TchLaureate Geneviève Debose Akinnagbe teaches ELA at Bronx Studio School for Writers and Artists (BSSWA) in New York City, a secondary school where teachers refer to their students as “Scholar-Activists.” She’s developed a unit on Scholar Activism for her middle school students so they have a better idea of what that title means and the honor it carries.
So far, we’ve explored the following questions:
What, exactly, is “scholar activism,” and why is it important to teach our students about scholar activism in the classroom?
In this post, Geneviève focuses on the ways we can collaborate with a range of community members, like fellow educators, students’ families, and community organizations, to create an authentic and engaging learning experience for our students (aka scholar-activists).
Let’s listen to Geneviève as she shares her ideas:
Bonnie Tyler’s infamous tune has been resonating for months and the national solar eclipse on August 21st has been overshadowing conversations about the first week of school for many this year.
Even though The Great American Solar Eclipse is helping science educators start the school year off with the NGSS phenomena of a lifetime, there’s no need to throw shade at your science coworkers. The solar eclipse has the potential to be a bright spot all across the curriculum, and one that students won’t soon forget.
Each year, I’m so impressed with what my students produce as a result of their work learning about civic engagement and the culmination of that work, the Taking Action Project. As I close the Teaching for Civic Engagement series, I’d like to take the time to reflect on the successes of the Taking Action Project, as well as the challenges and possibilities it presents.
Projects that earned some attention this year included a proposal to improve the library at our school, a boycott of products with microbeads, a website to share stories and resources about sexual harassment, and a website to centralize all the counseling and mental health resources available at my school.
Previous projects have included a flyer targeted at helping residents of Chinatown resist gentrification and illegal evictions, a petition to end unfair taxation of products for women, and a zine about eco-feminism. The latter has flourished far beyond the classroom walls into a full publication with a website and a fundraising effort.
These are certainly examples of some of the most impactful learning my students engaged in over the past few years. However, while the Taking Action Project is one of my favorite parts of the year, it also presents a number of challenges.
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 Channelvideo, and here I want to share a bit more about the nuts and bolts of the larger project.
In order for students to engage in effective civic engagement, I fundamentally believe that they have to master the vocabulary to identify and analyze problems in our society, plan an action step, and reflect on their work. With this goal in mind, I attempt to plan specific vocabulary lists each week that build on each other, both within a unit and across the year, to accumulate into a complex database of language that students can use to analyze and change their world.
In this post, I’ll describe some of the weekly routines I use to support vocabulary development, then explain some specific vocabulary sets and the civic engagement learning goals I’m trying to accomplish with those specific words.
“High school students hate history. When they list their favorite subjects, history always comes in last. They consider it “the most irrelevant” of 21 school subjects, not applicable to life today. “Borr-r-ring” is the adjective they apply to it. When they can, they avoid it, even though most students get higher grades in history than in math, science, or English. Even when they are forced to take history, they repress it, so every year or two another study decries what our 17-year-olds don’t know… “
The study of society and our collective past is important. It helps us understand ourselves, how we got to the present, and the world around us. It’s interesting that, as a society, we show a great interest in our culture and history. Whether it be historical novels and nonfiction, games, television programs, feature films, museum exhibits, or Broadway shows, American audiences — young and old — are fascinated with the “story of us.”
Yet our students sleep through the classes that present it.
Identifying and analyzing what makes for effective civic action is pretty murky business. One reason it’s so challenging to evaluate the effectiveness of a particular movement, group, or action step is because definitions of effectiveness vary so much.
There are a number of ways to define an effective action or group. You might choose to focus on the outcome, such as how many people were impacted, the extent to which a demand was met, or the amount of concrete change that’s accomplished. Others might choose to focus more on the process of making change, such as the degree of solidarity and community formed by a group, the style of leadership or core values that are developed, or the extent of internal change or consciousness raising that’s created. The reality is that none of these criteria are wrong — it just depends on your perspective.
For these reasons, instead of giving my students the criteria I think they should use to evaluate past efforts for social change, and then use to plan their own action steps, I allow them to develop and hash out for themselves what they think makes for an effective social justice movement.
How do we help students to move beyond their own perspectives to understand the lives of others? How do we challenge them to deeply understand another person whose life and experiences differ greatly from their own? How do we cultivate empathy, compassion, and even love across the lines of race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, religion, and disability?
These questions lie at the heart of social justice education.
To create a truly equitable society, we must be able to empathize with experiences we may never share. We must break down “empathy walls” to transform our society. But how do we do so?
Theater in the history classroom provides one possible answer.
A petition is a concise, direct, and powerful tool to teach the essentials of civic engagement.
After going through a few cycles of civic engagement projects in my classroom, I found that what distinguished effective projects from mediocre ones was the ability of the student group to articulate a clear and appropriate demand that was addressed to a specific target audience. To help students think about the criteria of an effective “ask” and its relationship to a target audience, I have all of my students write a petition as their first semester history final. The petition serves as a “trial run” for their civic engagement projects and as a checkpoint, midway through the year, to define and practice the fundamentals of civic engagement.
I didn’t come to the realization about the importance of a petition project in terms of teaching civic engagement on my own. This conclusion was the result of many conversations and an inquiry cycle that was supported by the history department, both at my school site and at the district level. I think this is crucial to point out because teaching for civic engagement depends on several supportive conditions, primary among them the opportunity to collaborate with other teachers. My teaching has grown tremendously through the conversations I’ve been able to have with my colleagues in the space created, and funded, by my school and district.
It was in an inquiry cycle during my first year of completing civic engagement projects that a colleague asked, “What do you think separated the effective projects from the not so effective ones?” This simple question helped me identify the differences between two specific projects.
In classrooms throughout the country, the stories of extraordinary women — from Abigail Adams to Carrie Chapman Catt, to Rosa Parks and Dolores Huerta — are taught and celebrated as part of Women’s History Month. The argument for Women’s History Month is that it provides an opportunity for the exploration and celebration of the vital role of women in American history. It’s a compelling argument.
But unless women’s history is integrated throughout the curriculum consistently and authentically, the vitality of women’s participation in U.S. history will be lost on students.
To truly understand American history, diverse women’s stories must be a part of it. Women have always been active participants in American society, and have experiences as complex as the women themselves.