When I took six fifteen-year-old girls to present to the Brookhaven City Council work session last week, I had one of those moments of immense pride and deep joy. Here were six Latino and Asian girls – many of whom are second generation immigrants – speaking to a group of older, mostly white council members and the mayor about their vision for the place they call home. Not only were they speaking up for themselves, but they were also speaking on behalf of their parents, their friends, their relatives, and their community (as Leticia noted in her introduction).

brookhaven city council mtg (2)

joe gebbia
Joe Gebbia meets with Leticia, Zujey, Dinamis, and Cindy days before they present to the Brookhaven City Council’ work session.
Boldly, they presented their desire to see Buford Highway, a corridor infamous for its hostile pedestrian terrain, transformed into a safe, walkable, and sustainable destination.

Julie Thach said, “Many people think of Buford Highway as simply a corridor. But it’s not. It is a vibrant, diverse community. It is home for many people, including me.” She and her project partner Donnye Ramirez (and Yammile Garcia, who couldn’t attend the council work session) argued convincingly for things like continuous sidewalks, an official, continuous bike lane, better bus stops, more mid-block crossings, and lower speed limits. Here we see a strong overlap between what Millennials want in their urban environments and what our immigrant communities need in their neighborhood.

Were there mistakes in some of the grammatical structures? Sure. Had my students ever presented to such an official audience? Definitely not. Did the presentation experience some technical problems? Of course (Note to self: teach students how to use clickers – silly me).

betsy eggers
Betsy Eggers, founder of the non-profit group behind the Peachtree Creek Greenway, discusses community-based advocacy, walkability, and the future of Buford Highway during class at Cross Keys High School.
But did my students realize why all these things are important? I believe so. I went back and forth about whether or not I should critique their work to the point where there were no comma errors, no sentence structure errors, no verb tense errors. I reiterated to them over and over just why we need to eliminate all possible distractions from our arguments, including the speaking style and grammatical format of our work.

However, I wanted to be careful that I didn’t, by insisting on a perfectly polished piece of writing, squelch their confidence in their ability to be a voice for change in their community. Teenagers are already sensitive enough to criticism, and the idea of opening one’s self up to criticism by city officials is enough to make even adults step back. I wanted to handle this fine line of getting them ready to present their ideas while also being sure that I didn’t douse the fire and confidence of these budding activists. I decided to hold back many of my English-teacher comments, and I figured it would be better to hold their work under more intense scrutiny after the presentation, when they were already reflecting on their speaking and their overall work.

This form of assessment isn’t the only effective kind; however, I do think for these students, it made the work more meaningful and the assessment more authentic. As they watch the video of themselves presenting to city council, they immediately begin assessing what they could have done better. I help guide them through their self-assessment at that point, and I am able to determine whether they understand the finer points of speaking and writing.

And that’s what I ultimately try to do as a teacher: I try to encourage self-assessment and self-growth in the areas of reading, writing, and thinking. I believe when students take ownership of the work, they care more about the nuances of language (or any subject). If I am unable to get students to “buy in” to what I’m trying to teach them, it’s much more difficult to get them to remember how to apply the standard or how to access the content. It makes it so that the teacher is working harder than the student – which is not what makes way for “authentic learning.”

I’m pretty hard on myself, and I expect a lot as a result – not just from myself but from my students. When I think back over the course of this year, and all the work the students put in to The BuHi Project, I am amazed at how much we were able to accomplish. I have had several students make significant gains in reading. They’ve gone from a fifth-grade reading level (as assessed by the STAR Reader program) to an eighth-grade reading level – and in some cases even higher. I’m not sure if it was that they were actually able to make those significant gains, or if it was that they actually tried during the post-test. Either way, getting students to care enough to take your assessment seriously is a huge accomplishment, and if you can get them to care and to succeed, well, then you have experienced a successful year of teaching.

I feel like The BuHi Project not only enabled students to grow more than they thought was possible, but it also helped students see the importance of reading and writing in the “real world.” I would rather have students present to city officials without perfection than to have students languishing in my class completing worksheets, trying to convince themselves that “one day” this will matter. What they have done in The BuHi Project will matter “one day,” but it is also having an immediate effect in their community and on themselves. That’s not because of me – it’s because of them and their hard work.

Guess we will see what the state thinks about that when my kids take the Milestones test the second week of May…

If you want to learn more about The BuHi Project, visit the website a couple of our students have created or check us out on Instagram and Facebook! To contact the student liaisons for the project, email thebuhiproject@gmail.com. (The students came up with all of these ideas. Like I said, they’re brilliant.)

To see more about what’s going on inside the classroom, check out my classroom webpage thatenglishteacher.weebly.com.