Celebrating Student Voice Every Day

We at One World Education have the unique opportunity to see the impact of our work in classrooms around Washington, DC nearly every day. Our close connections with the teachers who implement our program can take the shape of emails, phone calls, class visits, and most recently, an invitation to attend a celebration party for exemplary 8th grade students at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School. Teacher Beth Kara has been on both sides of the One World Program, participating in the first year of usage with E.L. Haynes in 2013 and playing a key role in creating our middle school curriculum. Not only has she seen the program grow, she has watched her students develop their own authentic voices by selecting topics that matter to them on a deeply personal level.

Ms. Kara held the party to honor her students who had completed the One World Program, and what we experienced that afternoon was deeply inspirational. In addition to turning in their essays on time, these students exhibited some of the best writing Ms. Kara has seen in her four years of working with the program. Two parents joined the group of around 30 students to recognize exemplary growth in reading, research, writing, and presentation.

As the students enjoyed their cake and party snacks, I spoke with them about the topics they selected for their essays, specifically asking why they had chosen these subjects and if they had been surprised by anything they learned in their research. The resulting conversations were profound, illuminating the idea that even in 8th grade, students are keenly aware of both community-centered and national issues.

The first group of E.L. Haynes students with whom I spoke wrote primarily about immigration. One girl mentioned a family she knows who was deported, which had sparked her initial interest in the topic, adding that she learned about “the many children who have to cross the border alone, in order to escape violence.” A student who immigrated from El Salvador as a young child was saddened to learn that her native country has the highest number of murders, per capita, of any country not currently at war. Another student who wrote about immigration “learned that many of the jobs held by immigrants involve working in fields, which are jobs that many Americans don’t want.”

Encouraging students to pick a personally-relevant topic, then guiding them through research to support both their claim and counterclaim, expands how students perceive important issues like immigration, among other civic and national issues. A student who wrote about criminal justice noted that “after the research portion, I saw the world differently.”

At another table, the topics were more diverse in nature, though equally as personal for the students. Gabriela, who was selected to be one of the two Student Ambassadors by a group of E.L. Haynes teachers through a blind-read of the top essays, wrote about terrorism and insecurity because she wanted to learn more about the subject. She said that she “was surprised to learn about how our airport security compares to other countries in the world.” (We are excited to consider her final essay for publication on our website in the upcoming year!)

A student who wrote about climate change spoke passionately about how his participation in Model UN three years earlier had sparked an interest in the effects of climate change on smaller countries, which led him to select the topic for this project. When I asked him if he had learned anything in his research, he responded soberly that “there’s not enough time to reverse the impact climate change is having on the world.”

The last student at the second table wrote about gender equality, specifically because he recently came out to his family and to his community at school as bisexual/queer. When I applauded his courage at such a young age, he laughed and responded, “everyone at E.L. Haynes accepted it,” and another student added, “we have a great community here. We all support him!” His research included recent policy changes, like the North Carolina “bathroom bill,” as well as progress from historically exclusive organizations like the Boy Scouts.

Once the cake had disappeared, I asked the two mothers what they thought of their children’s experiences with the One World Program. They both agreed that the structured approach of the program was instrumental in improving educational outcomes, but more importantly, their children were now more deeply engaged in local and national issues. One mother added, “it’s only becoming more important to be informed with facts.”

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