Students take civic action with 'I Am We' projects

Audrey Langley, 14, right, shows off her I Am We civics project at the Nock Middle School to her mother Patti. Audrey’s project involved ways to fund and encourage the arts.BRYAN EATON/Staff Photo

NEWBURYPORT — Throughout the year, Rupert A. Nock Middle School social studies teachers Jennifer Groskin and Kyle Boudreau guided students who were developing “I am We” civics projects, in which students reflected on their identity, interviewed subjects related to their topics and presented action plans.

Students presented their projects to their peers Tuesday in the library, which was lined with posters that each tell a story.

The project, Groskin said, helps students identify issues they care about and shows them the small steps they can take in the community to make a change. Although the teachers see several recurring topics each year, including beach erosion, safe bike lanes and later start times for school, Groskin said some new topics made their way to the table.

“There’s a lot more environmental topics,” she said. “The difference is over the past few years what we focused on was the research and the writing pieces as opposed to the board as a presentation piece.”

In January, students began researching their topics and mapping out a civic action plan. For example, some students who researched beach pollution and ways to reduce the amount of plastic in the environment organized a beach cleanup on Plum Island. Others interviewed legislators or leaders of organizations that advocate for certain rights, including gun control, gay rights, veterans and animal cruelty.

Boudreau said the purpose of the civic action piece was to have students engage with community members they might not normally talk with on a regular basis.

Eighth-grade students Alanna Egan, Cassidy Smith and Kajsa Woodger researched social emotional learning — something that has become a major topic of discussion between Superintendent Sean Gallagher and school principals throughout the district. The three girls admitted anxiety and mental health issues are some things they see their friends and families struggling with.

“I have anxiety and just doing whatever the school can to improve other students who have anxiety or stuff like that is really important,” Egan said.

Students interviewed guidance counselors and school wellness teacher Jay Murphy about how there can be more flexibility within the school day for students to get their assignments done. In health class, at the middle school level, the students said they tend to focus more on drugs and alcohol, rather than mental health and anxiety.

“What we wanted to do is restructure our flex (period) which is a very structured study hall,” Woodger said. “It’s really one of the only parts of the day that’s free. We wanted to be able to restructure is so it would have more academic benefits for students so they can get more work done.”

Right now, Egan said students are required to read freely for the first 30 minutes, allotting the remaining half hour to work on any assignments students have. Egan said they want to have more time to work on homework, because “when you have more of your work done, you’re less stressed and it keeps you emotionally healthy.”

“Maybe if they got more work done, their grades would get better, and it all kind of relates to each other,” said Egan, who added many students have after school clubs, sports and activities that take up a lot of their free time. “You get home and you have a lot of stuff to do and you have to get up early and it’s a lot to get done before school.”

In another project, Joaquin Justiniano researched police body cameras to help with police brutality. He was moved by videos he’s seen on the Internet depicting police brutality, noting some of the victims are young kids like himself. Joaquin interviewed Segun Idowu, the founder of the Boston Police Camera Action Team, which provided members of the Boston Police Department with a body camera.

“They’re all caught by police body cameras, but what I found out about police body cameras is when you know when you’re being filmed, you react differently, so they help,” Justiniano said. “Police body cameras also show when citizens harass police officers. All of the evidence is right there, so it helps with a lot of complaints against police officers.”

Staff writer Amanda Getchell covers Newburyport and Seabrook. Follow her on Twitter @ajgetch.