Student-Centered Civic Action

July 18, 2017

Using the “Citizenship and Participation” Unit to Spearhead Community Impact

One of my proudest teacher moments from the 2016-17 school year occurred in April when five of my Constitutional Law students pitched our police brutality awareness project to our principal, Mr. Zaki. They facilitated the presentation as I sat back and watched, nervous but beaming. We wanted to showcase our accomplishments in hopes that our principal would allow us to apply for a $300 mini-grant to further our cause. We had just participated in the Mikva Challenge DC Action Civics Fair in March. Since January, we worked tirelessly to raise awareness of police brutality among the students and faculty of Dunbar High School.

Police brutality was chosen because it is a major societal issue targeting more African Americans and women. It has been in the news, the 2016 election, and it has had a major impact on our lives, as many of us, as well as our family and friends, have been victims and witnesses of police brutality. Since my students attend the first public African American school in the District of Columbia, we felt it was our duty to live up to the legacy placed before us and take on this issue, making a difference in the lives of Dunbar staff and students.

Our objective was to engage in activities to affect political change in our community. Students were charged with experiencing both the impact public policy had on our lives and the impact we had on public policy.

I decided to begin the process with the iCivics curriculum unit Citizenship and Participation and continue the process with the Mikva Challenge Issues to Action curriculum. Both organizations are known for creating opportunities for students to participate in government by experiencing it firsthand. After completing this project, my students dispelled the myth that their voice is not heard or valued in today’s society. They were given an outlet using these two curricula and were further empowered to act.

I used the iCivics lesson Students Engage for students to list problems in our community. Afterwards, they choose one problem and individually completed an action plan for it, responding to why it was chosen, how life would improve if it were solved, causes of the problem, and how to solve it. Since we had to narrow down to one issue, each student cast a vote and the winner was police brutality.

Let’s revisit my students in their meeting with our principal, shall we? The elected leader, Samiyah, gave Mr. Zaki a brief overview of our project accomplishments using our presentation board. First, we determined the root causes of police brutality (ex. fear). Secondly, symptoms of police brutality (ex. racial profiling) were cited and used in the ecological model to determine how our root causes affected society, our community, relationships, and us as individuals. Lastly, we researched and, according to the media, only three instances of police brutality occurred in DC since 2015. Three question focused on police brutality were crafted - students’ interactions with it, the need to reduce it, and ways to combat it.  Groups were formulated to create survey questions for each focus area, with the help of Howard University students. We surveyed over 200 Dunbar students, a third of the student population, with outcomes like 31% had been victims, 57% have witnessed police brutality, and 59% didn’t trust police.  We also surveyed over 50 staff members, half of Dunbar’s adult population and realized 34% said training officers to be better police would reduce police brutality, whereas 27% said we should teach students how to listen to police, and 25% recommended we show students how to understand and exercise their rights.

During the action civics fair we presented this same information to the community members, judges, and students. Samiyah explained to Mr. Zaki that DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson was very interested in our project and even offered to help us gain more traction by connecting us and the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). She told him everyone complimented us on our presentation board and was quite impressed with our statistics. At the end of the fair Samiyah remarked how great it felt for our words to be heard and our actions encouraged. Judges remarked how passionate we were in explaining our project to others. My students had a personal connection because many experienced it.

Mr. Zaki asked about our next steps for our project. Mikya responded that we planned a letter writing campaign to the police chief, a student/police forum to discuss trust issues with MPD, and an educational/visibility campaign to encourage knowing your rights. Our principal was very receptive and even promised to add to our award if we received the grant!  

Fast forward to May – we received the grant plus the principals’ monetary award! After a class discussion, the consensus was to start with what was closest to you to affect change - Dunbar. So, we used the grant money to purchase a website www.dunbarleadershipandpublicpolicy.org as a means of student recruitment for our leadership and law academy, in addition to using it to enable more student voice by posting project pictures, videos, and blog responses. We created shirts modeled after the Colin Kaeparnick “Know Your Rights” shirts in response to the 25% data collected above. Wearing those out in our community began much needed conversations. We invited MPD officers to Dunbar for a roundtable discussion about community relations in response to the 27% data collected. Having students and police talk to one another and develop empathy and respect for each other was powerful!

As an educator, I watched my students evolve from silent sitters into social speakers. All they needed was a platform and they went the distance for an issue they were passionate about! My students learned they can literally do anything they put their mind to.




Shelina Warren, a native Arkansan, is the Social Studies lead teacher at Dunbar High School in Washington, DC. She is a state and national award winning former Economics teacher, Civics teacher, and Gifted and Talented teacher, as well as a National Board Certified Social Studies Teacher, curriculum writer, and teacher veteran of 14 years.