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Students tackle big issues through research, advocacy

In one language arts class at Crossroads Middle, eighth graders worked in groups to take on social justice issues through research and advocacy.

The results, said student teacher Chad Wagner, were as varied as the students themselves.

“That’s what I liked about this project, that it’s not a paper but whatever your group thinks best gets your message across,” he said. “And what they came up with was very creative.”

Eighth grader Bre’asia Rosado presented her group’s research on dress code fairness to students in other classes

Students brainstormed issues in the community, school, state, country and world that they want to advocate for. The project concluded with a presentation to other classes on the problem, the action plan they created, and the conclusions they drew from their research. 

Topics selected by students included climate change, LGBTQ rights, equity in school funding, mental health, online security, school nutrition and drug safety.

Bre’asia Rosado thinks girls are treated differently than boys when it comes to school dress codes. She gets that the rules exist to minimize distraction, but what the group she worked with wants to know is, who is getting distracted?

“Dress codes force girls to change their attire because of boys’ behavior, and that’s unfair,” Bre’asia told a classroom of mostly boys as she shared via a slideshow her group’s findings.

Another group chose to focus on immigrant rights, and made a video with statistics from governmental and human rights organizations, interviews of their own family members and images from protests and border events to share what they learned.

Current immigration laws are “very narrow-minded right now,”Katherine Cook says in the video. “The application process is long and grueling, (and) the policy is inherently classist.”

Katherine told one classroom after the presentation that she wanted to study immigrant rights “because it’s something I really care about, and that I have personal experience with.”

Fellow group member Abby Slot said she didn’t know much about the topic, but “now that I know more about it, I feel like I understand the process better.”

‘They became activists’

Wagner, a student teacher for Kathy Vogel, led the project. He used social justice as a vehicle to teach “Just Mercy,” a nonfiction account from civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson that tells of his work with prison inmates found to be wrongly convicted.

He said the project honed core English content skills such as annotation, perspective and reflecting on biases.

“It has been an amazing experience seeing what each group has done to spread awareness for their cause,” Wagner said. “The students took personal responsibility for creating a project that exists beyond the scope of the classroom. 

“They not only learned about activism; they became activists. That is the level of authenticity in this project I think the kids really appreciated and allowed them to create their best work.”

One student group’s video on immigration rights

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio or email Morgan.

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