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Social Action and Inner-City High School Students: Collective Action as a Required Class. Schools require students to learn skills to empower them as individuals , but not skills to empower them as collectives .

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Social Action and Inner-City High School Students: Collective Action as a Required Class

  • Schools require students to learn skills to empower them as individuals, but not skills to empower them as collectives.

  • Research on youth organizing focuses almost entirely on out-of-school efforts conducted with self-selected students.

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What is “Public Achievement”?

  • Engages high school students in “public work” to foster community change and democratic citizenship.

  • Developed by Harry Boyte and colleagues at University of Minnesota

  • Activities usually take place after-school

  • Students meet once a week with college student coach.

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What is Public Achievement? II

  • Past PA efforts have

    • Rebuilt playgrounds.

    • Contested school and city policies.

    • Created dramas about current issues.

  • Efforts in the past that threatened the status quo of schools have been expelled.

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What is PA? III

  • Draws from theories of community organizing and community development.

  • Less conflictual in its presentation than most out-of-school youth organizing efforts.

  • Nonetheless, the basic model resembles that of youth organizers

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PA vs. Service Learning

  • Service Learning

    • Generally serves the less fortunate (“clients”)

    • Usually a “helping” rather than collaborative social action model

    • While a few advanced efforts engage in collaborative “research” or “community development” service learning rarely confronts inequality and oppression directly.

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Public Achievement Charter High School (PACHS)

  • Founded in 2004

  • Approx. Enrollments

    • Year 0 (2004): 66 students, grades 9-10

    • Year 1 (2005): 80 students, grades 9-11

    • Year 2 (2006): 100 students, grades 9-12

  • Student Body Characteristics

    • 90% African American Students

    • 85% Free and Reduced Lunch

    • 1/3 “Special Education”—2nd Highest in District.

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PACHS Pedagogy

  • School was founded by PA organization in part to provide in-school context for PA activities.

  • PA participation required to graduate.

  • No formal classes.

  • Students learn through individually designed projects.

  • Every student has a computer.

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Why is Unique School Like PACHS Relevant More Broadly?

  • Only non-traditional schools like PACHS are likely embrace social action as a required part of their curriculum.

  • PACHS’s student characteristics are reflective of other schools in impoverished inner-city districts.

  • Few students joined school out of desire to participate in social action. Most were signed up by parents.

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Data Collection

  • All group sessions were audiotaped if students gave permission

  • Fieldnotes were written up from audiotapes, with individually identifiable contributions removed.

  • Focus of study is on groups as collective units and not on growth of individual students.

  • No data was collected that didn’t emerge from ongoing teaching activities (e.g., no individual interviews with students).

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History of the PA Research Project

  • In the first year (Year 0: 2004) Schutz was given permission to observe PA in PACHS

  • Given the challenges the school faced during its first year, Schutz decided not to do any formal research.

  • Schutz volunteered in different capacities at the school, visiting one day a week.

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End of Year 0 Evaluation

  • At the end of Year 0, Schutz interviewed seven PA groups.

  • PACHS students showed little knowledge

    • of what they were supposed to be learning

    • of what they were supposed to accomplish in PA besides “helping the community.”

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End of Year 0 Evaluation II

  • Some groups hadn’t moved to any action.

  • Completed Actions in 2004 Included

    • a one-day cleanup at the lake and

    • a mural to beautify PACHS

  • Actions were not linked to any coherent understanding of a social change or power

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Hypothesis: Limitations of Year 0

  • Schutz hypothesized that PA had failed to teach students coherent lessons about social action because coaches failed

    • To teach students social action concepts and skills

    • To help students understand how particular “actions” might actually affect the causes of oppression.

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Year 1 (2005) Research Project

  • Schutz agreed to recruit graduate students to coach and collect data on PA groups

  • During Year 1, Schutz and 10 graduate students coached 10 different groups of 6-7 HS students.

  • Researchers coached for Fall semester, and analyzed data together during Spring semester

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Summer Preparation for Year 1: PACHS Faculty

  • Schutz met throughout the summer with PACHS faculty to

    • Frame process for individual student projects

    • Link individual project procedures to procedures for developing PA projects

    • Determine which key concepts from PA were most important for students to learn at the beginning

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A Streamlined Model of PA

  • Schutz and the faculty agreed that the established PA model was too complex.

  • The group ranked the importance of key concepts and created a graphic organizer.

  • The group focused on one key ability

    • Determining cause and effect relationships through a “bubble map” process.

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Public Work





Free Spaces






Original PA List of Core Concepts

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Focusing on a Few Concepts








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Key Conceptual Tool: Bubble Map

Boring Teachers

Low Test Scores


Can’t Go

to College

Lack of Funding

Staying Up

Too Late

Police Give Fines

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Preparation for Year 1: UWM Graduate Students

  • Schutz met 5 times during the summer with graduate student coaches. Workshops focused on

    • Strategies and theories of community organizing

    • Discussions of the conceptual tools and concepts developed with PACHS faculty

    • Preparation for first meetings with students

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Pedagogical Goals for Year 1

  • To more closely follow the recommended PA process of analysis and research prior to action focusing students on

    • The CAUSES of social challenges and

    • The WORKINGS of systems of power.

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Pedagogical Goals for Year 1

  • Coaches were encouraged to

    • SLOW student movement to action

    • Facilitate student RESEARCH through weekly assignments

    • Provide tools to analyze RELATIONSHIPS between cause and effect.

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Start of Year 1: 1-2 Hour All-School Workshops/Discussions

  • What is PA?

  • What is Community? What Would You Like to Change in Your Community?

  • Introduction to Bubble Maps (Cause/Effect).

  • Discuss “Causes” and “Effects” of Specific Issues.

  • Topics Convention: Brainstorm Topics. Each Student Ranks Interest.

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How did the Workshops Go?

  • PACHS facilitators struggled in all-school sessions to keep student attention.

  • Practice sessions with bubble-map went well, but success was limited otherwise.

  • The Topics Convention, was rushed

    • Students were tired and resistant

    • Resulting topics were broad and vague: e.g., Foster Care, Police Brutality, Teen Pregnancy.

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What Happened in PA Groups?I. Finding a Topic.

  • Students arrived with little understanding of what PA was supposed to be.

  • Weeks were spent talking about vague and broad topics with little movement.

    • Students sometimes declared they didn’t like their topic but refused to change.

    • Early excitement turned to frustration.

  • Sense of Hopelessness Emerged Among Students (and Coaches).

    • What can a small group of kids really do?

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II. Learning Concepts and Skills

  • A focus on concepts and skills was largely abandoned in the struggle to find coherent topics.

  • The bubble map tool often just made topics more complicated and difficult to deal with.

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III. Completing “Work”

  • Assignments (“homework”) were almost never completed


  • Students Showed Capacity for Sophisticated Analyses of Power and Community.


  • Significant “work” was often done during meetings if a project was decided on.

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IV. What Did Groups Accomplish?

  • Only about half of the groups completed any coherent project at all.

  • Completed and planned projects

    • Looked like service learning

    • Embodied little analysis of power.

      Projects: Bake sale, mentoring children, poster with a safe-sex slogan, a job board, a bracelet & brochure on police brutality

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Regrouping: What Went Wrong?

I. Coach Roles: Caught Between Facilitation and Direction

Groups either floated or were overly driven by coaches. (See Kirchner, in press)

II. Coaches and Students Felt Hopeless

How can a small group of high school students have an authentic impact on oppression?

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I. Rethinking Coach & Student Roles

  • Coaches needed to find a better balance between facilitator and director roles.

  • With students, we needed to honor

    • Their extensive local knowledge

    • Their sophisticated analyses of social power

    • Their distaste for “school” learning (e.g., textual research and “homework.”)

    • Their preference for active and oral learning

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II. Rethinking Topic/Project Selection

1. Students needed more time to understand and commit to different topics prior to entry into PA groups.

2. Students and coaches needed “doable” options from the beginning to avoid directionless dialogue and hopelessness.

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III. Plans to Support PA Groups

  • Add weekly seminar at PACHS attended by all students to introduce students to history, concepts, and skills of organizing

  • Link each PA project to an existing community organization for resources, project support, collaboration, and community base.

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The Catch-22 of Hopelessness

If people feel they don’t have the power to change a bad situation, then they do not think about it.

Why start figuring out how you are going to spend a million dollars if you do not have a million dollars . . . ?

[Only when change seems possible do people] begin to think and ask questions about how to make the changes.

--Saul Alinsky (1977, p. 105)

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“Core” Concepts

Student Topic Research


Skill Develop

Specific Project


Power Analysis



General Model:

“Topic + Conceptual  Research  Planning”

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Student Local Knowledge


Coach Provided Information


Interactive Data Collection (Interviews/Tours)

Doable Project


Move to Action

Note that the focus here is on action, with conceptual issues

emerging through ongoing engagement.

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Year 2 Changes: Workshops

  • Focused pre-PA workshops entirely on topic selection with

    • An introductory presentation about other students engaging in actions (videos)

    • Topic brainstorming sessions

    • An ”Action Fair” where students attended presentations about pre-selected projects with “doable” efforts.

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Year 2 Changes: Relations with Organizations, Coach Roles, and Weekly Seminar

  • Pursued relationships with community organizations to support student projects

  • Focused summer workshops with coaches on discussions of coach roles

  • Planned weekly seminar on history and concepts of social action for all students at PACHS.

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I. What Happened In Year 2? and Weekly Seminar(6 Groups)

  • Students arrived in groups with better sense of why they were coming to PA

  • Much less directionless dialogue in groups

  • Groups moved more quickly to interactive data collection (surveys, interviews, tours)

  • Planned weekly seminar did not happen.

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II. What Happened in Year 2? and Weekly Seminar

  • Students remained much more engaged in projects with higher attendance.

  • Support from outside organizations was limited and often lacking.

  • All groups adapted their projects from the plan they were originally provided (they took ownership).

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III. What Happened in Year 2? and Weekly Seminar

  • Projects looked less like service learning:

    • Voter registration project

    • Discussion with police and on radio show about youth issues

    • A mural project to express youth desires for social change “Liberty for All but Not for Us?”

    • Video/Skit to show other youth how to interact with police

    • A presentation of survey data to another school about why students don’t come to school (truancy)

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Key Issue: and Weekly SeminarPA at PACHS is Still Pre-Political

Student Projects at PACHS Lack Two Key Aspects of Authentic Power Organizing

  • Recruitment of constituents and allies for collective power

  • Development of ongoing organization/group with identity to carry reputation and developing power.

    NOTE: The PA manual stresses the importance of #1, and out of school youth organizing seems usually to include at least #1 and often #2.

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Plans for Year 3 and Weekly Seminar

  • Move out into community settings more quickly, even if not directly related to specific topic (tours, interviews, etc.) to spark student interest and ideas.

  • Add weekly seminar at PACHS on history, skills, and concepts of organizing

  • Examine ways to link projects to constituencies.

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Youth Organizing Manuals With and Weekly Seminar “Topic + Conceptual  Research  Planning” Model

  • Checkoway, B. (1996). Young People Creating Community Change.

  • Dingerson, L. & Hoy, S. H. (2001). Co/Motion Guide to Youth-led Social Change.

  • Harmony VISTA. (2005). Empowering Youth for School and Community Change.

  • Hildreth, R. et. al. (1998). Building Worlds, Transforming Lives, Making History: A Guide to Public Achievement.

  • Lewis, B. (1998) The Kid’s Guide to Social Action.

  • Youth on Board. (2004). Steps to Organize and Advocate for Change.