Forum For Thought

Walk a Mile in My Shoes – Community Walks Foster Equity and Deeper Learning

This is part two of a three-part blog series about the “Promoting Deeper Learning through Equity, Diversity, and Personalized Learning” Study Tour to Oakland, California. Click here for part one and three.

Betsy Brand, Executive Director, AYPF

Recently I had a chance to visit two innovative schools in Oakland, California as part of an AYPF study tour, I was struck by the practices used by these schools to personalize learning and support the students in their learning objectives, all with a deep commitment to equity. The student populations of both schools are very diverse and mostly low-income, and students face multiple challenges to learning. Both schools were thinking about ways to ensure that all students, not just well-prepared students, have access to authentic deeper learning, and shared a number of common characteristics such as engaging instruction, project-based learning, small classes, lots of adult contact, respectful and inclusive school culture. Yet, one simple practice at the Oakland International High School (OIHS) really “wowed” me. That is the use of Community Walks to help students, teachers, school leaders, and family learn about each other and create a supportive community for learning.

Oakland International High School serves newcomer students from many different countries and ethnic backgrounds. Of the approximately 380 students, students come from 33 countries and speak more than 32 languages, nearly 93% are socioeconomically disadvantaged, 98% are English learners, and approximately 25% have limited or large gaps in their formal education. Students come from countries such as Iraq, Liberia, Nicaragua, Thailand, Uzbekistan, and Yemen, so it is clear there are vast differences in language, culture, religion, family structures, and societal norms and expectations.

A regular high school filled with 380 teenagers means lots of hormones, anxiety, noise, energy, and can seem like a chaotic learning environment. A high school filled with newcomers, who are trying to communicate in a foreign language, learn about a new culture and country, navigate unfamiliar coursework, figure out where they fit in, and bring all the angst of the teenage years, could be unbelievably crazy. I would expect that fights might break out between various sects or groups, that many would feel lost, anxious, defensive, or withdrawn, and that learning would take second place to surviving and just getting through the day.

But that is not at all what it is like at OIHS. In addition to creating a very supportive and respectful culture for all youth and adults, the school works hard to ensure that every student is well known and connected. Students have a core group of five teachers during their first and second years and are able to establish strong friendships with peers and adults. The school also embraces the various cultures and encourages students and staff to share their own experiences and backgrounds.

One of the intriguing ways OIHS encourages this inclusive environment is through Community Walks. A Community Walk is organized by a student or a group of students from one country as a way to share their language, culture, way of living, food, and neighborhood with students and teachers from other cultures. Students have the option of structuring the walk as they wish, but walks might include visiting a house of worship or meeting with a religious or spiritual leader, visiting a community center important to the students, having a meal at a local restaurant or a student’s home, and meeting key community leaders. Students create the itinerary and teach their teachers about their country and customs in an experiential setting.

I realized that as the students work on organizing a Community Walk, they are developing some of the deeper learning skills (solving problems, working collaboratively, communicating effectively, learning how to learn) important to success in all walks of life. Students also have an opportunity to show leadership, demonstrate competence, and “show off” their culture, way of life, and knowledge about their country. They can take pride in their native country and be validated by adults. This is a clear benefit for students.

But the Community Walk also has benefits for those who participate in it and for the broader school community. The Community Walk is a way to break down barriers between groups of people so that we don’t see others as strangers from some strange land, but rather as individuals who have families, enjoy sports and the arts, work hard, and like to eat good food. As schools and communities become more and more diverse, finding ways to build community and understanding becomes an important element in creating a positive learning environment.

Some of the state leaders on our study tour were particularly interested in the Community Walks as a way to help their staff learn about immigrants and ethnic groups, in an authentic setting. For education leaders and/or teachers that do not have opportunities to interact with students and family from other countries and backgrounds on a regular basis, participating on a Community Walk could be a way to build greater understanding, communication, and support.

The goal of this work is to ensure that all students, regardless of their country of origin, race, ethnicity, or income level, have access to a learning community that supports them and prepares them for college, career, and civic engagement. Community Walks are one strategy worth checking out.

If you want to read more about the Community Walks at OIHS, check out this article in Edutopia.

The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF’s events and policy reports are made possible by the support of a consortium of philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.

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