Transforming the Classroom Through Student Action
This post, featured in Education Week's Learning Deeply blog is by Anthony Voulgarides, 12th grade English Language Arts teacher and instructional leader at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS) and his students, Ahlenne Abreu and Hamlet Fernández.
Twenty student teams arranged visits with local community organizations to learn first-hand about how a variety of issues--including drug use, mass incarceration, immigration status, and domestic violence--affect their diverse, urban community in New York City. Read the full post below.
This spring my classroom transformed into a hub of student action. My senior English course, “The Power of Language,” shifted from asking questions about the text to asking the right open-ended interview question for an expert in the field, from analyzing the tone of a published speech to mastering the tone of an email that could elicit a response from working professionals, and from identifying the message in a poem to perfecting a line of original poetry that would resonate with the crowd.
The transition to deeper learning was messy and difficult for students and teachers alike. I was often self-conscious about the noise coming out of my classroom: groups debating, sometimes loudly, about the best approach to captivate their audience and impromptu rehearsals that sprawled into the hallway. At the same time, I saw how going outside the classroom, giving students real choices, letting them fail when they try new things, and sometimes affirming their decision to use unconventional, even radical approaches transformed our students from acted upon to actors, and classes from the usual lecture and note taking to unusually committed and purposeful learning.
These seniors at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS), a NYC Outward Bound School and partner with EL Education took on a Youth Participatory Action Project that invited them to turn understanding into advocacy. Reaching out through email and phone calls, 20 student teams arranged visits with local community organizations to learn first-hand about how a variety of issues--including drug use, mass incarceration, immigration status, and domestic violence--affect our own diverse, urban community in New York City. The project began with more traditional research and in-class discussions, but then we ventured into the field. Students conducted interviews, met with clients and experts, and documented their learning through audio and visual media. Finally, students used their research to craft 10-minute presentations designed to educate the community and inspire others to take action. Student groups then competed for a $2,500 grant that would be awarded to the organization represented by the most compelling student presentation.
As the teacher, it is a thrill to hear students get caught up in the excitement of real-world work. Don’t take it from me, though. Instead, let’s hear from two students, Hamlet Fernández and Ahlenne Abreu, whose group named themselves “Guardians for Gender Equity.”
Hamlet’s Story: Documenting Action for Equity
I beamed nervously as I walked through the door to Girls for Gender Equity (GGE), carrying a handheld camera in one hand and a digital single lens reflex camera in the other. It was our first visit to GGE’s office, and while we were there to introduce ourselves and explain our project, we only had a couple of hours to capture our interviews. Ahlenne and Darianny gathered the subjects as I quickly stationed tripods, chairs, and backgrounds.
“Joanne only has a few minutes,” Ahlenne said, reminding me that we were working with very busy people who were graciously giving their time for our project. I rushed to have Joanne, the founder of GGE, cover only two-thirds of the screen--a trick I had learned from an expert video artist who had visited our class. I made sure the seat was angled slightly away from the camera so there was no awkward eye contact. Meanwhile, I saw Ahlenne and Darianny highlighting the most important questions to ask. We came prepared so that all the footage we recorded was perfect for Jennifer, who would eventually edit the film into a documentary about our visit.
Three interviews later, all of us began to meander around the office, with GGE's permission, seeking B-roll footage to give context to our interviewees' stories. We had learned the skills of creating a documentary from experts and from our teacher, but now we actually had to apply them creatively. What could be put in slow motion? Which images should be still and which could be Ken-Burned? What could we use to deeply move our audience, to light that fire in them?
Inspired, Ahlenne had the brilliant vision to film our group and GGE members joining in a circle as an image of unity and strength. With all our hands flying to the sky, and our smiles projecting the idea of a better world, this image ended up being the perfect slow-motion-ending to our mini-documentary.
Throughout the process, I remember thinking everything must be perfect. The video was our first chance to show our fight against the expectations that everyone should conform to society’s conventions for gender. The complexity of scheduling interview times, traveling to GGE outside of school hours, using expensive equipment and professional techniques effectively, and tapping into our own decision making allowed us to turn ordinary scholarship into citizenship. And this movie was the result, our way to show the world what happens when everyone has the opportunity to create his/her/hir own identity.
Ahlenne’s Story: Speaking Truth to Power
I was brought up Roman Catholic but converted to Islam when I was 15, following my older sister. In my largely Catholic neighborhood, I am no longer considered “normal.” My hair is hidden behind an opaque scarf; my baggy clothing no longer matches the cropped tops and ripped jeans of my generation. Because of my conflicting identities--being a young woman of color in a Christian neighborhood who is also Muslim--I wanted to advocate for an organization that works to end the many issues that plague young women, transgender, and gender non-conforming youth of color.
When we looked at the rubric for our group’s presentation, I knew that in order to stand out we needed to do something especially creative for our presentation. The documentary was a good start, but I thought that a spoken word performance would get the audience’s attention and persuade them to join us in our fight for gender equity. I set out on the journey to find a poem that would capture the theme and excite our audience. “Ladylike?” by Clara Romero, inspired me because its story was so relatable to my day-to-day life and those of my female peers. We have internalized catcalling as the norm. I knew firsthand the toxic masculinity that persists in the Dominican community--the adherence to traditional male gender roles and the alpha male’s dominance over women. The poem highlights the internal conflict many women feel when being catcalled: the approval of men validates women’s beauty, but it also diminishes a woman’s self-esteem. Our spoken word performance would provide a creative way for our audience to understand that conflict and how women often turn society’s hatred of women onto themselves.
Standing up there on the stage looking out at my peers, our families, and people from all of the organizations our school was working with, I felt emboldened. All eyes tracked me as I shouted my lines, flung a chair across the stage with indignation, and stomped my foot with fury. I knew that our message was controversial, our actions were extreme, and our words were taboo at times, but that was beside the point. The point was that people were finally understanding the importance and relevance of gender equity to their lives. Consequently, the spoken word became an emotional bridge between my group and our community of viewers, capturing the attention of the audience while relating to their experiences on a personal level.
After our performance, many people came to us to say how much they loved the poem. Hearing their praise made my body tingle and my heart flutter. Although our presentation didn’t win the grant, every single audience member present in that auditorium had a new understanding of gender equity and would think twice when they heard a catcall on the street. We succeeded in relaying the message about the importance of gender equity for all, and people actually listened to us. Raising my voice to speak truth to power is one of the most meaningful things I have ever done. As a STEM Posse scholar at Smith College and future physician, I look forward to a lifetime of connecting and advocating for other womxn of color.
My Story: Igniting the Next Generation of Advocates
As I watched from the back of the auditorium and saw the crowd entranced by my students’ presentations, I knew this moment was special. Each of the three teams, lines memorized and voices raised, presented with conviction to the crowd of community stakeholders. Inspired by their site visits, their personal connections to the issues, and the injustices we see in our community every day, my students, using the power of language, created a deep connection with their audience. Some--those on stage and those in the audience--may just have kindled a spark for advocacy, the fire of what it feels like to give back, speak up, and make change.
Trusting students with real-world problems, asking them to find real solutions, and collaborating with our community to collectively take action has transformed my classroom. As educators, we have a responsibility and the privilege to tap into that passion, engage students with texts and topics that matter, and provide opportunities for students to create authentic work that goes beyond an audience of one. For me this is what learning can be about--using knowledge and skills to ignite passions and make the world a better place.