Category Archives: a high school civics class

history and race as seen by young and old

An article in yesterday’s Washington Post begins, “Ask older residents of historic North Brentwood their recollections of the town, and they go into a reverie about kids playing house-to-house and about how the town was self-contained with businesses and shops. Mostly, it was black, and the generations who had lived there gave the place its essence. But ‘change comes,’ said Eleanor Traynham, 71, who was born and raised in the town, in Prince George’s County, and returned in 1992. And ‘you have to be able to adapt to change.'”

North Brentwood is part of the urban core of Washington, DC but located across the state line in Maryland. It was founded by and for African Americans in the days of legal segregation. It is now a major arrival point for Latino immigrants.

It so happens that a high school class and I interviewed the same Ms. Traynham in 2003. Some colleagues and I had organized a program in which the students used oral history to reconstruct the history of their own school, Northwestern in Hyattsville, which had gone from de jure white, to integrated, to de facto African American and Latino over five decades. The class created an interactive website to present their findings and provoke discussion. You will see that both the students and their African American informants were ambivalent about state-sponsored integration.

I have pasted our class notes from Ms. Traynham’s interview below the fold, because they represent a fascinating record of local history–and an example of the good questions that contemporary kids come up with.

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youth mapping this summer

This summer, my colleagues and I will help run a pilot course for adolescents in Prince George’s County, MD. We will teach these young people to identify issues or problems that they want to address, and then “map” the networks of groups and individuals that could make a difference. They will document their work for public display, although we haven’t decided what medium they should use: their art works, audio recordings, audio plus still photos, or video.

Along with colleagues at the University of Wisconsin, we have submitted a large grant proposal that would allow us to develop and pilot elaborate software for such courses. This software would allow teenagers to make diagrams of local social networks, much like the “network maps” that are popular in sociology today. However, our community partners cannot wait to find out if we get money for software-development. Therefore, we have committed to teach the pilot courses whatever happens, if necessary using old-fashioned tools like magic markers and poster board.

Two of the essential principles are: youth voice (students should be assisted in developing their own agenda and analysis, without presuppositions from us) and a particular understanding of power. “Power” will be defined not merely as official authority (like that of a mayor or a school principal) but also the capacity of ordinary residents to make a difference by working together. That is why we will help youth to map local networks of citizens.

a learning community experiment

I’m interested in the following ideas and I’m thinking about a true experiment that could help to test them:

1. Education is not just what happens to kids inside schools. A whole community should be involved in educating all of its residents. Standard educational measures (such as test scores and school completion) will improve to the degree that many people in many venues participate in education and do not leave the job to professionals in schools.

2. Kids benefit from being offered opportunities to serve their communities. They are more likely to succeed in school and less likely to engage in self-destructive behavior if communities tap their energy, creativity, and knowledge for constructive purposes.

3. A rewarding and effective form of service is to catalog the assets of a community and make them more available to residents. All communities, no matter how economically poor, have assets worth finding. When communities know their own assets, they can address their own problems better and take better advantage of outside support.


4. It is a promising idea to help youth to identify opportunities for learning in their communities and to make these resources available to their fellow citizens.

We’re cooking up an experiment in which kids would be assisted in identifying skills and knowledge that other residents want to learn. The kids would then find opportunities for learning–formal courses and classes; educational institutions such as museums, parks, and libraries; individuals and companies that sell training; jobs with educational value; and residents who are willing to share knowledge free of charge. This project would resemble the St. Paul Neighborhood Learning Community.

Kids would enter the information in a database so that other residents could find learning opportunities on a map or by searching by topic. Some local community centers would be randomly selected to participate in the data-collection; others would not; and we would survey kids and adult volunteers in all the centers to measure the effects of participating. We would hypothesize that, in the participating centers, there would be a greater increase in measures of: academic success, understanding of community, and interest in civic participation.

youth-led research on obesity and immigration

There is a cool new movie on the Prince George’s Information Commons website that students created as part of a project that I directed. You can click here to view it, but first, some background ….

More than a year ago, we received a grant from the National Geographic Foundation to help high school students study the “geographical causes of obesity.” There is an obesity epidemic that’s costing lives and that’s especially concentrated among adolescents of color; and our students at Northwestern High School were concerned about it. Our idea was to look for causes in the local landscape–in addition to more familiar factors like corporate advertising. This focus seemed promising for two reasons. First, young people might be able to do something about local land-use (and learn political skills in the process), whereas fast-food advertising campaigns are fairly intractable. Second, the literature suggests that local factors do matter. Having connected and well-lit sidewalks encourages walking. Having affordable, convenient sources of fresh produce encourages healthier eating; and so on. We happen to work in an area that is consistently low- to moderate-income, but the development pattern differs dramatically from block to block. Some places are suburban subdivisions; others look like part of a traditional city. So we hoped to explain the variation in food consumption and exercise patterns as a function of street layouts and other land-use patterns. And we hoped to do that as youth-led research, with high school students in charge.

This was too hard. The students did collect some data, but it was very equivocal, incomplete, and imperfect. Therefore, after several changes of course, we focused on a different intersection between geography and nutrition. Northwestern High School has a very large immigrant population, along with African American students who have typically migrated to Maryland from the South via DC. We thought we would investigate the way that food and exercise changed as families moved here from far away.

After many months of work, our student team has created a flash movie to capture their main findings. (They left much information on the cutting-room floor, but culled some highlights for a short video.) Their product is exciting for me, because I was present when all the audio and other data were collected, but I had nothing to do with creating the movie itself. I see some mistakes that need to be corrected sooner or later, but overall, I like it a lot.

the latest on our local work

For the last year, with generous support from the National Geographic Foundation, my colleagues and I have been working with high school kids to study the environmental causes of obesity in their community and display the results on public maps on the Prince George’s Information Commons website. It has been a tortuous process, frequently derailed by changes in the school’s administration and rules, flawed ideas and plans on my part, turnover among the University of Maryland team, attrition of students, and technical problems. In the latest phase, the kids have been trying to present their ideas in the form of audio segments, mixing voice and music. But the talented graduate student who was helping them had to quit this week for health reasons.

Despite all these problems, various groups of high school and college students with whom I have been working should have produced more than 30 separate research projects on various aspects of their community by the end of this summer. I am starting to envision the Commons website as a kind of magazine about Prince George’s County, with “articles” in various formats (including audio and video) and lots of opportunities for readers to post comments. Blogging software like MovableType could underlie the whole site, although it wouldn’t look or “feel” like a blog. After all, blogging software is essentially a database that displays selected entries on a website. So the Prince George’s Information Commons could consist of a database of research products created by a wide range of students and adult volunteers. The homepage would present short summaries of some recent products, with links to the full results. Each summary could be accompanied by an enticing picture to draw visitors’ interest.

Prince George’s County is a large jurisdiction (pop. 838,000) without its own news media. It receives generally disparaging treatment from the Washington press corps, probably because it’s the suburban county with the lowest income and the largest African American population (62.7%). I didn’t get involved in these projects to try to create a news organ for the community, but that wouldn’t be a bad thing.