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Giving Youth a Voice

In which public school students get empowered to conduct action research on issues that affect their lives
Most parents nowadays have at least a dim awareness that by middle school, kids are thinking about dating. What they may not know is that it can sometimes be rough going. At one New York City public school, for instance, sixth and seventh graders recently reported knowing their “number” on a 1–10 scale defining their physical attractiveness—the supposed consensus opinion of their peers.
The typical adult response to such information is to set limits, instruct, counsel and otherwise manage the situation. But what if kids themselves were to gather data on their own and their peers’ experiences, determine precisely what kinds of behaviors go on, assemble their findings and put together recommendations for action—how to protect one another from certain social pitfalls while still leaving space for relationships to form?
That is precisely the approach of the Youth Researchers Collective, an initiative created in Fall 2009 by Laura Smith, Assistant Professor of Counseling and Clinical Psychology at TC. The Collective empowers students in low-income New York City communities to develop and conduct “participatory action research” on issues that affect their own lives. The students, who meet weekly with students at Teachers College, present their findings at an annual research conference called Youth Voices. Last year’s conference was held as part of TC’s Winter Roundtable, a diversity-themed event, with an array of educators and psychologists from around the nation in attendance. This year’s conference will be a freestanding community-wide gathering, held on May 7.
The Youth Researchers Collective is a collaboration between Smith and the New York City Department of Education, facilitated by TC’s Office of School and Community Partnerships. TC students who participate are currently supported either through the College’s Zankel Fellowship program or by funding from the Neukom
Family Foundation.
The term “action research,” coined in the 1940s by the psychologist Kurt Lewin, describes research conducted with the goal of enacting social change. Participatory action research (known as PAR) builds on this premise by incorporating the collaboration of community members as part of the research team. The work of theorist Paulo Freire is considered to be foundational to the PAR approach. Freire argued that research, educational programming and other interventions should include and be driven by those whom they are meant to benefit, particularly groups that are disenfranchised and disadvantaged.
“People in the middle and upper classes often see each other as the ones who have wisdom and who create knowledge,” Smith says. “Poor and working-class people tend to be excluded from public discourse—they don’t have the same platform to express their perceptions and views. And certainly that’s true with low-income, urban public school kids. So the Youth Researchers Collective is really about the democratization of knowledge production.”
“As a PAR co-researcher, my task is to convey that the knowledge that students have is powerful and their voices should be heard—and that their voices can produce change through research,” says Jessica Pierre, a TC graduate student who works with the project.
Shaquinah Taylor reflected on the growth of the teens’ confidence over time, noting “When we first started with the kids, I could tell they looked to us to be the teachers because we were the adults in the room. But with little things, like having them choose our activities, or by taking walks where they pointed out what they would change in their communities, it became clear that this process was about us learning together.”
In addition to the project on middle school views about dating, the Collective currently includes two other student initiatives. In one, a group of high school students has chosen to produce a multimedia report on images of women in the media. In another, middle school students are looking at bullying and harassment through online social networks.
In all of these efforts, the TC students work with the public school students to find effective ways of discovering knowledge in their areas of interest and then applying their findings back in their schools. As part of this process, the TC students help the public schoolers learn about research methodology and the dynamics of making group decisions. This year’s research groups are currently in the process of surveying their peers using electronic and paper-and-pencil methodologies, conducting focus groups of students, and creating PowerPoint slides and video footage to supplement their conference presentations.
“The work these kids are doing benefits them on a number of levels,” Smith says. “It provides them with a context for discovering and voicing their own insights into issues that affect their daily lives. But they also are learning skills—data collection, critical thinking, how to work in teams—that will serve them well in later life. Recently one of the high school students said to one of our students, ‘Now that I’ve met you, I can see myself where you are—in college or grad school.’

Published Sunday, May. 30, 2010