Academic journal article Language Arts

Participatory Action Research, Youth Voices, and Civic Engagement

Academic journal article Language Arts

Participatory Action Research, Youth Voices, and Civic Engagement

Article excerpt

In what follows, we explore the question of what happens when teachers and students become researchers and the focus of inquiry is student generated and specific to students' day-to-day lives. We do this by discussing two projects in two separate after-school programs in which we worked with youth using multiple artistic affordances to affect community change. These two projects resulted from a community-university partnership that sought to connect youth to their neighborhoods, to foster intergenerational communication, and to encourage youth to speak up and out about the ways their neighborhoods could be more responsive to their needs.

In both projects, youth not only learned to ask, "What is this experience and how could this be?" but "How can it be otherwise" (Goodman, 2003, p. 47). In turn, youth also began to see that literacy is an accomplishment that affects how others see the world. In the process of interpreting and creating multimodal texts, the children began to learn strategies for deliberating, arguing, inquiring, and using evidence to create more equitable conditions for youth living in neighborhoods fragmented by economic development.

Photovoice and multiple Affordances for Literacy

To address what happens when teachers and students become researchers focused particularly on the experiences of kids in the places of their lives, we explain the ways that youth use multiple literacies and art in after-school Photovoice projects to explore the inextricable relationship that exists between identity and place and to use the tools of research to identify problems in their neighborhood that they want to change (Zenkov, 2010; Zenkov, Harmon, Bell, Ewaida, & Lynch, 2011). Kids consume images in the world around them, and school can enable them to start looking critically at these images, pose questions, and use art to affect how others see the world, that is, to both read and produce texts. As a tool for participatory action research, Photovoice provides children with a rich space to represent their social worlds and order their place within particular environments.

For the project represented in Figure 1, we worked with 12 middle-school-aged youth through a local neighborhood center. Participants used their newly cultivated research skills to propose and carry out a renovation of a local park, represented in Figure 2. Youth used blocks to build what they saw as flourishing communities and used their artwork- collage, drawing, map-making, and whiteboard art-to help adults understand what the children saw as assets in the surrounding neighborhood, as well as some of the problems they felt city planners could help solve. This artwork served "as a living learning tool that create[d] the possibility to identify, acknowledge, and validate the multiple realities that inform and influence their understanding of multiple contexts" (Guajardo, 2013, p. 10). They worked at length to code their own data about the changing face of the city, paying particular attention to what they saw as assets and challenges.

In turn, they discussed how they could go about refurbishing a local park. As Figure 1 shows, students categorized who would use the park, the features they wanted to include, and ways to keep it safe. To develop priorities, they identified and then voted on those things they valued the most, as shown with square stickies on the whiteboard. The process of identifying priorities informed the proposals and the researched arguments they made to the city. They used evidence to support their position that city leaders needed to change the conditions in their neighborhood-in this case, a park that could serve as a safe haven for youth and adults.

As we explain below, a second group of 11 primary, middle, and secondary youth enrolled in a year-long leadership program. After participating in a Photovoice project, this group agreed to meet monthly to develop leadership skills by learning how to conduct interviews, map assets and problems in their community, and plan a course of action to address ways to create meaningful change in their neighborhood. …

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