by Aaron Michael
Alex Kameen is an 8th grade English teacher at J.T. Moore in Edgehill, a racially and economically diverse neighborhood of Nashville, Tennessee. His MA from University of Texas focused on Urban Teaching, which he describes as a focus on engaging students from diverse educational, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds as “fully agentive members of the world.”
The program was steeped in ideas of teaching for social change, and it imbued in Kameen a deep desire to teach English in a way that inspires his students to take local action. I caught Kameen finishing up his second year at J.T. Moore, where he has been using PBL to do just that. His school district, Metro Nashville, has been partnered with BIE for several years for PBL professional development.
Kameen divides his English class into small groups of students who spend the majority of their term working on independent projects of their own choosing and design. He shared with me one project that he felt got to the heart of his desire to bring social change into his PBL instruction.
1. Defining and honing a problem through a true need in your community
Kameen’s first task is helping students discover and choose challenging problems or questions that relate to social change they want to see in the world and in their community. This particular project started with three young ladies who are passionate about fighting discrimination and brutality in policing.
But finding a challenging problem or question that is complex enough to accommodate meaningful and sustained inquiry but manageable enough to produce a project with real, local impact can be a delicate balance. Here, Kameen tried to focus the discussion toward a more specific topic than just “policing in America.”
As they talked, one of the students made a comment that helped narrow the conversation. She said, “I feel uncomfortable when police drive by me in my neighborhood. I feel uneasy.”
This was a small enough problem to attempt a real solution (unlike “How can we solve racial biasing in policing?”) but it was intimately important to the students on a personal, community, and national level.
2. Sustained Inquiry driven by authentic interest
The students began the project by launching into deep research and preparation, and it was here that Kameen built in much of the key knowledge and understanding for his term, and covered his required Tennessee Academic Standards.
In settling on a problem of authentic interest to these students, they were inspired and motivated to go deeper and deeper.
And through their sustained inquiry, they applied what they learned to their own community.
In their research, the girls came to ideas of community policing and examples of how mediated conversations between local police and members of the community have moved other towns and cities toward more positive relationships between police and those they serve. Getting to know officers on a personal level also seemed like a good approach for their original challenging question: how to make people feel more comfortable when police drive by.
3. A public product that aspires to bring about social change
Once students settled on the idea of bringing the community and officers together to get to know each other, they had to convince local police officers to take interest and engage. With the help of their campus officer, the students started an email correspondence with Michelle Jones, a sergeant at the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department.
Students went back and forth with Sergeant Jones to develop an engagement that would make everyone comfortable. They decided to host several other officers for what J.T. Moore calls a “Restorative Circle.”
This was to be the public product for their project. In planning and facilitating the conversation, students worked on numerous success skills: collaboration, self-advocacy, and persuasive communication. They learned about how to collect quotes that would inspire dialog, they learned verbal communication techniques, and they learned how to cooperate as a group to keep passionate discussion going.
But the day before the restorative circle was set to happen, tragic news came: one of the officers scheduled to participate was shot and wounded while serving a warrant in a motel.
The next day, the three girls went from homeroom to homeroom, gathering notes from over 200 students. The campus officer then hand-delivered the notes to the injured officer in the hospital.
In spite of this chaos and tragedy, the students and officers stayed committed to making the event happen, and rescheduled for a month later. Kameen reflected on the event and its impact:
The assistant principal said that it was probably the most powerful hour of her career at this school. I also felt that what these kids were doing for this project, there are no grownups doing something more important.
After the circle, Sergeant Jones pulled me aside to say, ‘We need to do this again — but next time, with parents.’ And the students did it. Weeks later, after the project had long since ended and grades had already been assigned, these three students worked to plan and host another circle with more students, parents, and officers.”