As a NYC public school teacher who has been facilitating action civics for students with the support of Generation Citizen for several years now, I realize that one of the hardest parts of taking action is to engage new people to help rally for our projects’ goals. Although our educational system is hyper focused on technical skills and content standards, soft skills (like the ability to advocate and engage with new people from diverse backgrounds in a common goal) is exactly what prepares individuals for the workplace. Often the tasks connected to pursuing civic activism are the very same soft skills people need to succeed in the workforce. Although students can initially hesitate to jump into taking action, it’s the relevance and passion for their focus issue that ultimately pushes students to step up, take risks, and engage others in their activism.
Research shows that remote work prompted by the pandemic has impeded collaboration and communication skills, both in education and the workplace. To reinfuse joy and authenticity into learning, schools need to pursue unique opportunities for students to connect and collaborate with an array of individuals. When the Goethe-Institut of New York, a next-door neighbor to our Washington Irving Campus’ school building, inquired if we wanted to host a group of German visitors, all emerging hip hop artists from the Bronx Berlin Connection and Street College, I knew I had to jump on the opportunity and make something special happen for my students. Two years earlier, right before the pandemic, my school hosted a group from the Heinrich Zille School in Radeburg, Germany. During the course of several class periods we worked together to generate a report in German and a video illustrating our class involvement in improving access to lead free and environmentally friendly drinking water, which ultimately led to our action civics project being selected as a Goethe Institut Sustainability Project Winner. Alongside this honor, we received an invitation to present in Berlin but unfortunately, this international opportunity was postponed and occurred remotely due to the pandemic and its travel restrictions.
After such an experience, I knew this new opportunity to collaborate with a group of young German hip hop artists, in person, was exactly what my students needed to elevate our action civics work and the joy of pursuing student-led activism. Nevertheless, I fully admit that I didn’t sleep well the night before their visit. My brain was consumed with worst case scenarios. Would my students interact with our German visitors? Would students bridge the language barrier and actually create dances, raps, songs and slogans in multiple languages? Would they share their work and perform in such a short timeframe? Thankfully, the worst case scenario, teacher nightmares didn’t turn into reality. The event was a triumphant success. Educators must realize that for students to be willing to take academic risks, teachers need to be creative, step up and take similar risks, with the support of administrators that have their back. My students and our German partners from the Bronx Berlin Connection formed friendships that are sure to extend beyond this one event, fostered our class’ action civics goals, and helped rejuvenate the joy in learning together after such a difficult and isolated time apart.
On behalf of Union Square Academy for Health Sciences, I would like to convey a big wall of win to Olad and the Bronx Berlin Connection, the Goethe Institut for helping us organize this event and The Transatlantic Outreach Program for fostering teacher leadership by providing mini grant funding to teachers to execute projects such as this one to benefit their students. If you want to learn more about my students’ civic engagement and what it looks like when schooling extends beyond the classroom, I encourage you to visit my teaching website CagebustingClassrooms.com.
This blog post was written by David Edelman, GC Teacher Leadership Board member of New York.