice, justice, and community. Furthermore, the expertise of the community-based students fostered the development of concrete skills in trauma-informed practice; this was a fundamental learning for the university-based students.
Impact of the Project on Faculty
Resources Developed from the Project
Partner’s Innovative Contributions: The Weekly “Community of Practice”
Our CHP/CPP partner leads, Cassandra Jones and Christina Alexiou, made every contact rich and were extremely attentive to strengthening the partnership. Pivotally, they decided to offer participating Healers and Peers a weekly “Community of Practice” meeting (their terminology), a gathering for support, encouragement and frank exploration about the students’ experience of the course. This was a huge contribution, facilitated by Cass Jones, that increased community-student investment in the course tremendously. The Community Liaison attended, which increased the instructor’s access to lessons learned along the way.
Knowledge Dissemination and Uptake
On Saturday, April 17th 2021, the course participants delivered a successful virtual Workshop & Closing Ceremony to present their final class project and celebrate their collaborative, experiential learning on themes of justice, community care, agency, and choice. The students delivered their Final Workshop and Closing Ceremony via zoom. 35 guests attended, including U of T staff, family and friends of the students, and other members of the community connected to the CHP and CPP. At the workshop, the students gave presentations about their learning and takeaways, and facilitated various activities and discussions relating to themes of choice and justice. The activities were structured around presentation of the students’ whole-class group project, a website entitled The Stories We Tell About Choice.
The website compiles students’ reflections from the course in a series of brilliant creative products taking the form of blog posts, original songs, video, as well as a curated Reading List. The website also builds on the community-based students’ work as Community Peers. To inform their ongoing work as community organizers and resiliency facilitators, the students put together an extensive list of services and supports for those struggling with mental health, domestic violence, and addiction.
Note: The course also included a memorable viewing and dialogue event with the filmmakers and (survivor) stars of the 2019 documentary Unmanageable, about Canada’s little-known “training schools,” sites of detention, dislocation and dehumanization that operated in Canada for decades.
In April 2021, an M.Ed student at OISE, Madeleine Ross, was hired onto the project as a Research Assistant to conduct an external assessment of the pilot course. The assessment was completed in July of this year.
It has always been our hope that the W2B model would offer cutting-edge, responsible and high-impact community engaged co-learning opportunities for University of Toronto students. We run our early courses with the intention of making them sustainable, permanent offerings within our respective undergraduate (and possibly graduate) programs. Our relationships are intended to be long-term.We are most open to sharing our experiences with other UofT faculty, who might pursue similar arrangements, in concert with and informed by W2B pedagogy.
A Collaboration Agreement was signed between the City of Toronto (Youth Equity Department) and the Governing Council of the University of Toronto (Faculty of Arts and Science) effective January 8, 2021 until September 1, 2021 to deliver an adapted Walls to Bridges course: The Stories We Tell about Choice, instructed by Dr. Simone Davis. This Winter 2021 course has brought together registered undergraduate students in the Ethics, Society, & Law program and young leaders who are part of the City of Toronto’s Community Healing Project (CHP) and Community Peers Project (CPP). The CHP and CPP are part of the National Crime Prevention Strategy and work with a growing community of young leaders from economically marginalized communities across Toronto that have been exposed to community violence, with two new 25-person cohorts entering CHP each year. CHP and CPP participants are trained as mental health and resiliency facilitators, offer workshops in their communities, and receive extensive wrap-around supports as they do this work.
A Collaboration Agreement was signed between the City of Toronto (Youth Equity Department) and the Governing Council of the University of Toronto (Faculty of Arts and Science) effective January 8, 2021 until September 1, 2021 to deliver the adapted Walls to Bridges course: The Stories We Tell about Choice, instructed by Dr. Simone Davis. This collaboration agreement reflects a significant milestone for the project. The product of nearly two years of establishing a relationship with the community partner and communicating with the relevant bodies at FAS and Trinity College, it enables a course delivery that meets the needs, interests, and goals of all students.
Given the success of the course pilot, a renewed collaboration agreement with the City of Toronto (Youth Equity Department) is being pursued. The extant collaboration proved to align with the goals of W2B in important ways: First, these community-based students are extraordinary, very high-achieving, and have encountered first-hand the impacts of educational inequity. Second, the CHP/CPP program has the resources and relationships to offer extensive support and preparation for all their participating students. That said, other co-learning cohorts for whom the course and/or this model can work well remain an option. Post-pandemic, we hope this can include returning to the formal Walls to Bridges model, whereby live courses would be offered once weekly in a correctional facility, bringing together U of T and incarcerated students for the same shared learning opportunity.