Supporting Students To Do Meaningful Social Change Work by Sarah Glasband

How do my students deeply investigate relevant social issues in order to participate in meaningful social change work?

As a 9th grade Humanities teacher in Oakland, it is critical for my students to see themselves and their passions reflected in the curriculum while simultaneously building skills in critical thinking, writing, and argumentation. As an Oakland-raised educator, I know it is necessary for my students to develop their sense of agency as future power-holders, leaders, and voters in the city.

In this blog I focus on the process of facilitating community action projects, which spanned two semesters and deeply engaged students in developing a sense of agency by engaging the three key parts of civic engagement: analyzing issues, taking action, and reflection. Our 9th grade learning objectives at MetWest are focused on teaching students argumentation and increasing their literacy skills within the framework of oppression and liberation studies. This unit on Community Action Research weaves together skills related to English-Language Arts, Social Studies, Geography, and Mathematics.

Determining Assets & Deficits in the Community

Students began the Community Action Research project by engaging in an analysis of their experience living in Oakland, from a neutral perspective that allowed them to reflect on what they love and enjoy about the city, and those elements that cause trauma and fear. After a chalk talk, I discovered my students love community events, festivals, Lake Merritt, and good schools and teachers. They are distressed by violence, drug overuse, gangs, trash in the streets, and asthma-causing pollution.

Our next step was to walk our school neighborhood in small groups of ten students, and map assets and deficits using google maps. I struggled to pull my students away from buying donuts and drinks at the liquor stores to analyzing the amount of liquor stores and fast food restaurants in the community around the school. Despite my early desire to highlight aspects of the community that “should” be important to my students, they created their own common lists of assets and deficits in the community and ranked the issues according to their interests.

Forming Groups

I placed students in small, heterogeneous groupings of 2-4 students based on their inquiry topic preferences. One group, all boys, decided to focus on the reality that Oakland is a mall desert. They did not understand why there is not a safe and fun place in Oakland to hang out as a teen and they have to beg their families for long rides to malls or take lengthy trips on public transportation.

Costa Helps Us Inquire

In their groups, students began to generate questions about their topic, and learned the framework of Costa’s Levels of Questions. The mall group, Jerome, Miguel, and Emiliano (pseudonyms), developed this level 3 inquiry question: “Why are there no malls in Oakland, how does the mall desert affect us, and what can we do about it?” I wanted the inquiry questions to be broad enough for students to generate surveys and analyze news articles in order to both see the impact of their topics as well as develop a context for social change and service work dedicated to the issues.

Digging into the Research

In order to facilitate the research process, I found current news articles related to students’ topics in Oakland and students read and responded to each article using a note taking / summary strategy called Cornell Notes. My group that focused on malls read articles about the tech boom in Oakland, the process of neighborhood revitalization, and debates about gentrification. They also studied the histories of the Eastmont and MacArthur Broadway Mall where the new Kaiser complex is located.

Obstacles & Solutions to the Search

At our small public school, MetWest, we have long term challenges with technology. During this school year, I had one functional computer in my classroom and one overbooked lab with 10 semi-functional computers, 5 broken computers, and another 5-10 screens. Occasionally, the keyboards or mice were broken or missing. I was met with the simultaneous challenge of wanting my students to engage in research while being stymied by the reality of not enough functional computers at school or in my students’ homes. Thankfully, we live in a time of super-phones, and many of my students were able to use these in the research process. I had to let go of the rules around no seeing / hearing of phones, and trust my students as they sometimes used phones to further their inquiry research.

Also, my planning partner and I created a Diigo group in order to share news resources relevant to the inquiry topics in our classes. This allowed us to create a common platform in which to host credible resources for our students’ research.

Developing Surveys

Once students developed a context of their issue in Oakland, they began to design a survey of their peers at MetWest. With more help from Costa, students developed a set of at least ten important short answer or multiple choice questions to gather data from their peers. My mall desert group wanted to know how far students traveled to the mall, where they shopped for clothes, and where they hang out. They also wanted the answer to the critical question: do you want a mall in Oakland?

Survey Findings

After students made copies and fanned out across the campus surveying their peers, they began the process of collecting data and creating their own graphics, and calculating statistics of their findings. The students were amazed to discover the distances their peers drive, and the reality that almost everyone they surveyed wants a mall in Oakland.

Expert Interview

After designing surveys, administering them to our community, and collecting the results, students’ next step was to speak with an “expert” in the Oakland community who specializes in their topic. Jerome, Miguel, and Emiliano found Kiera Williams, a Business Development Representative who works for the City of Oakland. After walking into at least three of the wrong buildings, they found a businessperson who shocked them with her historical knowledge of Eastmont Mall, the MacArthur Broadway mall, and the plethora of new projects, including the recent development of Foothill Square. My students came back raving about their new findings, and intrigued by why and where the new development is happening.

Synthesizing the Research

After conducting their research on current news articles, creating and distributing their student surveys, and conducting interviews with Oakland experts, students were tasked with the process of developing “findings.” I asked students to reflect on how their research answered their inquiry question and they discussed possible next steps for their inquiry topic. In his research paper, Emiliano writes,

In my research I thought I would find why their is no mall in Oakland is because of no money or the crime and in my research I found out that it is because of no money and because of crime but It’s also about how they’re working on projects and what surprised me was that they are making places just for the wealthy. In my research I would like the Oakland community to stand up and just scream on what you want in this city and at least I would like to see more places for teens where they can have fun instead of being in  the streets.

Moving into Action

In order to move into action, I taught my students a framework my friend Chela Delgado shared with me called “Tactics of Social Change,” which helps students to group and identify ways to participate in effective social action in their communities. My mall desert group chose the tactic of change, media and propaganda, and decided to create a documentary on Oaklanders experience without a mall. They interviewed their parents, siblings, other students at the school, and decided to interview shoppers at Bayfair in order to figure out where they traveled from.

Somehow, without a standardized course to follow, each group of students completed action projects: two groups conducted workshops in middle schools on sex work and violence (using the tactic of change Education & Skills Development), one group created a documentary on malls in Oakland (using the tactic of change Media & Propaganda), three groups created information flyers and brochures on household pollutants, drug use resources, and job development in order to increase consciousness of their topics (using the tactic of change Direct Service), and one group created a powerpoint of gang violence but could not find and connect with a school in order to complete the workshop.

At the End: Reflection

My students reflected on their process of research, working in groups, and taking action. In addressing a question about students’ sense of power and learning, one of my students said, “I felt like it was really good that we got to put this to action instead of saying what we would have did and how we would have did this.” Another student wrote, “I feel proud after working on this project. I feel like we were able to change some youth’s perspectives on the violence in Oakland.”  And lastly, one of my students said this about increasing her sense of leadership: “Taking action on an issue like this made me feel like a leader even more because we completed a whole process without that much help from classmates or teacher’s help.”

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