Category Archives: a high school civics class

kids’ voices

I spent today listening to kids–16 boisterous, funny adolescents from the nearby high school. We had recruited them to talk about their experiences as immigrants (or migrants), and how their eating habits had changed as they had moved to Maryland from West Africa, Central America, the West Indies, the Philippines, or Washington, DC. We taped the whole day so that a smaller group of volunteer students will be able to shape the best parts into an audio documentary on immigration and food. This is the latest stage of our National Geographic project on nutrition.

The parts of the discussion that will find their way into the documentary will be about recipes, memories of meals, shopping and cooking, and health concerns. For today’s blog, I’d like to report on a different topic, a digression. Most of the immigrant kids agreed with one who said: “Living in St. Lucia, I thought [the US] was the great land of opportunity. I never thought it was heaven, like some people do; but if you work hard, you can achieve anything.” (This is a close paraphrase, not a precise quote). When an adult asked if the kids thought that poverty came from laziness, they resisted that thesis, but they kept coming back to it. “If you really want to get something, you can do it. There was a homeless person who went to Harvard.” They acknowledged that there were insurmountable barriers to economic success back in their home countries–for example, the tuition required to attend elementary school. But in the US, success “depends on a person’s drive.”

The same theme of self-reliance and personal responsibility returned when they discussed fast food. “It’s your responsibility what you eat. After all that healthy food back home, you see a big hunk of meat [at McDonalds], you know it’s gotta be bad for you.” One young woman said that advertising could influence people to eat fast food. “Yeah, but that’s your fault cause you can’t control yourself.”

A student from Cote D’Ivoire said that back home, people viewed African Americans as lazy, and white Americans as “slave-drivers.” She said, “I don’t think America is that great of a place, but I do think freedom of speech and freedom of religion–a lot of places don’t have that.”

youth research as civic education

Today, I?ll be working with two groups of young people who are involved in community research: my undergraduate ?Leaders for Tomorrow? (who are still in the planning stages of their project), and high school students who are taping interviews with community residents for a radio show. In general, I?m enthusiastic about community research and ?youth-led research? as forms of civic education. In community research, students study their social environment, collecting and analyzing data under the leadership of a teacher or other adult. In youth-led research, students choose their own issues and questions and design their methodology, with appropriate guidance from adults.

Such projects are reasonably common in schools and youth organizations such as 4H. However, I don?t know many curricula or teachers? guides for community research or youth-led research. Instead, each project is unique and requires heavy investment by a talented teacher or a very well organized and prepared group of kids. To make community research easier, I can imagine a guide and an interactive website that helped classes and youth groups to conduct assignments like the following:

  • Survey local associations to find out which ones collaborate with which other ones. Once the data were entered into a database, software could spit out a diagram showing all the connections among groups in the community. Students could then examine the diagram to determine where there were gaps in the local social network. If a teacher repeated this assignment each year, students could begin to analyze the development of networks over time. And if students assigned each association a unique identifier (for instance, its phone number, including then area code), then a national website could begin to generate combined network maps using the data from multiple schools. Groups from different schools might find that their communities were linked and could discuss those links online.
  • Students could interview owners of local businesses and nonprofits, take photographs, and then enter the information into a GIS database. Software could automatically generate maps of the assets in the neighborhood, which could be posted on a public website. People would be able to click on a spot on a map and find out about each ?asset.? (See our effort for an example that could be much improved.)
  • Students could conduct interviews with people who had lived through a problem or conflict in the community?s past, put the interviews on a website, analyze the historical issue to identify two or three reasonable but conflicting positions, and then host a moderated online discussion of the issue. This is what we did with the issue of desegregation in Prince George?s County, MD. Segregation is a continuing problem, but we chose to focus on the period from 1950-1970 because we wanted to experiment with a novel approach to historical education. However, a strictly contemporary issue could also be studied.
  • student research and service-learning

    Although student research needn?t be an alternative or competitor to service-learning, it?s worth considering the relative advantages of each. Service-learning means a combination of community service with reflection, writing, and sometimes research on the same social issue. It is very common today (present in as many as 40% of schools), and it can be a great civic pedagogy. Indeed, it can be a transformative experience for students and teachers alike, developing their skills and confidence, challenging them intellectually, and committing them to serious civic work later in life. However, service-learning often degenerates into cleaning up a park (or even stapling papers in the principal?s office) and then briefly discussing the experience. This happens because it is hard to organize challenging service-learning?as I know from my own, often unsuccessful efforts in the high school. Service-learning also degenerates because it implies and requires strong values, particular ideas of justice and virtue. These values are hard to sustain in pluralistic public schools that have not been formally charged with promoting ideals other than very vague and anodyne ones. Finally, service-learning sometimes degenerates because it is seen as a way to ?engage? students who are not doing well in standard classrooms. Given this goal, some teachers avoid assigning intellectually challenging exercises in connection to service.

    Research, unlike service, is close to the main academic mission of schools. Yet community research can address public problems and enhance public goods. Thus I think research makes sense, at least as a complement to service-learning.

    Incidentally, CIRCLE has funded young people to organize research projects about youth civic engagement. This is the only form of direct work with kids that we may undertake as an organization, because we are a research center with a specific focus (youth civic engagement). The process of selecting youth groups to conduct these projects has taught us a fair amount about what seems to work. We have learned, for example, that student-run surveys of other students aren?t great. The size and quality of the samples is inadequate, so the kids don?t really obtain meaningful results. On the other hand, students can make excellent documentaries and run good focus groups.

    progress toward an information commons

    Since 2002, some colleagues and I have been working slowly to create an “information commons” for Prince George’s County, MD. A real information commons would be a voluntary association devoted to creating public goods and putting them online. These goods might include maps, oral histories, historical archives, news articles, discussion forums, research reports, calendars, and directories. If community groups preferred to maintain separate websites, they could link to features on the commons site and thus “distribute” the commons across the web. The association would also lobby locally on issues like the “digital divide” and broadband access; and would provide training and support. Information commons in various communities would form networks and share software.

    So far, the tangible products of the Prince George’s Information Commons are a modest website whose best feature is an oral history, and a series of articles defending the concept of a commons.

    We decided not to start by creating an association, because we were afraid that community people wouldn’t see the need for such a body or the advantages of joining. Instead, we hoped to create enough exciting and useful content on one site that it would draw traffic and interest. We would then ask participants if they wanted to “own” the site formally by creating a non-profit governing board.

    Progress has been slow for two main reasons.

    First, we have chosen to work with high school students, and for the most part ones who are not currently on the college track. This has been extremely rewarding work, but it’s also a relatively slow way to generate exciting content. For instance, students spent a whole summer gathering excellent audio recordings that documented immigration into the County, but we haven’t figured out how to use that material online. It sits on a CD. Likewise, the kids took a very long time collecting information for “asset maps,” and the result was a relatively small set of incomplete (and now dated) maps.

    Despite the slowness of this approach, I intend to continue to invest the majority of my discretionary time in the high school, because I find it extremely satisfying to work directly with kids.

    The second obstacle is financial. We have had great difficulty raising money for the core concept of an “information commons.” Instead, we have raised funds from foundations with specific interests in, for example, history or geography. As a result, we haven’t had money or time to develop the commons itself. Instead, we have lurched from one project to another.

    Ideally, we would always be busy with three tasks: 1) teaching high school (or middle-school) students to create digital products for the website; 2) working with college classes, churches, and other adult groups to help them to create content; and 3) installing and managing interactive features for the website itself, such as an open blog, a “wiki,” or a map that visitors could annotate. These features would have to be carefully monitored or else they would be vulnerable to spammers and cyber-vandals.

    To date, we have only had sufficient resources to do the first of these tasks, and that only on a small scale. Recently, I’ve been thinking hard about the second job: recruiting independent groups to produce their own content. Based on some recent conversations, I am optimistic that by the spring we will have three groups feeding content into the commons site: the high school class, a college class, and possibly a group of teachers.

    food for thought

    Here is a strange statistical result. My colleagues and I have been teaching

    high school students to investigate the causes of obesity in their communityas

    a form of civic education. This fall, they are going to conduct and tape interviews

    and create a radio show to publicize their results. To give them some data to

    work from,

    we surveyed all the students in the school’s health classes. The response rate

    was poor, because students had to bring in parental permission slips before they could complete

    the survey; and there was no penalty for failing to participate. Nevertheless, we

    received enough surveys to draw tentative statistical conclusions. Here is the

    one that surprises me. None of the 17 kids who said that they ate fast food

    every day are overweight (according to their self-reported combination of height and weight). However, 43% of those who said they eat "hardly

    any" fast food are considered clinically overweight.

    What’s going on? Maybe a lot of kids are mistaken or dishonest, but it’s strange

    that the relationship between fast food and body weight would be so linear and negative. The sample is too small for serious statistical analysis,

    but we noticed that immigrant kids are more likely to eat fast food, yet less

    likely to be overweight. So maybe immigrants eat good food at home but go out a lot

    to McDonalds.

    There are more possible explanations. For instance, the Washington Post’s “Kid’s Post” section reported last Wednesday that young people order less healthy food at restaurants like Outback Steakhouse and Red Lobster than they do at fast-food places. So maybe it’s good to go to McDonalds if it keeps you from ordering the “surf and turf” at a sit-down restaurant. But most of the kids we surveyed cannot afford regular visits to real restaurants.

    In any case, the students’ research task is a lot harder because of this result.

    geographic information systems (GIS) in civic ed

    Yesterday was our last class at the high school for this academic year. We brought along some maps (based on data that the students had collected) that showed aspects of the community that may affect young residents’ health. In particular, the maps show that kids who walk are clustered in certain areas; thus some neighborhoods may be built in ways that are friendly to pedestrians. That would be an important finding, because we know that walking reduces obesity, and obesity is a big health problem. Our students are alert to possible causes of error (the small sample, selection bias, hidden causes, etc). We would have to do a lot more research before we could draw any rigorous conclusions.

    Today I took an excellent intermediate-level class on GIS software and became increasingly excited about what we can do with the class when we resume next fall. We’ll certainly ask them to collect more data about their fellow students’ behavior and locals assets such as stores and parks.

    It’s exciting to address an issue (obesity) that’s usually seen in strictly pyschological terms–as a matter of body-image and will-power–and to look instead for geographical causes. Active citizens can potentially change the local landscape and zoning laws, whereas body-image and eating habits are very hard to change. Meanwhile, GIS software is making it possible for kids who don’t have very advanced skills to understand their environment in tremendously powerful ways.