Helping students craft social change: class explores ways to work for justice

Helping students craft social change: class explores ways to work for justice


WESTERLY — Helping survivors of sex trafficking; preventing genocide; raising awareness of transgender murders and suicides.

Students in a new social action class at Westerly High School took on weighty issues this past school year and strove to fulfill the vision of instructor Anne Barnhart: using personalized learning to create meaningful change.

The class, students said, was about finding justice for others who can’t find it for themselves, and respecting how others think and speak.

“Not only did we ask questions,” said sophomore Odelia Burns, who stood in front of her peers during finals week to share what she took out of the new course offered to sophomores. “We learned to answer them.”

In the background as she spoke, a sign in Barnhardt’s classroom read: “Change the system, not the climate.”

Barnhart said she proposed the Sophomore English for Social Action course for learners who thrive in an inquiry-driven, project-based environment.

The course, still grounded in texts deemed culturally appropriate and important for sophomores, “provides a place for students who wish to explore a passion/topic deeply, have the inner drive to contribute/act in a social and civic manner,” and who want to enhance their individual and collective voices.

Students worked from a place of taking a stand and making change, she said.

“This kind of course provides the means for them to explore and assume that responsibility and for me to help prepare them for an unforeseen future,” Barnhart said. “The plans and projects the students make will grow in them the civic mindset that will help our school community think critically about itself and help the students think about the town, state, national and global community critically, as well.

“Maybe the result will be planting a seed of change, but hopefully they will make tangible change. Whatever the change, however, I hope they will be a part of renewing a common world.”

Students began with reading “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a novel that is required for the sophomore class. They inquired into the differences between social justice and social action, and studied people who acted to remedy injustice in new, varied ways, from theater to art, public policy, preaching, and protesting.

Barnhart said students then moved into shared group inquiry, where they dug into the nuances of issues like Black Lives Matter, refugees, and gender pronouns.

“With that foundation we just explored the layers of injustice and action around us, in our town, our state, our region, our country, the world,” Barnhart said. “They chose one idea and began researching through a formal objective lens and then explored the practical implications and applications of their topic. We made Google maps marking where and how people are taking action within their realm and then they were to choose what action they wanted to take.”

Dani Bernat collected journals for the sex trafficking survivors at Day One, an agency based in Providence that aims to reduce sexual abuse and violence. Emily Keniston researched genocide prevention. Ace Muccio brought awareness to transgender murder and suicide and handed out “Hearts not Parts” pins during an awareness fair on campus.

The fair, held in June, was the students’ idea because they collectively felt “their peers and teachers were the place they could make meaningful impact.”

“When students come out transgender they’re going through tough times,” Muccio said. “There are a lot of deaths....I want to lower that. There needs to be more love in the world; more acceptance.”

Added Keniston: “I learned how to make a change.”

Barnhart received a one-time grant last year from the Westerly Education Endowment Fund, or WEEF, for 10 Chromebooks to assist students throughout the new course.

“My goal was to create a space for an alternative kind of engagement,” Barnhart said. “They grew so much.”

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