This is the fifth story in our series, “A Network of Innovation: Ideas, Questions, and Wisdom from our LA Partner Schools.” This week, seniors at Animo Jackie Robinson are formally presenting their Student Action Projects, the culminating act of their Ethnic Studies course and a rich high school learning trajectory that emphasizes upstanding and community engagement. Ethnic Studies teacher Jasmin Gonzalez describes not only how students complete this challenging project, but how it takes an entire school community and coordinated, vertical planning to pull it off. While the experience is uniquely envisioned and carried out by Animo Jackie Robinson, the connections to Facing History’s focus on upstanding, core pedagogical approach, and support for interdisciplinary learning stand out as core elements that make our partner schools a dream to work with.
The 19th-century abolitionist Frederick Douglass proclaimed, “If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.” Change does not come easily, and it does not come without effort and risk. For teachers, supporting students in taking the step from critical consciousness to transformative action can be its own form of careful agitation, including careful prompting, guiding, and collaborating. Ethnic Studies teacher Jasmin Gonzalez and her incredibly determined colleagues have done this and the class of 2022 is carrying on a legacy of student upstanding these next two weeks with their Student Action Projects (SAPs).
The Student Action Projects at Animo Jackie Robinson take place at the tail end of twelfth grade, the culminating project of their Ethnic Studies course. The seed of those projects, however, is planted years before when students are oriented to the school’s guiding principles and begin to learn the distinction between bystanding and upstanding. Asked about what enables her students to develop such thoughtful projects, Gonzalez was quick to say, “It works because it has a 10th, 11th, and 12th grade component.”
In 10th grade, students engage in a comprehensive, interdisciplinary study of the Holocaust and Human Behavior. This unit gives them a grounding in identifying the ways that bystanding enables injustice as well as the necessary risk of upstanding to challenge hate, foster justice, and cultivate spaces of belonging, including at school. During that year’s culminating project, the Sophomore Promise, students use various forms of art including paper mache masks and monologues that prompt students to explore moments when they acted as upstanders and bystanders and to declare a public answer to the question: What do you do to help yourself?
In 10th grade, students participate in Project Soapbox, a two-minute, passionate public rant about something that must change. The range of issues is broad and the point is to spread awareness. When they get to 12th grade, they take action in response to the question: “What do you do to help your community?”
The students form groups in January and then brainstorm topics. They submit a research proposal in February and begin to identify organizations, sources of information, and directly impacted communities. They produce a public service announcement in March. They take on three actions, which can include surveying their peers, conducting interviews, presenting to younger grades, performing a monologue or creating visual art, making a pamphlet or poster, producing a video or posting to social media. In prior years, they also had an opportunity to engage students during lunch in the courtyard during “action week.” By May, they prepare to present their research, actions, and reflections to an audience of peers, staff and faculty, and external guests.
The seniors present their projects to their peers over the course of two weeks. I’ve seen various classes of freshmen, sophomores, and juniors stroll into their multipurpose room and shuffle somewhat noisily into seats. Their teachers often have to move a student’s seat, make eye contact, and squeeze through rows to get them settled. But when the groups of seniors take their places, begin their slideshows and pass the microphone so that each member can speak to what they took on, why, and what they learned, the learning is palpable. In many cases, students reflect a sense of agency and critical hope that comes from confronting an issue that has directly impacted them or their families.
“It’s all heavy,” says Gonzalez as she thinks through the causes her seniors have taken on. This makes it all the more important for her to create “a safe space in class to get to vulnerability. You have to provide space. We are taught pacing, so this year, we had to pause, breathe, process, allow for more of that space so that they can be vulnerable.”
Gonzalez may lead the course in which the SAPs are embedded, but they require the effort of almost the entire school. Besides the vertical planning across grade levels and the generally connected school culture and community, each group of seniors works with a member of the staff or faculty. Adults pitch in from all areas of the school. “Teacher buy-in,” said Gonzalez as she continued to list the factors that make this project possible. “It can’t happen unless you have the support of the staff. They are mentors for accountability and guidance.”
This year, perhaps more than any other, the SAPs have taken on additional meaning. Gonzalez has seen COVID-19 take a particular toll on students, from the direct force of the disease as well as the myriad indirect social, economic, and psychological impacts.
“In one group, every member lost a parent to COVID when they were sophomores,” she said. “COVID hit my family and it swept through South LA. I didn’t know this was going to affect my curriculum so much and so drastically. Not just lost lives, but lost jobs, or lingering health issues because they had no choice to work. We have to slow down, let them talk and write more, in structured ways. We wrote a letter of appreciation to an immigrant during our immigration unit. That’s what makes the SAPs successful, the students become so supportive. I need to make sure 9th-11th graders get to see that.”
This year, students will be presenting on a number of pertinent issues, such as:
- Single Parent Awareness: students sought to debunk stereotypes of single parents.
- Decolonizing Education: students critically interrogated the recent attacks on Critical Race Theory.
- The Importance of Vaccines: students made a community chain with construction paper where each strip read “I got vaccinated because/for…” They combined this with “essential worker” appreciation.
“This year it holds a lot of accountability, highlighting consequences of not taking up an issue, of being a bystander,” said Gonzalez. “It’s more than just a graduation requirement. One group chose to focus on disability and they all have IEPs, another group chose immigration and all the students weren’t born here. Their underclassmen will be watching presentations or participating in their surveys, and they can see themselves in that position in a few years. More than half the school doesn’t know about the SAPs because of the pandemic. Now they will be asked by the seniors: What legacy are you going to leave?”
If you are looking to incorporate student/civic action projects into your course, you may find these resources helpful:
- From Reflection to Action: A Choosing to Participate Toolkit
- 10 Questions for Young Changemakers
- Lesson: Choosing to Participate