Engaging Students With Community-Based Projects
Having high school students research their town, including the history and local issues, can help them see ways to contribute to their community.
Long Island, New York, is one of the most economically and racially stratified residential areas in our nation. I’ve long been interested in the unique and rich history of the region and the factors that shaped each town, and the area has always had a place in my teaching and learning.
I taught a night school course for two years in a neighborhood on Long Island that was 30 minutes from my hometown, and I wanted to design a place-based project that would allow me to learn alongside my students rather than teaching them a history that didn’t, and doesn’t, belong to me. As an outsider in a predominantly Central American and specifically Salvadoran community, it wasn’t my place to teach the students about where they came from or how they and their families arrived here.
Instead, I asked questions like “Have you ever wondered why the town where you live has pretty much only one demographic?” and “How do you think people see this place? How is it portrayed by local news and other entities?” We interrogated the narratives that some local media spun about the town by reading articles and watching documentaries like Long Island Divided and This Won’t Define Us (both by Newsday).
We used pictures, videos, and headlines to continue unpacking the origins and history of the town’s people, places, and chronological changes. This culminated in a research-action project that students used to investigate the who, what, when, and why of the space around them.
For the first step of our process, we taped pieces of paper to the floor to create a grid map of the town, starting with the school as a focal point. Students identified deeply with what side of town they came from: north, south, east, and west. They were able to name places and common space in those sides, and it bred a healthy competitiveness over whose side was best. There was playful bickering over where to draw the train tracks, whether to include the Wendy’s, and how big to draw the psychiatric facility on the edge of town.
As they drew, students acted as liaisons for their block or neighborhood. I located and purchased the Images of America series for their town, and we saw from old photographs how the area had changed over time. Students recognized different names and places and were able to connect with and comment on the changes. We even learned that Robert F. Kennedy had once given a speech in the school’s auditorium while campaigning.
Your public library or local historical society might have similar photo collections and can be a great free resource for students to delve into their local history.
From here, we read texts about the town and its political, social, and environmental issues, and we began to form ideas and questions. For this step in the process, I suggest looking at your local newspaper or even the school newspaper to find out what’s important to the community and its youth. Use the articles for annotation strategies and evaluating arguments.
While we practiced this step, my students decided on a list of what they perceived to be the biggest issues facing their community: immigration, street racing, gang activity, over-policing, substance use, environmental pollution, mental health, and crime. We found statistics, sources, and organizations that existed to address these problems.
Students used local and national statistics and sources like City-Data and Newsday to research the issues and respective community organizing efforts. They outlined these points as the first step in building their research paper, and as they started writing their thesis, each student came up with a plan to resolve or alleviate the issue. This enabled freedom dreaming and created seeds of service and attachment to the community where they lived.
It was important for me to step back in this process and allow the students to take the lead. Handling this work with care is important to me; making sure that I’m not encouraging students to lean into negative stereotypes about their community, their cultures, or their living space matters. And showing them that service and community action is an act of solidarity, not charity, matters. Service work and the act of strengthening community should always be void of saviorism. Reducing real-life issues to research projects they would move on from or consider with brief detachment wasn’t and isn’t my aim.
Authentic Practices and Audience
Finally, I invited a community member with whom I was close to visit and hear students’ concerns and their findings. Inviting authentic audiences who have a stake in students’ research is key. Audience members who can offer feedback for action give meaning not only to students’ academic work but also to their community and those around them.
As students presented their ideas to him, he told them about his experience living in the community for over 30 years, coaching soccer in the local league, and sending both of his kids through the schools my students attended.
He listened and connected them with organizations and local elected officials, and gave them ideas for expanding their concerns outward to create change. It was a small sounding board, but it sowed seeds of hope that they, too, could do incredible work and be active and involved in the sustainability of their town and their home.