Harvard Educational Review
  1. The Heart of the Matter

    Transforming Our School Through Student Leadership

    Peer Group Connection Students at Morris Academy for Collaborative Studies

    New York: Student Press Initiative, 2019. 96 pp. $7 (paper).

    WE MAKE THE RULES
    STUDENTS AT MORRIS ACADEMY FOR COLLABORATIVE STUDIES
    NEW YORK: STUDENT PRESS INITIATIVE, 2018. 32 PP. $5 (PAPER).

    In English classrooms, afterschool programs, and youth centers across the country, students are becoming published authors. Student-focused publishing houses, such as 826 National, which operates through a neighborhood writing resource center model, and the Teachers College Student Press Initiative (SPI), which operates as a university-affiliated “part professional development, part artist collaboration and part not-for-profit publisher,” have created pathways for students to publish their own work with help from educators (Student Press Initiative, n.d.). These sorts of organizations partner with teachers to plan and run writing lessons, units, and projects that culminate in professionally published anthologies of student work available for public purchase. The motivation for teachers and students to undertake the publication process is no mystery: it gives teachers the opportunity to design authentic writing assignments with real audiences in mind and allows students to feel a sense of investment and excitement when they know their work is going to be printed, bound, and shared. These publications typically take the form of compilations of student essays or poems on a specific topic, often autobiographical or about students’ personal aspirations or visions for a better world. Many present students’ concrete ideas for how to improve their schools and neighborhoods.

    The impact of these organizations on publishing is formidable. SPI has published more than 500 student-authored books since 2002, and 826 National boasted 993 student publications across its nine chapters in 2017–2018 alone. However, the extent of their impact on readership is less clear. These organizations market and sell student-authored books online (and, in the case of 826 National, through neighborhood storefronts), but since they mainly (and rightly) focus on students’ learning experiences rather than marketing and distribution, the typical audiences for these books are the student writers themselves and their adult allies. The main aim of these workshops is to get students excited about writing and to improve their writing skills; the publishing aspect exists to “honor our students’ stories” (826 National Annual Report, 2018) and serves as an authentic end product.

    Yet, is it possible that student-authored books could impact a wider audience and be a means of bringing student voices into education policy and research? This review focuses on two books written by students from the Morris Academy for Collaborative Studies (MACS) in the Bronx, and both published by SPI, to address the role that youth-authored books might play in the education field.

    The Heart of the Matter: Transforming Our School Through Student Leadership is a compilation of essays by peer leaders in the Peer Group Connection (PGC) mentoring program at MACS. From The Heart of the Matter, readers learn that MACS is a New York City Department of Education public high school seeking to amplify student voices. The authors of the book are PGC student leaders, upperclassmen who run advisory groups and serve as mentors for MACS freshmen. The volume presents student essays evaluating PCG and its impact on their high school experience. Authoring the foreword to the collection, the teachers who serve as PGC faculty advisers “politely ask that you read this book with an open mind and heart” (p. 6). It would be hard not to. The high schoolers’ voices are fresh and insightful, telling stories of their transformation from freshmen—“being fed to the big dogs” (Marie, p. 21), “left alone in my corner like a statuette” (Farida, p. 29), “float[ing] within toxic waters” (Jenny, p. 17) in a new school—to leaders who “radiate positive energy to their school community” (Orquidea, p. 36) because of their PGC participation. The stories are overwhelmingly positive, sharing how the program created opportunities for them to feel seen and cared for, helped them face adversity as freshmen, and encouraged them to act as responsible role models as upperclassmen.

    As the faculty advisers explain, the essays are directed to an audience of New York City principals to serve as a positive program evaluation that could persuade them to adopt PCG programs in their high schools. The students present a compelling case. In contrast to the dry, technical language of many program evaluations that seem removed from the daily lives of the students they affect, this volume presents stories and voices that will sound familiar and credible to adults working with high schoolers. Principals will be moved by the students’ vivid stories of growth and intrigued by a program that has had such positive effects on many students over many years.

    The second collaboration between MACS and SPI, We Make the Rules, offers a different perspective on policy. Instead of evaluating a program already in place, We Make the Rules presents student suggestions for policy changes within their school community. Written by freshmen and sophomores as part of a larger project on MACS’s discipline policy, the student policy statements are short—250 words each—and follow a clear structure: a brief description of the proposed policy, its purpose, and the administrative details that would need to be in place for the policy to run smoothly. The volume presents the students’ strong visions for their school and shows that they understand the distinct needs of their school community. Most of the policy suggestions are down-to-earth, practical, and eminently achievable—as if their principal could implement them tomorrow. One student, Alex, suggests establishing an ID card policy, down to the nitty-gritty details of naming which staff members would be responsible for distributing the cards and which class the freshmen would miss for picture taking. In another standout policy, Gabby recommends revamping the dress code—a rule that’s often a thorn in the sides of students and teachers alike. Gabby’s policy description combines elements important to students (choice among comfortable options, no uniform on Fridays), families (free of charge, easily available at school), and administrators (observing rules and guidelines in place), showing that students can advocate for sensible policies in their own interests. Each policy presented (except, perhaps, for the policy that would allow students to leave campus for lunch for an unlimited amount of time!) considers this kind of collaborative feasibility.

    The student voices in We Make the Rules are clear, cogent, and cognizant of the needs of their school community. The students have thought through the necessary, day-to-day details of school policy in ways that top-down implementation rarely does. Their policies are common-sense suggestions that prioritize consistency and fairness in balancing school and student, adult and adolescent needs. As such, this volume reminds those in the education field that students have high expectations for the structure and content of their school days. Their ideas for improvement represent their own daily needs—needs that policy makers and even school leaders are too often out of touch with—and take school conditions into account at the level necessary for successful buy-in.

    The strength of the student voices and ideas in these texts strongly suggests that student-authored professionally published books can be a resource for school leaders and policy makers. However, publishing organizations should consider how to make books like these easy to use for school leaders and education policy makers. As is evident in The Heart of the Matter and We Make the Rules, it can be challenging for students and teachers to move beyond their own experience and clearly present their work to external evaluative audiences. For example, though the level of policy detail is excellent in We Make the Rules, I was left wanting to know more about the assignment that provided the basis for the book—Which course was this a project for? How was the assignment presented to students and what resources did they receive? What role did the educator play in polishing the work? What motived this group of students to rethink MACS’s core policies in the first place? Similarly, in The Heart of the Matter, the aims and outcomes of PGC are clear, but readers must infer the specifics, such as what grades the program serves, how often advisory groups meet, and what activities the groups engage in together. As a companion to a report on the program, The Heart of the Matter would provide a vivid illustration of what is possible when a school community is deliberately cultivated, but it could stand on its own for a wide audience of education leaders if it framed PCG clearly and directly.

    Educators considering publishing texts with their students play a major role in such projects. The PGC faculty’s beautiful, moving, and motivating foreword to The Heart of the Matter primes the reader for stories of “struggle, growth, resilience, and determination,” explaining the project as using pathos, logos, and ethos to speak to educational leaders and describing it as “a testament to the bond” of students and co-advisers in the program (p. 7). In other, future writing organization projects, educators and partners could also use their perspective to outline the details that a reader—a school leader or policy maker—needs to know in order to implement the program. They could include a note that speaks to how they crafted assignments and prompted students to write (What were the assignment instructions? Was that assignment connected to a grade? What was the guidance given on the assignment?) and the sorts of expectations communicated to the students about the task (Were students allowed to write about negative as well as positive aspects of the program? Were any students or responses excluded?). Framing the texts in this way would address questions of authenticity and validity.

    Student stories are persuasive enough to extend beyond their home classrooms and serve education leaders, especially when they consider the audience’s perspective and include background information and context. If educators and policy makers could easily access and learn to take seriously student-authored texts, we could begin to see programs that are more in touch with the day-to-day life of schools. As MACS principle Matthew Mazzaroppi states in the introduction to The Heart of the Matter, personal stories are “the real student data” and as such should play a role in educational decision making beyond the classroom.

    Tatiana Geron


    References

    826 National Annual Report. (2018). Retrieved from https://826national.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/826National_AR2018.pdf

    Student Press Initiative. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://cpet.tc.columbia.edu/student-press-initiative.html
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    Abstracts

    Youth Voices in Education Research
    Editors’ Introduction
    Becca Spindel Bassett and Tatiana Geron

    Book Notes

    Girlhood in the Borderlands
    Lilia Soto

    The Heart of the Matter
    Peer Group Connection Students at Morris Academy for Collaborative Studies