“The Art of Debate,” “The Four Steps of Social Justice,” “Redefining Rehabilitation,” “Gender and the Media” — they sound like titles of college courses many of us have taken (or wish we could have). But at our school, they were the subjects of a student-created social justice mini-conference that we held this spring.
My colleagues and I challenged a number of 11th-graders to devise 30-minute lessons to teach the underclassmen about social justice. In less than 48 hours, students came up with slideshows, posters, and engaging activities to present to the whole school.
Each session took on its own character. For instance, the one I advised was high-energy with lots of debate about oppression throughout history. Another I watched was marked by a contemplative circle discussion on the Trayvon Martin incident and racial profiling. One had students acting out scenarios where they practiced asserting their constitutional rights when approached by a police officer who wanted to search them without cause.
Needless to say, I was extremely proud. It was one of those precious days when I unequivocally knew our school’s social justice agenda was rigorous, meaningful, and successful. A year and a half ago there were few students or staff who were able to articulate social justice, let alone actively teach it. Now our upperclassmen can eloquently speak it, write it, and teach it.
They don’t just do this within the walls of Hyde. Their interest and mastery of complex social justice issues has earned them awards, internships, and jobs. They’ve presented at the NYCORE (New York Collective of Radical Educators) conference, they’ve been placed in competitive programs, and they have developed working relationships with local politicians and activists.
There are three major elements that had to come together for us to make so much progress: staff buy-in, classroom integration, community partnerships.
Last year our staff collectively defined social justice as a process with four key steps (1. Recognize oppression, 2. Show concern for oppression, 3. Research the underlying reasons for oppression, 4. Take leadership, take action). The steps are posted in a few places in our school and most teachers know them by heart. Now in interviews, our leadership team explains the steps and asks candidates to speak about their connection and commitment to social justice, a practice that did not exist two years ago. This coordinated effort rubbed off on the students.
Though not every course lends itself to discussion of injustices, you can find students engaged with social justice in electives such as our civil rights class. It’s all over art, history, and English. Students do inquiry projects, hold debates, and write research papers that connect to real-world problems that relate to their lives. At a NYCORE conference this spring, our students were asked how they manage to stay interested in school when they face struggle or tragedy outside of Hyde. They replied that our best teachers consistently found ways to integrate the realities of life into the curriculum (even though the realities were sometimes unpleasant). Thus, the students become the text of the class. Suddenly school was no longer this place where you go for teachers to give you a pre-ordained set of facts and worksheets. It became an extension of students’ lives: a place to be consoled, understood, and challenged.
Breaking the school-“real life” boundary could not have been accomplished if we had made Hyde a disconnected fortress against the rest of Hunts Point. My colleagues and I have been working to fuse our new building with the outside community. We have done this by bringing myriad community groups — Iridescent Learning, Project Groundswell, The Point, Rocking the Boat — to tour the school and meet staff members. In this way we gain a familiarity and solidarity with stakeholders. Then we usually bring students down to see the way programs operate.
The networking leads many of our students to connect with programs that help their self-esteem, their resume, and sometimes their wallet. Students get paid to teach science classes to elementary school children and advocate for policy issues. Students have given their time to build boats to row on the Bronx River, coordinate volunteer opportunities with our Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, contribute to a feminist magazine, and travel the world to help the disadvantaged.
I have started to do some recorded ethnographic research about how these partnerships enhance the classroom experience and have found very positive results. Students told me they use what they learn at community programs to educate and engage others at Hyde who might be interested, but not as involved. Another student, who is a member of A.C.T.I.O.N. (Activists Coming to Inform Our Neighborhood), explained that he chose the topic of police brutality for his five-page English research paper because he knew he would get some information in my class, and then later that evening would get even more sources and ideas from his advocacy group. The marriage of the classroom and community greatly motivated him to complete his paper and write it at a high level.
It is no coincidence that the students who regularly took advantage of the community/school partnerships were the same people who, this spring, planned the social justice classes with alacrity and taught them with passion.
We’re not stopping here. Our goals for the coming year include getting many more students involved in community groups or projects from the start, mandating and facilitating meaningful internships, and more formally recording the results of our efforts through research.