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June 12, 2017
Students and Police in Conversation: Authenticity in Nashville PBL

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.


“The girls started by profiling six or seven incidents of police brutality that had made news. They were often consulting sources that were above their reading level, so we held mini-lessons on how to scan articles, how to identify and choose different kinds of sources to suit their needs, and how to cite research. We learned about the meaning of qualitative versus quantitative data and about detecting and interpreting bias. Students used what they learned to take 100 sources and whittle them down to seven of the most relevant and appropriate.”


In settling on a problem of authentic interest to these students, they were inspired and motivated to go deeper and deeper.


“They read about the nature of authority and violence, they collected and interpreted statistics, and they digested and summarized what they learned in slide presentations.”


And through their sustained inquiry, they applied what they learned to their own community.


“They began to ask what they could do to make sure Nashville avoids becoming one of these cities that makes the news for brutality. They did local research around town, conducting polls and interviewing residents. The students learned interview techniques (how to be respectful but also ask tough questions) and how to present data effectively.”


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.


“When students started corresponding with Sergeant Jones, the ‘realness’ of their undertaking really hit them. Almost immediately, they embarked on what would become a rigorous curriculum in professional writing and communication. Sergeant Jones was excited to participate, but she had questions and concerns about what this engagement would look like, what students wanted to know, and what would be expected of her officers.”


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.”


“A restorative circle is meant to allow kids regular opportunities to discuss important issues, share how they are feeling, and build community relationships here at school. As a school, we participate in restorative circles every Monday and Friday during homeroom.”

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.

“We were watching this go down on the news and I remember the shock in their faces. What followed was social action through real living. It’s hard to think of a situation that would bring communities together in a more authentic way.”

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:

“In the end, around 14 students, our campus officer, the sergeant of the police force, our assistant principal, literacy coordinator, and myself shared their own experiences and dug into difficult questions about policing. Sergeant Jones, like the three students who led this project, is an African American woman, and students asked her about what it is like being a black woman on the force.

Sergeant Jones shared details about her own life, including difficulties she faced that these young students could relate to. I think everyone was surprised with the level of honesty and openness in the circle, as well as the profound feeling that the conversation created.


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.”


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