Social Justice in Action

local graffitiCritical Literacy Projects Help Grad Students Inspire Change in Education

Before Alaina DeSiena enrolled in Joanne Larson’s literacy learning as social practice class this summer, she was aware of the undeserved stigma associated with graffiti, but never really did anything about it.

DeSiena, who was introduced to the graffiti community years ago by her significant other, says a research project in EDU 498 prompted her to change these deep rooted misconceptions of graffiti by helping others to see the value of this social practice. As part of Larson’s class, master’s and doctoral students had to develop a project with a social justice component that took an action to change what their research determined needed to happen.

DeSiena’s research team’s interest in graffiti first stemmed from an opening-day class discussion: What does literacy mean to you?
“When it came to be my turn, my answer was simple and true,” says the literacy education master’s student who also teaches fourth grade in Greece. “I said, ‘I find myself now looking at everyday practices and looking for literacy.’”
local graffiti
After spending the semester researching the social world of graffiti in Rochester, DeSiena and four of her classmates soon discovered that graffiti has a voice that demands to be heard. The group of student researchers interviewed local graffiti artist Ian Wilson, a 37-year-old African American radiologist, and ventured to local sites, like the water towers at Cobbs Hill Park, to learn about graffiti.

They soon discovered that true graffiti is a form of art, writing, and literacy that goes beyond the spray paint on the walls of Rochester landmarks. It is a way to express oneself. 

DeSiena’s group then set out to share their newfound understanding and change perceptions of the artistic movement of graffiti in the Rochester community through an editorial piece that they produced exclusively for City Newspaper.

“Through art and writing, your view of the world is published for everyone to see and participate with,” explains DeSiena, who is excited to bring a new understanding of graffiti to her classroom this fall where her students will be allowed to express themselves through graffiti on the classroom windows. “I don’t expect all of my students to love graffiti, but I do hope that their understanding of this social practice goes beyond seeing it as a ‘bad’ word. I hope that graffiti will give my students a voice to proclaim their thoughts, yearnings, and ideals.”

The experience of designing and implementing these critical literacy projects gives new, up-and-coming teachers and current teachers, from all grade levels and disciplines, something to draw on when designing similar authentic literacy practices in their own classrooms.

“It’s not so much about advancing their teaching careers as it is about being a critical human being—one who cares deeply about the circumstances of others and does something about it,” says Larson. “My goal is to give students a sense of the power of social action to change the world.”

This drive to impact change was particularly evident among another group of four master’s students in the social studies education program, who chose to focus their research assignment on rich learning experiences outside the classroom, like field trips, and share their findings with schools and businesses in the area.

In the current economic climate as budgets continue to tighten, funding for field trips tends to be the first to get cut. This group of graduate students set out to remind community partners, especially private and public businesses, that they have the ability to preserve novel, community-based experiences through funding, services, and support.

Cassie Dobbins, who wrapped up her 15-month teacher preparation program this summer, says that as social studies educators they felt particularly drawn to this topic because of the important role field trips play in learning and experiencing history, government, and civic engagement.Mary Jemison boat

Dobbins and her group recently spent a day observing and talking to Rochester City fourth-graders aboard the Mary Jemison, a historic wooden vessel, on a boat tour of their city to explore the value this novel experience had on enriching learning and literacy practices. Sparked by a partnership between the Rochester City School District (RCSD), Corn Hill Navigation, and Eastman Kodak and funded through educational grants, this novel experience made it possible for nearly 5,000 students to learn about Rochester’s rich history by going outside the classroom this past year.

“We wanted to see the value of these novel experiences first-hand and to attempt to make local schools and businesses aware of the value and role they can play in ensuring that students have access to these experiences,” says Dobbins, who reflects back to her most memorable field trip to Washington, D.C. as a sixth-grader. “We were very interested in this partnership and wanted to show that this type of cooperation between businesses and schools may be the key to ensuring that students continue to have access to novel experiences in their own communities.”

The group was successful at uncovering the value of novel experiences to community and business leaders through an opinion story, “Businesses Can Help Enrich Students’ Experiences,” that they had published in the Rochester Business Journal.

For Dobbins, this project helped her to bridge the gaps between theory in literature, her own personal thoughts about and responses to major educational issues, and her desire to take action to inspire change.

“The impact of this project on my future career will likely be seen as I reach out to local businesses and non-profit organizations to bring new and exciting experiences to my students,” she adds. “I will be more mindful of the opportunities within my own community and will be more adamant about bringing these experiences to my students and incorporating them into my curriculum.”

A group of doctoral students in the class turned their attention to high-stakes testing. As current classroom teachers ranging from third grade to college level, who are well versed in the weight and effects of the current high-stakes tests, this group of doctoral students researched and reacted to the student identity crisis caused by high-stakes testing.

Teaching and curriculum doctoral student Allison Berical, who currently teaches fifth grade special education in World of Inquiry School No. 58 in the RCSD, says, “Any tool that causes students to feel the way our students do cannot be socially just. We must fight alongside our students against it.”

Following interviews with nearly 70 students in all grade levels, from elementary to college, Berical’s group learned that high-stakes tests are as much of an emotional process as an academic one.

“It broke my heart to hear the emotional toll the tests took on my students, but I think teachers need to know exactly how their students are dealing with the entire process to better support them academically and emotionally,” adds Berical, who favorably supports using portfolios as an alternative assessment. “I also learned to never underestimate young students’ abilities to articulate their feelings, needs, and wants about school.”

A letter to Secretary Arne Duncan and his team shared what their students go through academically and emotionally when they are faced with the task of completing a high-stakes test. The letter summarized the group’s findings and urged Duncan to consider alternative assessments to standardized exams. Berical’s team has since received a response that shows an appreciation for their concerns and an explanation of proposed changes for the future. 

Looking ahead, as Berical continues to educate students in grade levels with high-stakes testing, she hopes to create an environment where students feel comfortable talking about their frustrations and emotions just as much as discussing academics.

She concludes, “I think it becomes so easy for teachers to get caught up in the academics of tests that we forget that our students are people too and may need some reassurance that their feelings are normal and heard.”

Other critical literacy projects this summer focused on college access, arts education programming and budgeting, and decontextualizing literacy. This is the third iteration of projects that have stemmed from EDU 498 (Literacy Learning as Social Practice).

Media Contact: Theresa Danylak
(585) 275-0777; (585) 278-6273 (cell)


Tags: Joanne Larson, literacy, literacy education, social studies, teaching and curriculum