Today is a state holiday in California, the state where I live and work. The occasion: honoring the birth of the co-founder of the United Farmworker’s Union, the late Cesar Chavez.
As a child, I remember that my family didn’t eat grapes, in solidarity with Chavez’s UFW boycott to protest the substandard working conditions and wages suffered by farmworkers. Into adulthood, I still hesitated to buy grapes, unsure if the issues that led to the boycott had ever been fully resolved, so effective was the UFW’s campaign.
Last year, President Obama proclaimed March 31st Cesar Chavez Day and encouraged us to mark the occasion “with appropriate service, community, and educational programs to honor Chávez’s enduring legacy” as a civil rights activist, labor leader and educator.
So it seems only fitting that I spend at least part of my day writing about a remarkable effort underway in the Oakland Unified School District, in partnership with the Civic Engagement Research Group and the National Writing Project, to give all Oakland high school students skills and opportunities to be informed and engaged actors in their community, powered by today’s digital tools of connection and mobilization. A project, funded by the S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation, that seems to hit a sweet spot of Connected Learning principles, I might add.
What’s significant to me about the Educating for Democracy in the Digital Age effort, beyond its mission of youth civic engagement, is that OUSD teachers have taken on a great deal of the leadership – so there’s a grassroots, locally informed relevance to the work- and that it joins together in-school and out-of-school educational opportunities. Youth have gotten to work with nearby partners like KQED and far-flung partners like Youthvoices.net. Ultimately, the hope is that all HS youth before they graduate will be able to engage in a capstone project that demonstrates the skill of issue analysis, the ability to take action, and a reflective stance. As one of my EDDA colleagues from OUSD, Young-Whan Choi, has said, we want our youth to come away from this educational opportunity – and their entire school career – not just college and career ready, but community ready.
I feel incredibly lucky to have a part in EDDA as I get to work with brilliant educators who are leaders in their field: Elyse Eidman-Aadahl from the National Writing Project and Joe Kahne and Ellen Middaugh from the Civic Engagement Research Group, who’ve done extensive research on youth civic engagement and are currently part of the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth & Participatory Politics network. (Not to mention the bright, impassioned local leaders like Young Whan, Leah Jensen, and Stan Pesick and Shelly Weintraub – longtime Bay Area Writing Project teacher-consultants.)
Ellen, in fact, was the recent co-chair of the “Envisioning 21st Century Education” track at the Digital Media and Learning Conference two weeks ago. She organized a panel with co-chair Nicole Mirra in which educators and youth discussed work they’re doing that I’d describe as community action informed by their own research – mediated and facilitated by school or a teacher – into interest-driven issues. They described – and showed – how they were going public with their knowledge using tools like YouTube and social media. And they acknowledged the associated challenges of working within the constraints of under-resourced schools in large urban districts like Los Angeles and Oakland. Jo Paraiso, a High School English teacher, and Allison Santiago, a senior at MetWest, both in Oakland, spoke, as did Laurence Tan and students from the Watts Youth Collective in LA – an in-school/out-of-school learning experience.
The group received a well-deserved standing ovation when they finished.
Towards the end of the panel, Ellen, emphasizing the importance of the work happening in these two places, talked about K-12 public schools as the only legally mandated access to educational opportunities for young people in our society. And the important role schools – and educators – can play in helping youths shape and direct their engagement through effective practices involving research, analysis and open networking in digital environments.
At a time when public education is under fire and schools are being shuttered in cities from Chicago to Philadelphia, disproportionately affecting non-white children, giving youth opportunities to understand the socio-political system within which they live and the means to effect change so that they can potentially influence that system and by extension their future seems to me to be our most important role as educators.
“Si, se peude” – roughly “Yes, we can” – is the activist cry made famous by the United Farmworkers Union.
What does si se puede look like in schools in the digital age?
(One window into digital civics that many – myself including – found incredibly informative and thought-provoking was provided by Ethan Zuckerman who delivered the keynote, How Do We Teach Digital Civics, at the Digital Media and Learning Conference. Watch the video below.)