Cesar Chavez Charter School for Public Policy is based in a renovated warehouse on Florida Avenue above another D.C. public charter school. It lacks a main entrance and has to be entered through an alley. Even so, Chavez provides some of the most exciting educational experiences in the city schools.
Last year, I observed Mary Finn's 10th-grade world history class to see how the school carried out its mission of trying to develop young people who will make this country a better place by influencing public policy. Each week, I visited the class of African American, Latino and Vietnamese students to document student responses.
Finn's curriculum centers on a series of profound questions. The questions are chosen to help students develop an identity and beliefs that will compel them to take on personal and civic responsibilities. The age old question "Who am I?" opens the course and leads students to explore how they define themselves and how others define them.
"People use the word immigrant to talk about me, but they are probably immigrants, too," one student remarked. Another said, "I guess a lot of us are treated like we just don't belong here."
After exploring issues of identity, the students considered their responsibilities and obligations. They asked: What is my universe of obligation? What is my nation's universe of obligation? They talked about their responsibility to their families, churches, communities and nation.
Ebony Norris reflected on how her views had changed. "I used to think I was responsible to just my family and sometimes close friends," she said, "but now I feel it is also my community and sometimes my country, and in some cases other countries." Ebony struggled to articulate whether Rwanda should have been in our nation's universe of obligation and why, to her, Iraq was not our responsibility.
Another student, Jeremy Wood, was clear in his understanding of our country's obligation in Iraq. "It was necessary for us to be in Iraq. We needed to get Saddam Hussein out because he posed a threat to his own people and our country, and now we have to help the Iraqis build their country up."
During their study of world religions, Finn pushed the class to understand how religious beliefs affect their perspectives about their obligation. She asked the class: "In today's world of war and terrorism, is it possible to turn your cheek?" Student responses varied: "Sometimes you have to defend yourself;" "I can turn my cheek but not my back;" "Turn the cheek to show the other person you are more mature." The conversation was intense as students discussed the difference between being a bystander and a resister to evil. Many students agreed that although it might show maturity to "turn your cheek," it might also be that a person is avoiding action.
Switching from personal obligation to national obligation, students studied world geography and history. Sometimes disappointed at the lack of response to world problems, they questioned national and international priorities. "Studying the AIDS epidemic had the biggest impact on me," Yancy Berrios said. "I was so shocked to realize how the disease is spreading through Africa and how many people do not have access to medicine or education. Maybe it is so sad because something could be done about it and still it is such a major problem." In closing interviews with students, many told me that the classroom conversations reached into their homes.
"I talk to my mom about what we are learning," Yancy said, "and she says, 'Don't worry about those things -- you shouldn't have to hear about such terrible things.' I tell her it is my education and how can I know what to do in the world if I don't know what's going on. I think my mother should take this course."
Ebony had another idea about who should be in a course like this one. "If gang members could take a world history class like this, they would have something to fill their empty heads and could have a real purpose in life instead of fighting over stupid things." The gangs she was describing operate only blocks from where young Chelsea Cromartie was killed earlier this year.
"That killing of an innocent child is more important than anything happening in Iraq," Desiree Tancil said. "Yesterday another girl was shot. You cannot sit on your own porch or walk to the store without worrying about gangs."
Nuvia Reyes summed up her classmates' commitment to make a difference in the world: "I am just a teenager, and I was very young when Rwanda happened. I've learned a lot about the world in this course, and it has changed my sense of responsibility. I act more responsibly in my community. I live far from Rwanda and Sudan, but I know what can be done in my own neighborhood. Things can change. If you put your mind to it, it can be done."
Bobbi Snow is the founding president of Educators for Social Responsibility and has been an educator for the past 35 years. Last year she volunteered to document the work at Cesar Chavez for the Facing History and Ourselves Project based in Brookline, Mass. She also worked at the School for Arts in Learning Charter School developing a middle school curriculum.