Oakland Schools host a forum to foster high schoolers' interest in social justice

Students call their state representative in front of a social justice and signature sign.

Students call their state representative in front of a social justice and signature sign. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Jennifer Meer

 

Friday, June 2, 2017 - 5:33pm

On Friday, approximately 150 high school students from seven schools in Oakland, Wayne and Macomb counties gathered at Oakland Schools in Waterford for the Equitable Futures Student Forum — an event to encourage students to get involved in social justice.

The forum, now in its second year, is based on the Equitable Futures Curriculum — a program organized by Oakland Schools and the University of Michigan’s Center for Education Design, Evaluation and Research at the School of Education to discuss social issues in U.S. history classes. Classrooms around southeastern Michigan that participated in the five-week curriculum sent student teams and faculty to Friday’s event to represent them. The curriculum itself comprises about 800 students.

Stacie Woodward, a content area literacy consultant at Oakland Schools and an event organizer, said the new curriculum presents a shift in the study of civil rights.

“Teachers and students across Metro Detroit … have been working in their classrooms on a project-based learning project about civil rights and equity,” she said. “We shifted the traditional civil rights unit, so they’re not just learning about civil rights in the past — they’re learning about it so they can take action now.”


In their classrooms, Woodward explained, students decide on an issue they care about and use what they know about history and social justice to create awareness on the topic in their community.

Kristen Martin, a ninth grade United States history teacher at Clarkston Junior High School, elaborated on the project-based learning approach, a more hands-on way of thinking and engaging students.

“We study the history of social injustices, while figuring out what social injustice is going on in our community and how we can work to solve that,” she said.

Melissa Warnick, a history teacher at Arts Academy in the Woods, located in Fraser, Michigan, said the beauty of the curriculum is that it “marries” the past with the present.

“It’s the study of the Civil Rights Movement and looking at these brave men and women who stood up and taking lessons from them and seeing how they can apply it to their daily lives,” she said.

Having finished the five-week program, Martin’s students wrote a two-page reflection on what they had learned.

Martin said though some students are more accustomed to traditional learning, many enjoyed the flexibility and freedom the project offered.  

“I would say a very high — 80 (to) 85 percent of my students — one, were in love with the way that they learned this information, and two, were even more excited because they chose what they were digging into,” she said. “They were able to choose their topic, they were able to choose … their ART — Awareness Raising Tool — so they were able to explain to us their problems and their solutions. The students in my class have loved it.”

At the forum, students participated in community building workshops, followed by eight “insight” sessions; they could each choose two to attend.

The sessions — led by professionals and leaders in education — discussed how students can influence their legislators, start nonprofit organizations, as well as incorporate graphic design and photography in their work to create a more equitable future, among other topics.

State Rep. Stephanie Chang (D–Detroit) led one of the sessions on how students can influence their legislators.

Chang had students examine House Bills 4105 and 4334, which would prohibit local governments from enacting policies that would limit police communication with Immigration and Customs Enforcement about immigration status.  


In a group discussion, students expressed concern over racial profiling, overburdening law enforcement agents and lawsuits that may arise in response to the bills. At the end of the session, Chang looked up the phone numbers of students’ state representatives and had some students leave messages for them expressing their worries over the bills.   

“I think the overall message of the workshop was, as young people, you should definitely feel empowered to contact your legislator,” Chang said. “Even though you’re not voting age, you live in the district and have opinions about things and great ideas.”

Also among the presenters was Public Policy senior Nadine Jawad, the vice president of Central Student Government. Jawad presented on how to start a non-profit organization out of high school.

After Jawad finished high school, she co-founded an organization called Books for a Benefit. In her session, she discussed how the organization has grown and what lessons she has learned.

“I was talking to the students about first, picking out what topic you might be passionate about and thinking about what programs might address it,” she said. “Should you decide that an organization is the best way to address that issue — these are the kind of steps that you follow.”

Jawad said she felt the event was successful in that it exposed students to problems of equity, believing that working with young students on social justice and innovation is extremely valuable. 

“I think it’s important because it really teaches students to look beyond their niche or their circle — to think outside the box, outside the community, and think about equity,” she said. “When I was in high school, that wasn’t really a conversation. No one really ever talked to me about the term ‘equity’ or what it means to be equitable.”

Darin Stockdill — the design coordinator for CEDER, University alum and event organizer — said the research he did at the University as a graduate student involved encouraging students to become interested in historical texts.

“My research was in using local history, Detroit history and social inequality to get kids to think more deeply about historical literacy," he said. “At that level, as a student, I had an interest in using history to do social justice work.”

After completing his work at the University, Stockdill worked at Oakland Schools, where he started collaborating with consultants, including Woodward.

“One of our goals was to kind of break down that 8-mile divide between Detroit and the suburbs — how can we bring kids together across those lines to talk about social justice issues?” he said.

When Stockdill returned to the University, he continued the collaboration, incorporating a couple students through the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, other students, such as Jawad as well as Enid Rosario-Ramos, an assistant professor of education. Stockdill said one of the goals is to further research in this area of education, particularly with regard to historical literacy and civic engagement.

LSA sophomore Mayah Wheeler was one of the students participating through UROP and in attendance at the event. Wheeler has been working with Stockdill on establishing lesson materials for the Equitable Futures project.

“I did research about the riots of 1967 in Detroit, and then I used that information to create a lesson plan that would be implemented for this project next year,” she said. “I also did research on different social activist events, and that was packaged into a case study that the students received this year.”

Wheeler described how interested the students were taking action.

“I think, definitely from today, it’s really just being able to see how the students really do understand the issues, and they really actually want to create social change,” she said. “A lot of times people try to write off teenagers — like they’re lazy, they don’t really care — but they do care. When you give them the information, they want to use that and make a difference.”