The Group

The group, the Center for Urban School Improvement, consisted of AmeriCorp and VISTA members working for under-served school communities in west and South Chicago.

The Program

We held a discussion inspired by Langston Hughes' poem, "Theme for English B." I had hoped to explore two themes: 1) how we present ourselves to, and are described by, each other, and 2) the effects those phenomena have on the relationship of education/service.

The group consisted of 15-20 members and took place in an elementary school which is home to one of the group's staffing sites.


As it was the first meeting of this group's conversation series, I asked members to first introduce themselves by offering to us their most important characteristics. After reading the poem aloud, we reflected on why people chose the characteristics they did and began a discussion of why Langston Hughes describes himself in the way he does at the outset of the poem. We then explored the barriers, and grounds for connection, which Langston's self-description creates.

Next Time

The poem inspired a very strong discussion in which nearly every member of the large group played an active role. It also functioned well as a lead-off reading for the series as conversation about members' introductions of themselves worked well with the themes raised by Hughes' introduction of himself to his instructor in the poem.

For this discussion I had paired the Hughes poem with an excerpt from Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments which describes Smith's feelings about the relationship of compassion/pity across difference. I would split up these readings in the future and let the poem stand alone.

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