Project Soapbox

Education brought to life

words and photos by Greg Milo

Ferdian Aditama stood at the front of the room and railed standardized tests. He referenced source after source to solidify his case against the mandated measurements. He spoke eloquently and convincingly. With every word, I felt convinced—a disciple.

“Standardized tests are an unnecessary time consumption,” the tenth grader affirmed.

I felt giddy with anti-standardization.

Man, this is education, I thought.

Last year, I started a course at my high school called Hometown Histories. The basic premise was to use Akron as the classroom. I created opportunities for my students to engage with their subject matter. They talked with community leaders, saw and felt their history, and shared their experiences through their independent studies.

If a Social Studies teacher’s job is to help students build the tools needed in becoming participating citizens, then a textbook is the worst partner. Building real-life skills seem a better answer.

image2That’s why when I saw Brad Scott’s 10th graders’ speeches on how to fix their community, I fell back in my chair, proud that powerful education was out there.

The students who argued their cases attend the Akron Early College High School. One after another, the kids impressed the audience that attentively sat in the Polsky’s classroom.

It’s one thing to be impressed with a high school student’s work, but it’s another thing for them to hold your attention for an hour, to wow you with articulate arguments about how their society could be improved.

And Scott’s students had the ears of Akron policy makers. Front and center, the judges for this event included Akron City Councilman Jeff Fusco, Summit County Executive Russ Pry, 34th Ohio House District Representative Emilia Sykes, Akron Public Schools Community Relations Director Carla Sibley, Adam Motter-APS social studies curriculum specialist, former APS Board of Education President Lisa Mansfield, Early College High School Principal Cheryl Connolly Akron, and senior class president Alexandria Couch.

Representative Sykes explained what impressed her most, saying, “The issues they tackled were personal, timely, and relevant. I was impressed with their knowledge of the issues and how comfortable they spoke about issues like sex, religious discrimination, and gender inequity. I thought it was especially brave for the student who spoke about school testing to call out the superintendent, who was in attendance and judging, and the state legislature.”

One of the judges was AEC Principal Cheryl Connolly. She expressed to me how proud she was of both Scott and the students.

Scott followed the Mikva Challenge techniques, and Scott couldn’t praise the program enough. Between the support he received and the steps it walked his students through, Mikva proved a solid guide and companion.

Mikva Challenge was built with the goal of giving a voice to youth. It’s mission states, “We believe that if youth voice is included in decision-making then policy makers will make more informed decisions.”

Scott said, “My goal was to show students that they were important and their opinion was important, and that if they want their community or city to be great, it is up to them to make it great. No one will do it for them.”

Nor will a standardized test.

The students held the floor, charismatically and convincingly pitching their cause—true experts in their field.

Sure, they were sixteen-years old, but their disposition was anything but adolescent.

Students are motivated when they’re allowed to choose content that matters to them. Students are motivated when they feel like people are listening. And students are motivated when they feel a teacher believes in them to tackle challenging tasks.

Nearly as impressive as the presenters were the attending students. Through finger snaps, the crowd could agree with points nicely served by the presenter or encourage nervous presenters to keep going. It was a perfect display of camaraderie and courtesy, as if the entire lecture hall was working together.

All too often, classroom debates turn raucous, a soapbox for the loudest and most aggressive. Mikva teaches the students civility, so deliberation is productive. It promotes finger snapping and “wild applause” when appropriate.

“We studied great speeches by watching video or listening,” Scott said. The classes learned about structure, appeals, rhetoric, and attention grabbers. “While studying, we snapped and cheered wildly. This got the class used to it before the first student gave a speech.”

Also, and perhaps most ingenious, to practice their delivery, students persuasively recited the ABCs. What could be a better confident builder.

More so than studying about the Industrial Revolution or Age of Absolutism, real-life experiences like Project Soapbox teach students skills on being active citizens. It’s easy for high school students to be apathetic when they feel disconnected from the democratic process. It’s easy for students to be cynical about government when all they learn about it is how white-haired aristocrats founded the nation. But ask them to argue something they believe in and it will give them the energy to participate in the democracy.

If we want the youth to be our leaders, to lead Akron in the right direction, then education will have to train students on how to successfully take action in our community.

I hope that through this process they continue to find and lift their voices on issues that make a difference in their lives and others,” Emilia Sykes concluded. “Knowledge is certainly power and the more young people understand the world around them the more confidence they will have. And that confidence will turn into action.”