Arizona is geographically — and culturally — far from New York City. But when the 8th-graders in Alex Corbitt’s Teen Activism class watch a documentary called “Precious Knowledge,” about Tucson HS students fighting for the right to study their Mexican heritage, it resonates deeply. Many of Corbitt’s students at the Bronx School of Science Inquiry and Investigation/MS 331 in Morris Heights are from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico or Ecuador, and they have plenty to say on the topic.
“We can learn about both American and Latino history, past and present,” says Destiny.
Pedro is bothered by an Arizona legislator in the film who calls the Latino studies program seditious and anti-American. “He said it’s anti-American, but isn’t it more American to fight for what you believe in?” Pedro asks.
It’s a good question. And for Corbitt, it’s all about the questions.
“The goal is not to do the thinking for them,” he says. Corbitt, an ELA teacher, believes literacy is not just about reading and writing but about empowering students to become “critically engaged citizens” and that includes questioning the world around them.
In September, Corbitt, age 26 and in his fourth year of teaching, was named to the International Literacy Association’s “30 Under 30 List,” which recognizes “rising leaders” from 12 countries, including teachers, nonprofit leaders, authors, researchers and others at the start of their careers who are promoting “literacy in all its forms to those who need it most.”
John Maldonado, a teacher at P 368/Star Academy in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, also was recognized for his work helping students with autism develop literacy skills.
“Being ‘literate’ is more than having the ability to read and write,” Corbitt told Literacy Today, the magazine of the International Literacy Association. “Literate citizens are well-informed, wary of media bias, and committed to improving their communities. I bring the ‘real world’ into my classroom so that students can engage in literacy practices that define their daily lives and future careers.”
In previous years, Corbitt has deployed an array of strategies to do just that. After reading articles about teen crimes, the class became a courtroom, with students assigned the roles of prosecutor or defender to take on issues such as youth incarceration and stop-and-frisk policing.
“That contextualized the discussion about how we treat children who get in trouble,” Corbitt says. “We also made a field trip to the local precinct to have a discussion with the police about stop-and-frisk. They get both sides of the issue so they can make up their own minds.”
Chapter Leader Aurekis DiSalvatore says Corbitt is doing amazing work. “From Day One when he arrived at the school four years ago as a student teacher, he’s done innovative things with the students,” she says. “He’s taken on a leadership role.”
Fellow teacher Eric Weiss says he’s learned a lot from observing Corbitt, especially his relationship-building with students. Weiss, who is teaching social studies this year, says Corbitt’s students come well-prepared to his class.
“They’re able to give reasons and evidence to support their claims,” says Weiss.
It’s only a week into the new school year, but the 12 students in Corbitt’s Teen Activism class have already absorbed the class rules: No voices are raised, and no one is interrupted once he or she has the floor. “You have to treat everyone the way you want to be treated,” says Pedro. “You learn about your culture and learn to love yourself.”
That’s part of Corbitt’s lesson plan, too.
After watching the documentary, the students will take up a discussion of their own activism on the issue. “What do we do right now in terms of community building and raising awareness? They’ll direct me,” Corbitt says.
The class that discussed teen crime ultimately organized a letter-writing campaign to local and state officials about “stop-and-frisk” and youth incarceration.
“Students are so ready and willing to be empowered,” Corbitt says. “It’s about teachers taking themselves out of the equation.”
For the students, the benefits include personal growth. “I’m learning to be more open with people,” says Angel.
The spirit of inquiry where students are empowered to lead the discussion informs Corbitt’s 7th-grade English classes, too. Students are grappling with symbolism and an unreliable narrator in “The White Umbrella,” a story by Gish Jen.
“Write down all the questions you have — what is confusing?” Corbitt asks. For these classes, he has the help of Grace Omorebokhae, his co-teacher. “I want to make sure everyone has a voice in the class,” she says.
The student who answers a question about the story gets to pick the next student with a hand up — but it has to be someone who hasn’t spoken yet. Students wriggle a closed fist with thumb and pinkie extended when someone has voiced a question they had, too — a way for students to be part of the “hive mind” of the class as it dissects the story.
“Great minds think alike,” Corbitt says more than once over the course of the period.
As class breaks up, 12-year-old Maya sums up what makes Corbitt’s classes special. “I like it because you get to ask questions without anyone laughing at you,” she says.