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Transformative Student Voice Turns Social Justice into Homework

May 18, 2021

Education can be a catalyst for good. But school, especially for K-12 students, can also be a source of frustration. Which is why researchers in CU Denver’s School of Education and Human Development developed Critical Civic Inquiry (CCI), a social justice curriculum devised from disillusion. 

From Disenchantment to Transformation 

When Carlos Hipolito-Delgado was attending high school in California in the 1990s, the state was purple. There was a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment, and Hipolito-Delgado realized that ethnic bias extended to him, because he was a brown-skinned Chicano. “Because of my skin color, I might never be viewed as American,” he said. 

During Dane Stickney’s first year as a middle school teacher, he was unhappy. The teacher-student model he’d learned focused on behaviorist policies that stressed rewards and punishments as a way to control student behavior. “You can’t smile until after Thanksgiving,” he’d been advised. 

“When you get into the real world, …” This popular teacher’s warning was beginning to irk high school junior Moudji Alassani. “We do live in the real world,” she explained. “Some of the things that students experience are very serious issues that teachers themselves have not experienced.”  

Through Critical Civic Inquiry initiatives, Hipolito-Delgado, Stickney, and Alassani are turning education into liberation. Carlos Hipolito-Delgado, PhD, is a professor at CU Denver and co-founder of CCI, a program “for marginalized students to participate in social justice change in their schools and communities.” Former middle school teacher Dane Stickney is an instructor and graduate student at CU Denver; his doctoral thesis focuses on CCI curriculum and public school partnerships. Since she was in seventh grade, Alassani, a junior at Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy, has participated in Student Voice and Leadership (SVL), a Transformative Student Voice program in DPS that uses the CCI curriculum. 

Carlos Hipolito-Delgado with students
Carlos Hipolito-Delgado with students who participated in CCI.

Partnership with Denver Public Schools 

SVL is currently being used in 25 high schools in the Denver Public Schools (DPS) system, with approximately 300 students involved. CCI’s partnership with DPS evolved from Hipolito-Delgado’s research as part of a team called the Critical Civic Inquiry Research Group (CCIRG’s other members include Ben Kirshner from CU Boulder and Shelley Zion from Rowan University).  

To get from the research stage to the classroom, Hipolito-Delgado and his team had to adjust the CCI model multiple times. “Our vision was to amplify student voices, to make sure students had a space at the table and a say in their educational experience,” Hipolito-Delgado said. By adding a curriculum and an assessment tool, CCI achieved “the next evolution in our work.” 

Hipolito-Delgado explained that teachers had been interested in the idea conceptually, but they needed practical help to implement CCI in the classroom. “This is where Dane [Stickney] has been instrumental,” he said. “As a former teacher, a former educator, and someone who’s delivered CCI lessons, he developed teacher training, showing specific ideas of how to make TSV curriculum work.” 

The curriculum, which is available online as an open educational resource, includes eight cycles, each with detailed lesson plans, learning objectives, questions, and assignments. “Students have to identify a problem and conduct research,” Stickney said. “Once they have the research, then they draft a policy.” 

Different Vision of Classroom Dynamics 

So far, students have tackled issues small and large—improving school lunch, offering mental health education, ending contracts between DPS and police, and reunifying multiple schools on one campus into one West High School. “We give students sheltered chances to succeed and fail,” Stickney said. “That makes them stronger leaders in the future when we really need them.” 

The program’s curriculum is great for teachers as well. “I was excited to teach; I didn’t have Sunday anxiety,” Stickney said. “I could plan openly, knowing students would help me out … TSV gave me a different vision.” 

That different vision involved a shift in power. “We wanted to change the power dynamic in the classroom,” said Moudji Alassani, SVL student representative at Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy in Denver. “Most of the time, the teacher has all the power; we realized that needed to change. Teachers have a lot to learn from students, and students have a lot to learn from teachers.” 

Dane Stickney with teacher
Dane Stickney talking to a CCI teacher.

TSV Students Become Teachers 

The project Alassani and her peers worked on related to implicit bias. “There was a cultural barrier between students and teachers,” she said. While the majority of students at her school were people of color, the teachers were not. After conducting primary and secondary research, Alassani and her team developed a solution—to create a culturally responsive development unit, a class taught by students to teachers. 

Alassani and her team structured their class in the same way that their teachers structured class. The students used Zaretta L. Hammond’s book, Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain, as a model. Exit data indicated that the teachers who participated “realized they already had their impressions of students before even meeting them,” Alassani said. “It opened their minds, so they got to know the students individually.” 

Remember the advice about “the real world” that Alassani was not too keen to receive? It turns out that teachers taking the implicit bias class couldn’t keep up with the homework, because they had other responsibilities outside school. “That was an interesting outcome,” Alassani said. “That’s how the students feel and sometimes teachers aren’t understanding about it.” 

Critical Civic Inquiry in Action 

So far, CCI’s partnership with DPS shows positive results. “It demonstrates the value of learning and, specifically, of socio-emotional learning related to activism,” Hipolito-Delgado said. “Youth involved in these programs are more politically engaged in their community.”  

Last year, while Hipolito-Delgado was on sabbatical, he spent a lot of time in Denver high schools as an observer. “I wanted to learn about qualitative research,” he said. Typically, he conducts quantitative research for CCIRG. “I’m the number cruncher,” he admitted. Simply being present in the classroom had a big impact on him. “I can honestly say, without any hesitance, that working with students directly has been the highlight of my career.”