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Local Immersion: Tulsa Term Uses The City As A Classroom

If you had to draw a map of the city from an aerial view, what would it include? What would it leave out? And what would both reveal about how your identity relates to Tulsa as a whole?

This was an exercise educators Jane Beckwith and Eder Williams-McKnight had a cohort of local high school juniors and seniors complete during the first week of Tulsa Term. From their classroom on the sixth floor of City Hall, the students could see Tulsa stretch before them in all directions. It’s a bird’s eye view of a city that holds 400,000 people over 185 miles most of us haven’t had the opportunity to take in.

A view from One Technology Center (Tulsa City Hall) in November 2018. Photo: Molly Evans

Tulsa Term is an immersive school semester where students directly engage with the city through meaningful assignments and projects. Beckwith and Williams-McKnight, both teachers at Holland Hall, welcomed the inaugural class this month, after years of developing the program.

“This city is a remarkable classroom,” Beckwith said. “And it just seems tragic not to be immersed in it.”

Select students from Holland Hall and the Tulsa Public Schools system meet every day on the sixth floor of City Hall. But the curriculum Beckwith and Williams-McKnight have designed takes them all over the map—literally—through May.

The Joinery's owner Nathan Pickard meets with Eder Williams-McKnight (center) and Jane Beckwith (right) at Tulsa Term's home base at City Hall on Jan. 4, 2019. Photo: Molly Evans

Beckwith started formulating the idea for Tulsa Term after visiting CITYterm, a similar immersive program in New York in 2009. A few years later, Williams-McKnight came to Holland Hall from CITYterm, and the pair’s project came to fruition.

“There’s so much we need to know about ourselves as this city that is missing in the story,” Williams-McKnight said.

Tulsa Term is school, just not on campus. Students will study English, history, science, statistics and complete a capstone project this semester. The academic disciplines will be layered with topical deep dives and case studies on community health, food security and “gathering places.”

For example, in the second week of Tulsa Term (when we interviewed Beckwith and Williams-McKnight), students focused on the origins of Tulsa.

“[Origins] feeds into a larger question of ‘What makes Tulsa, Tulsa?’” Williams-McKnight explained. “We are looking at three different ways of understanding that question from the Native Americans to the empire of oil to Greenwood and African-American wealth and the destruction—and then using that to ask questions about ‘How did we get here, where we are today?’”

Students will be challenged to think deeply about the current conditions in Tulsa and to collaborate with other members of Tulsa Term in order to innovate potential solutions.

“We have seen and we do know the power of youth, the power of fresh ideas,” Williams-McKnight said. “They are not locked down in systems yet so they can still imagine stuff.

“We’re just lured by the possibility.”

Photo: Molly Evans


We’re also very excited about our new partnership with Tulsa Term. One of our goals in building The Joinery is to connect people to food, nature and community. We plan to welcome students to the site, the Tisdale Food Forest, and nearby urban farms managed by the nonprofit Restoration Collective to explore permaculture in an area where access to fresh food is limited.

We interviewed Jane Beckwith and Eder Williams-McKnight on Jan. 14 at City Hall. Read highlights from the conversation below. Note: Responses have been edited for length.

Explain the process of putting this program together.

Jane: It’s born out of things we were already doing in our lives. I had generated curriculum that was called Downtown Tulsa Studies and History of Downtown Tulsa in partnership with other people at Holland Hall over many years since 2010. More recently, I was also involved in the Civic Innovation Fellowship through the Mayor’s Office, and that helped me have a deeper connection with people working at the City, and they saw the potential in the program and helped become a valuable resource, hence being located here...It wasn’t like reinventing the wheel in terms of the way we think and do education and learning and growing, but we’re stepping into a place where we have more freedom to fully express and explore what we value and how we teach.

Eder: I think our experiences have shown us what makes students transform and ask questions about “How do we design for that?”… A lot of us spend a lot of time reading textbooks and having experiences in school and don’t really see our true selves reflected in that experience, so we’re really student-centered in that way...But then also it’s just a curiosity about “What can I create and innovate?” I know I do better with others when it’s not just me. “How can we harness this energy to astound ourselves about we can do?”

“We have seen and we do know the power of youth, the power of fresh ideas."

Explain how your curriculum breaks down.

Eder: We have curricular themes: Place, People, Policy, Promise. The Four Ps go through everything we do. And then we have these topical things: origins of Tulsa, its history, then community health and then food and then "gathering places" and then capstone projects of students’ choices. Some of those pieces are big, immersive pieces (like you’re spending four weeks on this one), and some of them are shorter pieces (like this is going to be a week, a week and a half, a case study or something).

Eder: It’s one thing to recognize the problems out there, it’s another thing to offer a solution. And so Promise is about “What can I imagine to fix these problems we’ve inherited?” but also “Do I have a vision of this city that can be promoted and shared and people can latch onto?” but also “Can I imagine even how to invent myself or reinvent myself to be that higher self I want to be?” It’s honoring the positive possibilities of what can be and using that as a practice.

Pages ready to be turned at Tulsa Term. Photo: Molly Evans

Explain food security in the curriculum and The Joinery's role.

Jane: They’ll be coming right out of our deep dive into community health, so it just seemed like an appropriate step to look at [The Joinery] as a case study when we talk about health and wellness and access to health and wellness. I had also done some work with EJ Oppenheimer with one of my global issues classes for students to understand food deserts, food swamps and the role of permaculture in food forests. I knew that it was something that was alive in Tulsa and not that many people still know about it.

Eder: We will habitually be attuned toward innovative things that are not yet super established here, because that’s where you can make a difference. The Joinery is doing something new and innovative and interesting. On one hand, we want students to be able to say, “Here’s what’s possible,” but we also want to expose them to organizations who are already thinking like that and who are crossing boundaries and creating synthesis from these disparate ideas.

“This city is a remarkable classroom, and it just seems tragic not to be immersed in it.”

Why is this good for Tulsa? Why do you care?

Eder: [Tulsa Term] is teaching students the cognitive and affective skills necessary to think about their impact on the world. They will be leaders. They will be involved in decision-making. They’re going to be the ones to say, “We’re going to lay a train track down” that can affect generations based upon where that train track was laid down. And so to just have critical thinking — I don’t mean like narrow critical thinking — I mean like really know how to explore something, to think about the implications of choices and their sense of agency and maybe having an idea that says, “What if, instead?” or “Why not this?”... Even if you buy totally into the cliche of the American Dream, the American Dream needs thinkers, imaginers, and people who are empathetic about the plight of other people.

Jane: It’s putting them in a setting where they are expected to ask a lot of questions and not know the answers and to explore and play and wonder and grow out of that versus “I have to know the right answer to this question” or “I have to do well on this test by knowing all the answers.” ... And, you know, when you’re around a 3-year-old or 4-year-old or 5-year-old, they ask questions all day long. They never stop. It can be exhausting...You lose naps, snacks and questions. They all go out the door at some point and life changes. We don’t have naps, but we do have meditation, and we have centering and grounding. We do have snacks. And we’re inviting back the wonder and the questions.

Learn more about Tulsa Term

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