Youth participatory action research (YPAR) can be powerful for youth and teachers, but can also be difficult to explain. In a profession where teachers are expected to explain and justify every move, being able to articulate YPAR pedagogy is not easy. This essay explores one middle-school classroom’s journey into YPAR, the challenges to put this experience into words, and some key takeaways for educators who want to implement this into their own classroom.
Through deep reflection on my pedagogical choices, analysis of student work, and consideration of literature about curriculum theories, I intended to teach a unit that would allow my students to articulate their experiences with YPAR. While it didn’t exactly go as planned, important findings emerged. Among them, YPAR allows students who typically don’t engage in class a stage to share their ideas and fulfill a vital role in the classroom. Also, my students and I learned much about engaging with adult power players. Most importantly, we discovered that when teachers and students are vulnerable with each other, confidence grows, deep learning occurs, and, powerfully, hope flourishes in the classroom.
Flipping the Script: Rewriting the Argument for YPAR in Classrooms
I see my evaluator enter the classroom. She takes a seat next to one of the 8th grade students in the social studies class I teach and asks the questions I know are coming: What are you learning today? Why are you learning it?
Finding a Voice for YPAR
This academic year has been a journey in youth participatory action research (YPAR). As my students have transitioned from more passive, socially efficient learners into socially reconstructive agents of change, they have had to converse, advocate, and interact with several adults along the way. One thing I have noticed is that my students have so much passion when it’s just me and them in the classroom, but when they are in front of other adults, they tend to get anxious and struggle to articulate their ideas. We recently had a panel of educators from around the world interviewing my students about the YPAR process and the impact of our project. I was excited for my students to have the opportunity to showcase their work, but I struggled to not jump in and answer questions when students could not fully explain what they have been doing. Being in this Curriculum Theory class and interacting with authors like Schiro, Eisner, Du Bois, and Baker-Bell have allowed me to possess the necessary language to defend my practice to all administrators who question the learning goals and my practice. I feel that I am letting my students down by not giving them the access to the same language necessary to explain our work when evaluators push them on learning goals. Unfortunately, it is rather rare for someone of their age to do participatory action research; it’s especially hard, then, to articulate it to others.
As their teacher and a master’s student, I also have struggled to talk about it. During a few weeks this year, I honed in on teaching through a critical pedagogy lens as well as giving my students access to the lens itself as a means to explain what they were studying and how they were learning. For most of the year, my students and I had been engaged in a YPAR project examining how to make a street safer. Over the summer, I had suffered a personal loss when my roommate and friend was killed by an intoxicated driver on a busy street. My students researched the problem and developed several solutions, some of which were actually adopted by the city and private corporations in the area. While the project was successful, my students struggled to explain what they actually had done to my evaluator. This experience, my own struggle along with that of my students to give clear voice to our work together, stuck with me.
During that time, the students and I transitioned from working on the street project to creating change within a more local community, our school. Still in the early stages of this project while working on this essay, my classes were discovering what it’s like to actually picture their dream school. So far we had analyzed our school rule book and coded for injustices/rules that didn’t make sense to us or we just didn’t like, created a list of the 10 rules that were most important to us, analyzed counterarguments, observed the root cause of why some of these rules are in place, and started to envision what our dream school would actually look like via poster presentations.
Experiencing and Addressing YPAR Barriers
After coming off of our street project and having my students actually see the change they can make, I figured we would have a huge amount of momentum behind us that would push us right into this dream school project. I was shocked to discover that was not the case. On the contrary, the first week of our dream school project, I was met with several students asking to be taught history in a scholarly academic setting (Schiro, 2012). Given the number of students asking for this, I thought I had killed YPAR for these kids. As I reflected on how I would reinspire the students, I came up with a couple of possible explanations for the sudden flatness in my classrooms. The first thought I had was that my students were burnt out and tired. My classes and I always go back and forth between them saying my class is the easiest of all the content courses, and me pushing back with the fact that they are doing harder, more meaningful work, in my class than in any other content course. I think they were finally understanding what I meant. They were tired of researching, carefully reviewing their emails for any errors before they are sent off, and having to constantly be on point with their critical thinking skills. Let’s face it… YPAR is a ton of work. Another issue that was occurring in my classroom was that some students were uninspired, and I think this was due to our first project not being truly learner centered (Schiro, 2012) in the fact that I was the person who picked the project they worked on, rather than having allowed them to jump right in with their own lived experiences at the helm. This mixed with the fact that I was trying to teach the students academic language to describe our process in the classroom; on reflection, I think I created an uninterested group. Students wanted to do YPAR, not explain it.
My last discovery was that students have never been asked what their dream school would look like; this decision has always been made for them. So when they were tasked with imagining what the perfect school would feel like, their ideas were rather simple. I had to think of a way to reignite the flame we had from our street project, while also arming students with the language to discuss our craft. I thought carefully about what my explicit, implicit, and null focuses would be in the coming weeks (Eisner, 2002). I knew I had to be both learner centered in order to build up their flame again, but also socially efficient (Schiro, 2012) because I did not want to waste any time we had in the short few weeks’ window we had in the curriculum for the project. What I landed on was that we had to go back to the organic, vulnerable, slightly less structured setting my classroom had at the beginning of the year. Yes, teachers, I said “less structured.” Don’t be scared, our kids got this. I decided I would build in organic conversations through circles after a lesson on counter arguments utilizing a traditional sentence stem approach called “brick and mortar” flopped miserably.
I ended up re-teaching that lesson by showing the students a video of Eminem’s rap battle in the final scene of 8 mile, and then leading a circle discussion on why he would’ve dissed on himself in his rap. Boom. Got my students back. Hands were shooting up, kids were sharing off each other’s ideas. You could hear laughter and students having organic conversations again with 100% engagement. In this one conversation, students were able to fully understand why we would need to know the schools’ counterarguments to any policy we propose. Instead of looking to scholars for YPAR language, we looked to Eminem for a crash course on the art of the diss. Students understood why he dissed himself in a rap battle, and applied that to their learnings around counterarguments (Schiro, 2012). Over the following weeks we started every class with a circle around the learning target, and success criteria for the day. In order for students to understand the why of what we were doing, they did not need my language to be able to access it, they needed their own.
My classes were able to curate their own language around what we do in the classroom by breaking down the learning goals through a braided conversation of my language and theirs. As they started to understand why we do root cause analysis, and why there is so much research involved, and why we are even trying to make change in the first place, the momentum came back. I also noticed that the more we talked about what exactly it is that we are doing, the more the students could articulate it to others. So much so that I had one of my students sit in on my final class for my Curriculum Theories class and give my presentation for me. A 14 year old student, on an IEP, who wouldn’t share with his own classmates in the beginning of the year was now educating grad students on YPAR … Take that to your evaluator!
What my students are accomplishing is exactly what every single one of them have on their dream school posters, to learn the things that actually matter in our lives. My students hit the state learning standards on a daily basis, but what’s bigger than that, is within this process they are discovering themselves, their voices. This is impossible to do simultaneously, most teachers would say; these learning outcomes belong in separate spaces. Perhaps an SEL course, or as an elective. In my classroom this type of learning coexists among the students. I told the students at the beginning of the year that there are two ways to teach social studies: indoctrinated facts from a textbook about old dead white guys, written by white guys OR to actually enact the social studies that we ought to learn.
For example, my curriculum states that my students must demonstrate the ability to “build upon their foundational knowledge to understand causes and effects of policy and civic responsibility.” We accomplished this when we proposed our initial ideas to Denver city Councilman Jolon Clark. My students asked to change the 4-lane road to two lanes, and use the extra two on both of the sides for parking. “This will cause less reckless driving,” my students wrote, “as it’s not easy to speed, and will hopefully save a few lives along the way.” Clark was able to then offer feedback to these ideas and suggest changes to the solutions created by the students like flagging the risk of increased traffic on sideroads if we closed the busy street. So as you can see, students had to build upon their knowledge of road safety and transportation in order to understand the cause and effects of the policy they’re proposing to a councilman, as it is their civic responsibility.
The readings in my Curriculum Theory class supported me in enacting this unit. Eisner (2002) helped me think about how to center my lived experience and my students’ in the classroom. I decided to explicitly focus on my tragedy, which implicitly allowed my students to share their lived experience that unfortunately is so often swept into the null. Schiro (2012) showed me that most education is scholarly academic and socially efficient. I decided I didn’t want to play that way. Instead I tried to craft a socially reconstructive space in a learner centered way. All of this while also considering race, and its role within our systems (Baker-Bell et al., 2017; Delgado & Stefancic, 2017; Du Bois, 1968;). The most important, and perhaps the most explicit within the classroom, is the work of Espinoza and colleagues (2020) and their reminder of the importance of allowing students to both explore their “sorrows unspeakable” and their “thrumming song” (p. 34).
Some Closing (for now) Thoughts
So teachers, I’m begging you, for the sake of our students, flip the script, get off of it, throw it away even. In order to truly position ourselves as ethnographers and foster learning that empowers self-discovery, we cannot be robots. We have to constantly question the systems we perpetuate, throw wet paper at the wall and see what sticks, and be vulnerable in our classrooms 100% of the time. Observers and evaluators, consider that not all learning can be easily described by the students or the teacher. True, important, participatory learning is messy. In a world that rewards schools for being socially efficient and scholarly academic, we must push to be socially reconstructive and learner centered, have tough conversations, be open, have grace, and defend our practice. It truly is a process, one that no scripted curriculum could ever anticipate for any teacher, in any classroom. Over the course of this semester, I have learned that when you create a space that feels truly 100% collaborative and you have rid your classroom of the banking dynamic Freire warned of, the behavior concerns go away, trust is instilled, effort and engagement increases, and a sense of belonging is created. In a system that truly wasn’t built for all, YPAR showed us that we really are meant to be heard, even when the words are hard to find.
Baker-Bell, A., Stanbrough, R. J., & Everett, S. (2017). The stories they tell: Mainstream media, pedagogies of healing, and critical media literacy. English Education, 49(2), 130-152.
Delgado, R., & Stefancic, J. (2017). Critical Race Theory: An introduction. New York University Press.
Du Bois, W. E. B. (William Edward Burghardt), 1868-1963. (1968). The souls of black folk; essays and sketches. Chicago, A. G. McClurg, 1903. Johnson Reprint Corp.,
Eisner, E. W. (1994/2002). The educational imagination: On the design and evaluation of school programs. Macmillan.
Espinoza, M. L., Vossoughi, S., Rose, M., & Poza, L. E. (2020). Matters of participation: notes on the study of dignity and learning. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 27, 325-247. https://doi.org/10.1080/10749039.2020.1779304
Schiro, M. S. (2012). Curriculum theory: Conflicting visions and enduring concerns (2nd Ed). Sage.
To cite this work, please use the following reference:
Makooi, M. (2023, May 23). Flipping the script: Rewriting the argument for YPAR in classrooms. Social Publishers Foundation. https://www.socialpublishersfoundation.org/knowledge_base/flipping-the-script-rewriting-the-argument-for-ypar-in-classrooms/