Third Annual “Designing Our Own Learning” Summer Intensive

This summer Sound Discipline hosted our third annual “Designing Our Own Learning” (DOOL) intensive summer program. For a look back at the first two years of the program, check out Facilitator Alan Wong’s post on the College Spark Foundation’s blog.

For two weeks in August, diverse students and teachers from Evergreen High School and Dimmitt Middle School joined together online with Sound Discipline facilitators to build authentic community, develop youth leadership and advocate for equitable practices within schools.

DOOL 2021 students, educators and Sound Discipline staff.

Built on a strong foundation of community and trust building, the DOOL 2021 process undertook an exploration of personal storytelling as a source of individual and collective liberation. Within the DOOL community, we split into 3 “solidarity groups”, smaller intergenerational and intersectional teams whose purpose was to explore and embody shared power practices, while also developing projects that could contribute to greater equity and decolonization within schools. As bell hooks states, “As a classroom community, our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one another’s voices, in recognizing one another’s presence.”  In line with this sentiment, each solidarity group shared their own personal stories as students and educators then created a project based on the young peoples’ unique identities, passions and desire for positive change in schools.

One solidarity group chose to focus on culturally relevant food in schools. Food is an essential element of cultural identity, which the youth in this group believe is often minimized or ignored within the school setting. They created a presentation in which each youth shared about a food that is meaningful to them on a personal and cultural level (from Vietnam, Congo, and India) and then connected their personal story to a larger advocacy for institutional change within schools. Long term, this solidarity group is advocating for more culturally relevant food in school lunchrooms and food science and culinary classes. In the short term, they are hoping to initiate homeroom lessons in their schools which lift up food as a source of cultural resilience and a more liberatory, inclusive and decolonized learning environment. Youth in this group shared that DOOL is “an opportunity to empower ourselves and our cultures – passing knowledge from generation to generation” and asked of the group the powerful question, “what will happen if we don’t claim who we are”?

Another solidarity group focused on ways to shift the school environment to one that is more culturally responsive, equitable and engaging. They used the DOOL experience as a model for what they’d like their schools to become – places which prioritize genuine connection and affirmation, while elevating dynamic pedagogy and student voice. As one youth from the group said, they’d like school to be more like DOOL in that is “as safe space to share – an open space that is judge free – at school I always feel like I’m being judged”. Another said “the power dynamic is different here. It’s not hierarchical in the way school is. We’re on the same level which makes space for more learning and growth together”. This solidarity group created a powerful creative poetry performance which highlighted their individual identities, strengths and resilience and served as counterweight to the dominant narratives which regularly define young people – particularly those from marginalized communities – as “less than”.

The third solidarity group designed dynamic lesson plans for their schools’ advisory classes which, being modeled after the DOOL experience, center student leadership and push toward collective liberation. The lessons begin with a shared exploration of oppression and discrimination, then guide students through a creative process that helps them to reclaim their power as individuals and a group. The lessons are accompanied by a video in which DOOL students and educators model the sort of personal storytelling and deep listening they believe can make the school environment a safer, more inclusive space for learning. Youth in this group shared about the power of honestly addressing inequities, stating that “at DOOL, we actually are talking about the problems” and “DOOL makes space for youth voice and leadership. It feels comfortable and not forced”.

The fourth solidarity group chose to focus on the importance of gender identity within schools. The youth in this group shared that “respecting pronouns and chosen names leads to liberation. It increases safety and inclusion for students and staff in order to give more mental space for learning with each other”. Members of this solidarity group shared their own personal stories of gender identity – both the pain of sometimes being misunderstood and the power of school environments where they are respected and valued. They posed powerful guiding questions which they will encourage students and staff in their schools to use to explore the issue themselves. Some of these include: “what does it mean for you when your chosen name and pronouns are respected” and “how is gender identity/chosen name a part of someone’s story and how do we practice honoring that”?

On our last day together, the DOOL group hosted a community event for teachers, administrators, policy makers and other leaders within the education community. Over 50 people came together to witness the incredible work that the DOOL students and educators had done together. One visiting principal stated “This is why I do this work! Each of you and your voice motivates me to show up”! And while this was the first opportunity for the DOOL 3.0 team to share their wisdom, policy recommendations, and youth-generated lesson plans with the wider education community, it certainly won’t be the last.

DOOL students and educators have been invited to present the work they’ve done at multiple large educational conferences this year, including the Decolonizing Education conference and the Bridge Conference. A core intention of DOOL is to share the practices and pedagogy that youth and educators co-create at the summer institute with the larger educational community. Ultimately, the goal of DOOL is to make a lasting transformative impact on the practices that take place in schools

The DOOL 2021 experience was powerful and has the potential to engender meaningful change in schools and communities. These changes will start at the partner schools, Dimmitt and Evergreen. Students and educators there have the opportunity to extend DOOL into school-year after-school programs, student-led professional development and youth-designed curriculum, as they have in prior years. But the changes DOOL students make will certainly ripple out from there, as they spread the seeds of equity and collective liberation in ever widening circles. As one youth participant shared, “DOOL gave me the courage to be able to speak and lead and speak my mind – and SO many beautiful things I will bring forward”. So, look out for a powerful DOOL student leader in a school or community near you…

Alan Wong is a Facilitator with Sound Discipline.