This was no regular meeting with the principal. I had a yellow legal pad and was trying to keep up with the sparks of fresh ideas or next steps. Proposals, artifacts and research passed across the big desk. Impacts on the community were discussed. Monetary costs were considered. At first, the legal pad might suggest an evaluation meeting. Proposals, artifacts and research might indicate that I was steering a curriculum committee. And the mention of money? Well, maybe I’m planning a field trip.
And all would be normal except for a few small twists. First, I was standing in the corner taking notes – not in a chair. So, go ahead and erase all of the “I” statements in that first paragraph. Then, insert the names [withheld here] of my students. The proposals, artifacts and research being passed back and forth were not coming from my hands – they were coming from my students’. Budget drafts and event proposals were the products of their own brainstorming and research. Yet, the discussion still centered around curriculum, but in this meeting, my students were taking the helm.
See, after watching the trailer for the recently-acclaimed documentary, The Interrupters, students who are ahead on the projects in my classroom are the ones trying to set up a community event to view and discuss the documentary.
The My Bloody Life project
Just after Christmas, I was Tweeting back and forth with some other educators about a gang awareness project that was planned for our sophomore class. Originally, this project was born out a request by the mayor of our town. A couple years ago, the mayor wrote a letter to the first New Tech class requesting a PSA that could be broadcast on the public access channel. For the past two years, students read My Bloody Life by Reymundo Sanchez (a pseudonym for a former Chicago Latin King); spoke with Sanchez via Skype; and then put together their proposed PSA campaigns.
Coming to this already great project, I had decided to do some research of my own on different types of research students could use to model their products around. I loved the types of products students would produce and the text with which they would anchor their learning and perspective. I just wanted more access to a 21st century experience — I wanted to find different types of media. It was then that I first ran across The Interrupters.
So, how did we get to a point where students are meeting with our school principal in order to organize a school-wide or community viewing of The Interrupters? When we came back from winter break, my students started our project, driven by the question:
How do we, as students of Danville High School and young citizens, design a public awareness campaign to inform Danville leaders and the general public about the causes and effects of gang activity in our communities?
We hit the ground running with this project by developing norms for discussing such a controversial issue as gangs. We discussed the intended or unintended consequences of different ways of discussing gangs and their members’ actions (particularly because we never know what people are involved in after school). Students then took a few days to research gang activity in major cities around the world in order to create a gallery of empathy maps around the events they read about in the news.
Following those preview activities, students started reading My Bloody Life and kept a reading journal built around that driving
question. My Bloody Life gives a first-hand look at the gangbanger lifestyle. Some students found the book a quick, easy read, which threw me off for a bit. (Finished the book early? Yes! …Just one of the benefits of using contemporary texts with narrators about the same age as the readers!) What could I have them do? Well, then social media knocked on my door.
The same day that I was scratching my head in the middle of class, shocked that some students read the book in under a week, our New Tech director (my assistant principal) came in to ask me if I had been on Twitter yet today. No, but I started unlocking my iPhone. I found that thanks to some tweets picked up by @NewTechNetwork, The Interrupters web team was ready to get introduced to my classroom. No sooner than I had played the trailer, I had those finished with the book volunteering to use their extra time to help coordinate an event to host a viewing of the documentary with the community and/or even interview some of the Interrupters themselves!
In the first couple of our advanced group’s meetings, we had to establish group roles. There was a lot to brainstorm and a lot to get moving if this was to be pulled off in time to be useful for the project. After some discussion and heated debate, I delegated responsibilities under three roles for three different students: Researcher, Event Planner and Curriculum Specialist. Each role was meant to be unique in its influence in the final decision, but other roles would also have to help support the other. (So, our Event Planner had to decide who would be invited before the Researcher could get a list of addresses together for invitations. Also, our Researcher had to watch trailers and read reviews of the movie to help the Curriculum Specialist design our purpose statement. They both had to dig through our Echo project briefcase and semester curriculum, too.) Some tasks that needed to be done before presenting the idea to the principal, so a couple of those students worked together on one item over the weekend.
During the meeting, students took turns to propose the different ideas to our principal and also demonstrated that they already had clear knowledge of the destructive nature of thuggish gang-banging. What they wanted to know was how to see the real solutions to this problem. One student went into some psychology of why teens are lured to the lifestyle when he said “[Gangs] don’t provide the things they need in their lives… but The Interrupters are trying to make change.”
Our principal responded quite well to the overall idea. (He later told me that he was impressed by the three young individuals who were in the hot seats.) He gave them a few next steps (directly connecting it to the sophomore curriculum) and talked to them about the importance of giving a clear purpose to the event itself (so the community and any press knew what we’re doing this for). They were clear next steps, but ones that deserve a lot of consideration and attention to detail. The concerns behind them are certainly real.
With the next steps, students were forced to make considerations for the complex, manipulative world outside of our walls — one that has somehow glorified a tremendously destructive lifestyle — one that would love juicy, heedless press spin about schools talking about gangs — one that takes soundbites and tells a whole story. Basically, they had to face the intimidating task of covering bases that are moving faster than we can learn about them in just one class. Speaking of rigor…
Where that leaves us
We are going beyond just looking at the causes and effects of teens getting involved in gangs. This is a project… a work in progress. One that is brought to us thanks to social networking, a 21st century tool unimaginable decades ago. We are driven by what we want to know and where we can find solutions to the problems our world faces. Without a doubt, this may be the most exciting learning that I am facilitating so far in my career. And I think the most important part about this learning is that it is memorable to my learners and allows them to make an impression on our school and community.