School Site Issues by Maryann Wolfe

How can a government teacher sustain civic education and engagement in between presidential and mid-term elections? One might look to state and local elections and issues, or closer to home, one might ask students to identify problems right at the school site, and school issues became the focus of my EDDA project this year. Certainly this inquiry would lead to the three major components of civic engagement: “analyzing issues, taking action, and reflecting.” Additionally, communications skills would be instrumental in students being able to achieve their goals (they would need to speak to fellow students, school and district administrators, as well as teachers) so I chose to focus on powerful speaking skills. Over the years, my main teaching strategy has revolved around the Socratic method, but as we all know, some students have difficulty participating in class discussion, especially when they are asked to respond to teacher and peer viewpoints. So this year, I decided to focus on a small number of students to see if I could pull them out of their shells. One of these students was “Hillary’” whose written work was superlative, but she would not voluntarily participate in class discussion, so I nudged her privately after having given her many accolades for her wonderful essays, and we agreed she would work on it. By the end of the first semester, “Hillary” was a major participant in class discussion, and this carried on until the end of the school year. As June unraveled, I interviewed “Hillary” to seek feedback, and she said she felt that her participation improved her ability to recall information for exams and that she enjoyed being a full participant in learning: she also indicated to me that my use of the Socratic method was something she had not experienced in any of her classes before. She actually came to enjoy this part of my class. I was astounded!

With that said, I asked my government students to brainstorm the problems at Oakland Technical High School. To my surprise, the students identified 13 separate issues ranging from clean bathrooms to better teachers (so there was clearly a practical reason for pursuing civic engagement), and after further discussion of each of these 13 issues, the students voted to single out three issues: sexism on campus, safety in and around school, and the lack of vocational education classes in the course offerings. Fortunately, most all the students were able to work on their first choice and a few on their second choice. This would clearly provide more motivation to complete the task.

So, what were the key learnings, not only for my students, but also for me?

Students were easily able to identify problems at the school site. After brainstorming and some assistance from me, the students had little difficulty identifying necessary allies: site administrators, district officials, security officers, counselors, and the PTSA.

Students, after class discussion, understood that they needed hard evidence if they were to convince school players that something “needed to be done”! The students constructed surveys for their peers and teachers, just to see if their concerns were well founded. These surveys were distributed, the data was compiled, and most importantly data was “analyzed”; that is, the students drew conclusions that the numbers showed “sexism,” for example, was indeed a problem on campus.

Beyond this, students wanted to compare Tech’s issues with those of other California schools to note trends, so they used the Internet to pull out more information.

Along the way, I gave students questions to consider and checkpoints to ensure that their work was sustained.

Questions included the following:

  1. Where would students find evidence on campus?
  2. To whom should students address their concerns?
  3. How would the labor be divided within their groups to complete identified tasks?

Checkpoints were as follows:

  • I required students to submit group answers to the questions above and I gave feedback.
  • I required students to submit survey questions and gave them feedback as to bias, length, and format. In other words, I wanted to make sure the surveys were valid and effective.
  • I checked Internet research.
  • I required students to submit a short reflection piece about their project’s success.

Note: three times during the course, I gave student groups 20 minutes in class to discuss and hone their projects. The students were expected to communicate with each other either in person or via email beyond the classroom setting. They would use the same methods (making appointments either in person or via email) to interact with key school and district administrators and teachers as well as with outside groups.

Students completed their surveys and interviews, thus moving to the final stage of the project: taking action and reflecting on their work. The actions or final product varied from group to group and from class to class. Some chose communicating with peers and teachers via the school newspaper, essentially asking for a call to action. Other groups presented “demands” to school administrators, while others chose to educate 9th grade classes via presentations. Still others chose to convey their concerns with posts on Facebook, trying to reach even larger audiences. One anecdote about the “demands” or “requests” students made of administrators at the school site and at the district level: students were told that the focus of the district was not to add vocational education classes, but rather to focus on college as the route to careers. Students were also told that the “security issue” was more of a problem with students not locking lockers or leaving personal items unattended; with this, the students focused on making flyers alerting students to be careful with their personal goods.

Of course, students were also asked to give proof of their actions: copies of newspaper articles, surveys and results of those surveys, responses from administrators, print-outs of Facebook posts, and posters they posted around the school.

And finally, students were asked to write a 1-paragraph reflection on their work, indicating what they learned and how successful they thought they were in achieving their goals. Overwhelmingly, students felt they had learned more about the school problems they chose as their focus; their assumptions, for example, about “sexism” and “theft” were proven true, and the research they did beyond the campus showed them that these were not just local issues, but rather state and national as well. Additionally, students indicated they used speaking skills (particularly confidence and clarity), learned in class to address administrators at the school site and district level as well as to counselors and security officials on campus. They also suggested that by engaging in civic education and civic action, they felt more empowered as citizens; they also understood that they could try to solve problems without a political middleman. One student wrote “we were public interest groups in our community.” Another noted that “we need to step up or the problems will not go away.” Most of the students felt they had “spread awareness” of school issues among administrators as well as among their peers. Additionally, students felt good about having the “freedom to decide upon a course of action.” The students also learned some elements of working in groups – leadership-taking, delegating responsibilities, patience, and compromise. Students thought we might improve this work by having more time in and out of class, by working in smaller groups, and by having individualized instead of group grades. Obviously some students weren’t carrying their fair share of the group work.

As far as building oral participation and speaking skills of my five focal students, the results were mixed, with two becoming consistent participants, two improving their ability to project their voices, and one not making much progress at all. I was elated to see two students, who never spoke in class, become regular participants (each and every day). What was powerful is that these students recognized the benefits of participation in terms of better understanding the materials discussed in class and in terms of how this would make them more competitive in college and in the workplace. Two of the students had either soft or muddled speaking voices, and with prodding, they were at least cognizant of the issue and made progress on speaking in a louder voice or slowing down and making eye contact with the teacher and peers.

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