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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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
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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