Feature stories

Portraits of activism

Queens school makes book about ‘Fighting for Our Rights’

Teachers Ilana Gutman (left) and Robin Baumgarten (standing, right) led 8th-gradJonathan FickiesTeachers Ilana Gutman (left) and Robin Baumgarten (standing, right) led 8th-grade students at the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School in Forest Hills in a book project that is a showcase for student writing and artwork about social activism in New York City.

For 8th-graders at the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School in Forest Hills, lessons in writing, art and social studies have come together in a published book of 25 interviews and portraits of social activists in New York City.

Portraits of activism - Fight for our Rights book cover

“It’s about authentic writing and the idea that writing itself can be activism,” said Robin Baumgarten, an ELA teacher and one of the school’s founders.

The Grade 6–12 school uses the Outward Bound approach to learning in which students, in groups and in their community, engage in interdisciplinary, in-depth study of compelling topics in “expeditions.” Each year, the school’s 8th-graders do a 12-week book project, led by Baumgarten. This year, the school focused on the power of advocacy, a topic that gained resonance for the 13-year-olds in the wake of the November elections.

“It felt really cathartic for them to give voices to people of color, immigrants, Muslims and other people who were under attack during the election,” Baumgarten said.

The entire 8th-grade team was involved in the project: Four 8th-grade classes, including one integrated co-teaching class, participated. Teachers kept a wall chart tracking all the moving parts —collecting information, drafting profiles, writing, revising and publishing.

Social studies teacher Hannah Brenman taught students about the Lawrence, Mass.,Social studies teacher Hannah Brenman taught students about the Lawrence, Mass., labor strike of 1912 to help them understand the long history of the fight for labor rights and equality. Art teacher Ashley Bartlett guided students through portraiture lessons so they Jonathan FickiesArt teacher Ashley Bartlett guided students through portraiture lessons so they would be confident when they tackled sketching the charcoal drawings they made of the activists.

Art teacher Ashley Bartlett said teachers and other staff began “working their network” before classes began to find New York City activists in the areas that interested the students. The activists who agreed to participate were interviewed by small groups of students starting in October.

Baumgarten and Ilana Gutman, her special education co-teacher, walked the students through interviewing techniques: the difference between open-ended and closed questions as well as the importance of taking notes. The students read articles on everything from voting rights to the minimum wage to help them formulate informed questions.

In her social studies classes, Hannah Brenman, the 8th-grade team leader, said students learned the language of activists and activism. “We asked, ‘What do people do to fight for their rights?” she said.

Angy Rivera, the co-director of the New York State Youth Leadership Council, advAngy Rivera, the co-director of the New York State Youth Leadership Council, advocates on behalf of undocumented youth through an advice column and was the subject of a 2015 PBS documentary, “No Le Digas a Nadie (Don’t Tell Anyone).” Hebh Jamal, a senior at Beacon HS in Manhattan, has organized students to protesHebh Jamal, a senior at Beacon HS in Manhattan, has organized students to protest Trump’s travel ban affecting Muslims and to promote integration in New York City public schools.

A teacher was present during the interviews, but students asked the questions and worked independently to plan, draft and revise a profile that captured their activist’s story.

Bartlett prepared for her piece of the project as well. At the beginning of the school year, she worked on figure drawing and self-portraits with the 8th-graders in her art classes. “I wanted to make sure they’re confident before they begin,” Bartlett said. The students then tackled charcoal portraits of the activists, all of whom provided photographs of themselves for students to work from.

The students produced 100 profiles and drawings in total. The ELA teachers and the activists worked together to select the work that best represented the views and experiences of the activists.

Ruben Lucio, an economic justice activist for the Center for Popular Democracy, Ruben Lucio, an economic justice activist for the Center for Popular Democracy, started getting involved as a teenager protesting unfair immigration policies. Jennifer Chin is a lawyer at the ASPCA, where she works to strengthen laws that Jennifer Chin is a lawyer at the ASPCA, where she works to strengthen laws that protect animals and regulate facilities that breed dogs.

“Fighting for Our Rights 2016: Profiles & Portraits of NYC Activists,” now available on Amazon, was ready to ship in December. The school celebrated with a book launch in January at which students read excerpts of their work and signed copies.

“As the project has evolved, as a team we’ve gotten better at organization,” Bartlett said. “And each year the quality gets better.”

The students reflected on the lessons learned.

Malaika Miller is a nurse midwife who also works with pregnant teens, their partMalaika Miller is a nurse midwife who also works with pregnant teens, their partners and their families in the Bronx. Monica Weiss, a retired Queens public school teacher, is now a full-time climateMonica Weiss, a retired Queens public school teacher, is now a full-time climate change activist. “I have found a way to use my retirement to continue educating young people about an issue I feel so strongly about.”

For Assa, the surprise was meeting an activist — Hebh Jamal, a student at Beacon HS in Manhattan — who is not much older than she is. Jamal has organized fellow students in protests of President Trump’s ban on Syrian refugees and in support of school integration in New York City Public Schools.

“I was impressed that she was very young,” Assa said. “She’s still in school but working on big issues like school integration.”

Assa said she came away with a greater appreciation of the courage activists have: “If you’re an activist, people are going to be against you — but you can’t let that stop you.”

Like Hebh, Assa wears a hijab. “That’s important because there are so many negative interpretations of Islam now, and she’s proud of her religion,” Assa said.

Mariana learned more about what it means to be a midwife from her interview with Malaika Miller, a midwife who works with families and pregnant teens in the Bronx.

“I never knew what a midwife is and how it affects a woman,” Mariana said. “She helps women embrace what they’re going through and not be scared, and they learn how to take care of babies.”

Adriana said interviewing climate activist Monica Weiss helped her realize the role each person can play every day. “There are little things people can do to help, such as turning off lights,” she said.

Weiss, a retired public school teacher, now devotes her time to educating young people about climate change. “I want them to feel both the urgency of the situation while feeling empowered to make changes at every level,” she said.

Gutman says the project had a galvanizing influence on many of the 8th-graders.

“There were some who were definitely inspired,” she said. “Now they’re attending marches and thinking ‘What can I do?’”

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