Young Writers seniors fielding questions during Citizenship Night

“Don’t be nervous,” Academy for Young Writers’ history teacher Stephen Lazar told his 72 seniors last night. The seniors were buzzing around the warm cafeteria, prepping their final citizenship projects for the imminent arrival of evaluators, who would be assessing their work and knowledge. “They’re nervous to hear what you’re going to do with the world.”

The seniors had spent the last six weeks brainstorming problems that effect them and the world, researching different perspectives on those problems, articulating their own policy recommendations, delivering persuasive speeches about their point of views on the issues, and working in groups to compile all of the research and findings on display boards. The groups targeted problems ranging from gentrification to cyber bullying to prostitution.

Citizenship Night was the culmination of the Center for Civic Educations’ Project Citizen, a curriculum Lazar implemented to promote students’ responsible participation in government. Approximately 15 “civic-minded” evaluators – mostly teachers, a couple journalists, a few external education stakeholders – perused the 24 trifold poster boards, clipboards in hand, pushing students to articulate their problems and proposed policies.

On one side of the cafeteria, the group that weighed the pros and cons of legalizing prostitution was continuing the debate amongst themselves.

Gabriela Diaz said that legalizing prostitution can open doors for women, providing them with legitimate business opportunities.

“It’s always going to be there,” Diaz said. “If we legalize it, we can contain it.”

“That doesn’t make it okay, ” group member Faith Rogers contested. If prostitution was legalized, she said, then a lot of the other problems her classmates had researched – like human trafficking and domestic violence – would be exacerbated.

Across the cafeteria, the cyber-bullying group was at consensus about how their problem of choice could be addressed: a virtual attack button. The button would be available on computers for victims to activate when they have been bullied, sending an alert to the police. While the group was unsure that they could logistically garner the financial support and legislative backing for their idea, they found the project valuable nonetheless.

“It made me feel like I have a voice,” Sarah Louissant said. “He’s preparing us for college. We learned about the topic and how to use our time and how to put stuff together.”

“And about statistics,” Stefanee Maynor chimed in.

“And the different techniques that you use to research,” Remy Hayward added.

Lazar noted that the biggest gap between what high school and college classes expect of students is the ability to research. In years past, Lazar had done similar civics projects with his students, but this year he tapped into the Project Citizen curriculum because of it’s emphasis on research. Much of his explicit instruction during this unit was not simply how to distinguish “good” and “bad” sources, but how to evaluate the perspective each source was from and to use it accordingly.

“You can evaluate my job on this work,” said Lazar. “This is valuable work that reveals college readiness. The Regents tests do not do this.” Lazar, who sits on an informal advisory board for GothamSchools, has long been a critic of the state’s Regents exams in history.

Grant Lindsay, an organizer with East Brooklyn Congregation (a community organization helping Young Writers transition to their new Fall 2012 home on the Spring Creek Campus), came to the event to support the school community. As a guest evaluator, the projects Lindsay saw hit close to home.

“It reminds me of when I was in high school because I was very passionate about concerns in my neighborhood,” Lindsay said, recalling the roots of his community organizing efforts. “If you give young people the opportunity to think of creative solutions, they’ll come up with really good things and they’ll succeed.”

Some groups have already taken the initiative to take their research and policy-knowledge to the next level. Rogers, from the prostitution group, is planning to join the Baldwin Foundation, three members from the domestic violence/rape group are tossing around the idea of starting a support group in their neighborhood or school, and the members of the gentrification and education group are reaching out to their communities at home and abroad, advocating for their cause.

Young Writers students filling in their voter registration forms

For example, Rifka Simmons attended the public hearing on Success Academy’s colocation in her current school building. She wrote a speech she had intended to deliver, but had to abandon it as the meeting extended past her curfew time. Still, she says, “I feel like I can be a part of the change.”

And Sydney Parsons will be traveling to Paris in April, through Our Better Angels, to compare the gentrification taking place in Harlem with that in La Courneuve.

“It’s humanly not cool to be splitting families up and removing them from their homes, where they’ve been for years,” Parsons said. Rattling off the effects of gentrification, Parsons paused to regroup her thoughts: “Sorry, I’ve read so much information that I’m getting it crossed.”

As the night wound down, Lazar delivered a “surprise” to his students before their buffet dinner. Standing on a cafeteria bench, with steaming platters of chicken and empanadas below him, Lazar announced that all eligible seniors would be registering to vote before the night’s end.

“Often politicians don’t listen to teenagers, and the reason they don’t listen to teenagers is because they don’t vote,” Lazar said. “Nothing we do the entire year makes a difference if you don’t back it up by being a registered voter.”