Steven A. Meyers (Roosevelt University)
Please note: Instructors are welcome to use or adapt these teaching ideas for their own classes, provided the use is noncommercial and appropriate credit is given.
To: (1) increase students' understanding of youth violence and its impact on individuals and communities, and (2) strengthen students' civic engagement and ability to advocate effectively for child well-being
In this action teaching activity, students spent 25 hours in city neighborhoods conducting interviews to explore the psychology of youth violence, and used the information they gathered to heighten awareness and promote social change. In the initial phase of this activity, students interviewed neighborhood residents, community leaders, and government officials; met with prosecutors and detention facility officers; and listened to parents whose children had been murdered. After learning about the issue from as many perspectives as possible, students then contacted their legislators to call for action, wrote letters to newspapers, developed Internet resources on youth violence, and organized a campus symposium with speakers they had met during their field work. Through these activities, students deepened their understanding of youth violence and learned how to use this understanding to create positive social change.
In 2007, law enforcement officials across the United States made more than 73,000 arrests of children under 18 years old for violent crimes, such as murder, forcible rape, and aggravated assault (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2008). About two-thirds of the victims of these juvenile offenses were younger than 18 themselves (McCurley & Snyder, 2004).
Because youth violence is a serious concern in many communities, these findings raise a question for educators: Can students use what they learn about this social problem in the classroom to make a difference in their communities?
I incorporated action teaching into a psychology seminar that focused on youth violence, its causes, and ways to reduce its occurrence. The action teaching component involved an advocacy service learning experience in which the students each spent 25 hours in city neighborhoods conducting interviews to explore the issue. Students then used the information they gathered to heighten awareness and promote social change by contacting their legislators, writing to newspapers, and developing Internet resources.
Reaching Out to Learn the Scope of the Problem
In the initial phase of advocacy service learning, students interviewed neighborhood residents, community and professional leaders, and government officials. To learn more about juvenile justice, they met with prosecutors in the State's Attorney's Office and spoke with detention facility officers involved in rehabilitation. They participated in neighborhood clean-ups organized by city government, attended antiviolence rallies, and observed public hearings about policies to help children at risk. Students found playgrounds tagged by gangs and saw neighborhood memorials honoring adolescents who had been killed (see the "Kids Off the Block Memorial Tribute" below). They visited youth centers and diversion programs that keep children off the streets. They were invited into schools and communities affected by violence and gangs — hearing not only from children, but also listening to parents whose children had been murdered.
Translating Knowledge into Action
After reaching out, students learned to speak out. The second phase of the experience involved students sharing what they learned with elected officials and the broader public.
Writing and speaking with legislators. Students wrote letters to local and state officials drawing on the knowledge they gained from their field work. They stated that they were a constituent concerned about youth violence, and concisely related facts and illustrations from their field experience to support their points in a personalized way. They concluded their letters by asking for political action, such as the support of a particular piece of legislation or the funding of initiatives to decrease youth violence (for an example, see this student letter). To amplify the effect of these letters, students then followed up by visiting their city council representative, state representative, and state senator.
Writing to newspapers. In an effort to widen their audience, students also wrote to the editors of local newspapers. These letters, one of which was published (see below), expressed their opinions about youth violence, conveyed relevant information, and referred to recent newspaper articles on the topic.
Promoting Awareness on Campus and Beyond
Campus lecture and workshop. At the conclusion of the course, students organized a campus symposium. They invited speakers whom they had met during their field work, including a mother whose 16-year old son was shot to death on a city bus, allegedly by a killer of the same age. Two teens from a community struggling with violence also spoke and shared their stories of loss and resilience. The undergraduates then held a workshop on how to advocate for change, encouraging participants to register to vote and helping them locate contact information for their elected officials. Students also explained how to write letters to their representatives, and how to reach out to popular media.
Developing Internet resources for public education. To raise broader awareness about youth violence, students wove photos and sound recordings gathered during their field experience into Internet audio slideshows. Roosevelt University placed one show on its home page as part of a feature story. Other slideshows were posted on a class-related blog and have been viewed by people in the United States, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Indonesia, and Italy.
Tips on Implementation
Finding people to interview. Initially, I helped the students identify people to interview. The interviewees, in turn, suggested others who had relevant knowledge. Most communities will have the following contacts: local police departments, county courts, county juvenile detention centers and probation offices, school social workers and counselors, social service agencies that serve youth, and local politicians and their staff (e.g., city council officials, mayor's office).
Equipment. Groups of students used digital cameras and voice recorders to document their field work. This equipment is helpful but not necessary. I received internal funding to purchase several digital cameras (approximately $80 each) and digital recorders (approximately $40 each).
Internet resources and software. Students used SparkAction to find the contact information of their elected officials. They also used Flickr to store their digital photos for free, Audacity freeware to edit their sound files, and an inexpensive commercial program named Soundslides to create Internet audio slideshows.
Student Assessment of the Experience
Students were asked to assess this field experience, and their responses suggest that action teaching broadened their perspectives and personalized the content. In the words of one student, "The biggest realization I have come to over the semester is that youth violence is our issue and our responsibility, not 'their' issue."
Speaking with different stakeholders also appears to have increased students' empathy and promoted analytic skill development. As one student put it: "I have realized that every issue in life and society has several different ways of approaching it. I have learned that each community member is an 'expert,' that is, sharing their story and insight from the perspective that they have experienced. It does not matter whether I think they are right or wrong because I need to understand where everyone is coming from. Only then can I grow from the experience, critically look at the problem, and effect social change."
Finally, this action teaching experience helped students become civically engaged and encouraged. Said one student: "I learned that we can all make a difference. We don't have to be someone important in order to express our views and concerns — we are someone important. I now know that my elected officials are reachable; they are people just like us. We shouldn't be scared to contact them and express our concern, not only about youth violence but about other issues. I would have never contacted my elected officials out of fear of being completely ignored."
Avoiding Potential Pitfalls
Students should be told on the first day (or before, if possible) that the class involves advocacy service learning, so they can make an informed decision about participation and ensure that they have enough scheduling flexibility. For students who cannot or do not wish to participate in a field experience, instructors may wish to offer an alternative assignment. Second, students should be prepared to travel to lower socioeconomic neighborhoods. To reduce potential risk, I encourage students to complete their field work in groups during daytime hours, and I would also encourage instructors to consult their departmental chairperson or dean for safety advice. Third, students and faculty should realize that patience and persistence is needed when arranging meetings with people in the field.
Extensions, Variations, and Conclusions
This service learning experience took place in Chicago but can be adapted for use in different geographical areas. Youth gangs and violence are problems not only in large cities but in small towns and suburban areas, albeit at lower rates (see Egley & O'Donnell, 2008).
The general structure of this activity can also be tailored to many other social issues related to psychology (e.g., domestic violence, access to mental health care, racial discrimination and inequality). Regardless of the topic, advocacy service learning involves: (a) interviewing community members and professionals to gather information, (b) writing and meeting with elected officials to advocate, and (c) raising awareness about the issue through on-campus events and media coverage.
In sum, students learned about many aspects of psychology through this experience, such as the interplay between risk and resilience, the impact of discrimination, the importance of primary and secondary prevention, and the effects of trauma and environmental hardship. However, this action teaching technique provides students with much more than knowledge about psychology. By reaching out to their community, students become engaged citizens who feel empowered to effect change. They also motivate peers, professionals, and politicians to do the same.
Egley, A., Jr., & O'Donnell, C. E. (2008). Highlights of the 2006 National Youth Gang Survey (OJJDP Fact Sheet FS-200805). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2008). Crime in the United States, 2007. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.
McCurley, C., & Snyder, H. N. (2004). Victims of violent juvenile crime (OJJDP Bulletin NCJ 201628). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.