Equity & Diversity Opinion

Empowering Students to Become Agents of Social Change

By Contributing Blogger — March 11, 2016 5 min read
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This post is by Blair Baron, a 12th grade teacher at Codman Academy Charter Public School, Boston, MA.

It was a Sunday night. My phone vibrated, alerting me to a text message from one of my twelfth-grade students. “Hey Blair,” it read. “I wanted to let you know that I’m planning a walkout tomorrow at 12 pm.”

Kimani went on to explain that the walkout was in response to the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, MO.

My heart soared, and then sank immediately. Almost all of my kids are students of color growing up in the inner city. From the moment our students enter Codman Academy, we teach about justice and injustice, and discuss our students’ own power as change agents. We all must be the change we wish to see in the world. Yet, had we gone too far? Were our students about to put themselves in harm’s way?

The following morning our principal Thabiti showed me an email from an anonymous student, which explained, “Students will be walking out to protest against the injustice in the law system.... Our nation is at a critical time. It is important that youth get involved because that is how you create revolutions.” “This is a beautiful thing,” Thabiti commented. “But we need to make sure they are safe.” Thabiti responded to the anonymous email by encouraging our student activists to think deeply about the purpose of, and their goals for, this walkout. “If you choose to walk out,” he noted. “BE SAFE. The last thing we need is more hurt and pain. Call me if you need me.”

A few months later, our school leaders encouraged me to develop a unit related to policing in America, and to incorporate the Justice Department’s Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department into our study. I reached out to our academic dean, who supported and guided me as we developed the unit together. We entitled it, “The Challenges, the Successes, and the Possibilities of Policing in the United States.”

I highlight this anecdote to demonstrate this: I belong to a community that truly emphasizes both social justice and collaboration. As an EL Education school, we intentionally incorporate real-world issues into interdisciplinary units of study called learning expeditions. We are also a community that learns together, a family that cares for one another, and a home that feels safe for faculty and students. This work is only possible because we are in it together.

Given my students’ backgrounds, this topic, Policing in America, is one that impacts them daily. As my student Kevin says, “Because we are able to have a deep text-to-self connection, that is what makes us work harder. We want to read more so we can learn more about it.” Another one of my brilliant students, Jibria, explains how common it is for youth to feel like their schoolwork is pointless. So frequently, students ask themselves, “When will I ever use this information in real life?” Yet, as Jibria says, “This is not just something we are learning about. It is real life.” A topic that kids really care about and that is supported with great texts inspires students to work very hard. They will read deeper. They will question each other. They will push themselves. They will push each other, and they will be completely invested in the work of understanding the topic. A compelling topic combined with a powerful primary source challenges students to read and think critically.

At Codman Academy Charter Public School, we work hard to establish a culture in which students know they are valued, and that they are our teachers, just as we are theirs. As a white woman, I need to understand that I will never understand these issues in the ways my students understand them, and I need to understand that I have a lot to learn from my students. Deeper learning creates the opportunity to learn authentically from each other.

We aim to draw on our students’ own knowledge, experiences, and passions to inspire deeper learning in the classroom. We learn from one another, and nurture all perspectives. Our culture of achievement and of engagement comes from respect for student perspectives and voices. There are, of course, real challenges in this work. For example, because all students learn differently, we place a strong emphasis on differentiation. Rather than expecting all students to read at the same pace and annotate in the same manner, we provide both written and audio versions of books, in addition to multiple opportunities to demonstrate mastery.

Another challenge--but one that is crucial to overcome--is ensuring that all students comprehend complex texts and topics. For example, the Justice Department’s Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department is an incredibly dense text, and needed to be read aloud in order for all students to understand it. As we read, students independently used a variety of note-taking strategies. I also regularly had students work together in table groups. This way, they learned from each other, asked each other questions, and pushed one another. When students know their voices are valued, they are more willing to share their ideas about a text.

This video of my classroom in action shows what it looks like and sounds like when students are deeply and respectfully engaged in an academic conversation about a meaningful topic.

While I hope--and believe--all my students were transformed by this expedition, I am certain that our work investigating policing in America profoundly impacted one student in particular. For much of his life, Adrian strongly disliked Humanities. He completed the required work, but did not enjoy it, and longed for the day he could focus on his true passion: engineering. Adrian graduated from Codman Academy this past June and sent me the following text message a few months into his first semester of college: “I don’t know if I said this before, but thank you for opening my eyes to a lot of things. Your class changed the way I look at the world in a dramatic way. In fact, I am thinking about changing my major to sociology. I have really grown a passion for it, and I think a lot of it has to do with your class.” Learning that shifts a student’s way of looking at the world is learning that empowers him or her to become an agent of change in school and in the real world.

If you would like to learn more about Blair Baron’s work, she is one many teachers featured in EL Education’s brand-new book, Learning That Lasts: Challenging, Engaging and Empowering Students with Deeper Instruction and the companion open-source video series filmed and produced by David Grant.

Photo by David Grant.

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