See Matt’s Video on Teaching Channel: Encouraging Students to Take Action
As I’ve been writing about in this Teaching for Civic Engagement blog series, I’m thinking about civic engagement throughout the school year. However, if you ask the students in my class, “What do you do for civic engagement?” they would probably say the Taking Action Project. The Taking Action Project is the final unit in my history class and it’s the culmination of all the skills and content we’ve been studying throughout the year. A part of the project was documented in this Teaching Channel video, and here I want to share a bit more about the nuts and bolts of the larger project.
I frame the project as a culmination and an opportunity for students to apply all they’ve learned throughout the year, both from a skills standpoint and in terms of content. I also frame the project as a responsibility that they have, now, as informed citizens.
I introduce the project with two quotes. The first is from the introduction to Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A., by Luis Rodriguez, which we read earlier in the year. Rodriguez writes, “The more you know, the more you owe.” Additionally, I share a quote by civil rights activist Yuri Kochiyama. She argues that, “Our ultimate objective in learning about anything is to try to create and develop a more just society than we have seen.” Both of these quotes are calls to action and make the point that the purpose of learning is to help improve our society. This is a radically different vision for learning than is usually presented in schools.
Traditionally, learning is presented as a means to earning an individual grade, so that students can get into college and be on their way to a well-paying and satisfying career. While I don’t disagree with these educational goals, I think if that’s the only way we present school and learning to students, we miss a significant opportunity to engage and inspire young people.
Taking Action Project
The Taking Action Project is divided into six steps, with each one roughly taking a week of class time.
Step One: Historical Research
The first step is for students to research a historical social justice movement from the 1960s-1970s that they’re interested in learning more about. Prior to starting the project, I do a brief overview of all the different groups they can focus on. Students then mark their preferences and I create groups that account for their preferences, along with social dynamics and various skill levels. After students have conducted some background research on the goals, tactics, and accomplishments of historical movements, they move their attention to the present.
Step Two: Contemporary Research
The second step is contemporary research. I ask students to identify any “unfinished business” of their focal historical group and then dig into the manifestations and root causes of that contemporary problem. I want students to begin with the historical research and frame their contemporary problem in terms of “unfinished business” from the past in order to deliberately place themselves in the legacy of a historical movement. This gives them a larger sense of historical context for contemporary problems. I believe it’s important for students to have a sense of background and to know that they’re not the first people to take action on a particular issue.
While an issue may have changed over time, it’s powerful for students to position themselves as part of a larger change-making process. In fact, on their brainstorm sheet, I ask students to make this connection directly by completing the following sentence frame: “We are a continuation of the legacy of the ______ movement because…”
After conducting their contemporary research, students synthesize their thinking together in the Root Cause Analysis lesson that was documented in my Teaching Channel video.
The tree analysis is a jumping off point for students to begin thinking about their actual action step. Once they’ve mapped out their contemporary problem, they can think about where and how to “trim” the tree. The “where” question is really about zooming in on a particular part of the problem and the “how” question is one of tactics.
Step Three: Action Plan Brainstorm
The third step is for students to brainstorm an action plan to address the part of their contemporary problem they’ve chosen to focus on. For some groups, this is the most challenging part of the project as it asks them to creatively come up with something they can actually do to address the problem. This is where the project moves from the theoretical to the concrete.
I start this process by brainstorming with the class on all the different types of tactics we’ve practiced or studied throughout the year. They easily come up with a petition, since we spent a lot of time on that activity in the first semester, but they usually need a little coaxing to come up with others. I remind them that oral history projects can be a tactic for creating positive social change, as can gathering and sharing counter-narratives. Finally, we brainstorm tactics that we studied during case studies about social justice movements from the 1960s and 1970s, along with others they learned about in their own research. By the time we’re done, we have a solid list of tactics they can choose from.
Students then discuss with their group members which tactic they should use and why. This is where some of the academic discussion skills they practiced throughout the year come into play. As groups engage in academic discussion, their ideas deepen and their action step begins to take form.
This year, I also piloted a new part of the brainstorming process, which was for each group to create, share, and analyze a Google survey. This was made possible through collaboration with a ninth grade computer science teacher who was new to the team this year. It was so wonderful to have support for the project across different classes and I think there are a lot of great directions for the project to continue to grow and change with cross-discipline collaboration.
Presentation and Oral Defense
Next, students present their action plan brainstorm to the class. This presentation is designed as an oral defense, where each group justifies what they’re planning to do and why. After they present their plan, there’s time for Q&A from the class. For the less prepared groups, this can be a challenging five minutes. However, I think it’s really important for a number of reasons.
- It pushes groups to realize that they’re actually going to have to implement their plan, and it helps to push them to formally talk through it.
- It removes me, as the teacher, from the position of telling groups what to do, and instead places their peers in the position of giving feedback. I certainly provide feedback, but I think building a sense that students are responsible to their peers is an important motivating factor.
- Hearing from each group sparks inspiration and motivation in the listeners, which creates a positive feedback cycle when they revise their action plans.
After having time to reflect on the draft presentation, it’s time for groups to revise their action plan and formally commit to a specific action step.
Step Four: Implementation
The implementation of the action step looks different for each group and the class time here is used in one of two ways. Either groups of students are actually completing their action step, such as making classroom presentations or meeting with school decision makers, or students are preparing the materials necessary for their action step, such as writing a petition or creating a website.
This can be a challenging part of the process, since the work time is relatively unstructured. I use this time to check in with each group and provide feedback about how to develop their work or deepen their thinking. Sometimes the feedback they need is logistical, while other times it’s more conceptual. This is a challenging spot for me as a teacher, since I often can’t prepare anything in advance for these consultancy sessions, but I enjoy the variety and watching students really sort through the nuts and bolts of their project.
Steps Five and Six: Individual Reflection and Group Presentation
After students have implemented their action steps, we close with an individual reflection and a group presentation that tells the story of their action project. Both of these assignments are designed to help students celebrate their accomplishments and think about what they’ve learned about themselves and society through the process of the Taking Action Project.
At this point, many students are quick to judge their action steps as “ineffective” because they haven’t heard back from the person they petitioned or they don’t know if their demand will be implemented by school administrators. While the actual implementation of a demand is clearly a significant criterion of an effective action step, it’s by no means the only measurement of success.
I push students to recognize that sometimes change happens incrementally, and the transformations in consciousness that occurs within themselves and their peers are also vital parts of what makes for a successful action project. I believe this conversation about evaluating effectiveness is crucial for students to end the project with a sense of pride and accomplishment, and not wrap their entire success around the response or actions of others.
To see the results of the Taking Action Project, as well as my reflections on the challenges and opportunities the project presents, click here!
Matt Colley is in his fifth year teaching ninth grade English and history at Oakland Technical High School in Oakland, California. Before coming to teaching, he worked in youth leadership programs and for KQED public radio in San Francisco. He is passionate about preparing students to critically analyze the world we live in and to actively collaborate to help make our society more just and equitable. When he’s not in the classroom, Matt enjoys swimming, surfing, and hiking.