CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.
Becoming Social Agents of Change
The Oliver Wendell Holmes Elementary School (grades K-5) sits in the middle of Dorchester, a neighborhood of Boston, and houses 350 students, of which 59% are Black, 29% Latino, 6% multi-race, and 3% each for Whites and Asians. Fully 28% of their students have special needs, 82% of their students are designated as High Needs, and 74% of their students are economically disadvantaged, a rate 2.3 times higher than the state rate.
The Holmes School has fared poorly in past years on the state’s standardized test. However, this assessment is based on a single measure which is most closely correlated with parental income and race. What is going on inside the school is exciting. While most schools experiencing these results might double down on test prep in English language arts and math, the Holmes has chosen a different, radical route.
Led by a Boston Public Schools graduate, Principal Yeshi Gaskin, the school has chosen to embrace a social justice vision and a personalized learning lens, framed by the following Vision Statement:
Holmes scholars are courageous, resilient, and curious about their place in the world. They challenge social injustice! Together, we take full responsibility for all of our scholars by providing personalized learning pathways, and robust opportunities for project-based learning.
They established four Core Values: Equity, Access, Relationships, and Social Justice. In particular, the social justice value stands out in its stated goal: Every student will be equipped with the tools to push against the status quo and become social agents of change, able to navigate complex social issues responsibly
Essentially, the Holmes community intends to create intelligent difference-makers, young activists who recognize that many of today’s institutions reinforce inequitable access to opportunities and power based on race, income, and language. The Holmes seeks to empower their students to change the world to become a more humane place for all.
The Holmes is in the process of becoming an EL (formerly Expeditionary Learning) school, a place of learning in which scholars are engaged in meaningful project-based learning expeditions focused on “themes of social justice that encourage students to challenge the current narratives in their own communities.”
Joe Johnson is a fourth grade teacher who is on the Innovation Team and the school’s governing board. He became a teacher and landed at the Holmes School because: “I had a lot of teachers who didn’t inspire me. Being a young black male from the neighborhood, hopefully I am holding up my end to show students you can be more than you think you can be.”
Joe talks about his hopes for his students: “One of the biggest things our students do not understand is how powerful their voices are and can be. I want to help students break free and have their own voice. I want to help them think about how their voice can influence this community and country. I want them to be able to identify the issues they feel strongly about, and learn and practice how to act on them. I want them to take these skills into the rest of their lives.”
Last December, Joe’s class engaged in a poetry unit. Joe noted that the poets highlighted in most curricula “do not give a full picture to students that poets are of all races and genders. I want my students to feel like poetry is a medium they can all access. I want them to see that there are people who look like you who write poetry, and who use poetry as a tool to have a voice.”
So Joe had students read and examine poetry from esteemed African American poets such as Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes. The class analyzed how both poets used their poetry as a “platform to raise awareness of social issues they felt strongly about.” Joe wanted to instill in students that “if we see something as a major issue, we as a community need to act on it.”
Then it came time to write. Joe asked students to focus on issues they are most concerned about. Students surfaced two main issues: violence and homelessness. The most powerful pieces students produced were about violence, in their neighborhood and beyond:
Hung by our heads, tied by our legs
Looking up to the sky and saying “Why.”
We are proud of our skin
But others are not; while they rise, we rot
We pray every night and tell God,
“Why do things have to be this way?”
But he never answers.
He just looks away.
There is so much violence in this community.
People getting killed for our skin, that is cruelty.
I´m too young to die, I say.
I bet the cops don´t care anyway.
The people who are getting killed are probably saying, WHY GOD, WHY?
But HE never answer, HE just sits there in the sky.
I feel bad for these people, who get shot.
Should we really have guns?
Should we really use this stuff?
This is really, really Holding me down,
when I think of it.
I hear the crying sound.
Everyone, we need to help this violence stop!!
Or everyone will be very torn apart.
I know this is sad but everyone knows the people are in a better place.
We´ll keep them in our heart.
The assignment unlocked powerful voices waiting to be heard. Throughout this unit, fourth grade students and their voices came alive. They studied acclaimed poets, poets who spoke about topics important to them, that resonated with their daily lives. They passionately discussed the issues in their own neighborhoods that they would like to change and improve. Sure, they engaged in an English language arts standards-aligned poetry unit. But what was most important is that in learning new skills and being exposed to a new medium of writing, students came to feel a sense of empowerment, that they can make a difference in this world.
Holmes Elementary School is a member of the Center for Collaborative Education’s Massachusetts Personalized Learning Network.