The Incarceration Project

Before they graduated, I wanted my seniors to have one last opportunity to make their voices heard in a memorable way. In English, we had just finished reading Twilight, Los Angeles, 1992, a play based on Anna Deveare Smith’s interviews with a wide swath of L.A. residents after the Rodney King riots. For our final project, my students wrote and performed their own play on a controversial issue, based on interviews with residents of the Oakland community.  Because so many of my students had family members and friends in prison, or had a loved one become a victim of violence, we chose the topic of incarceration.

Each senior asked a different member of the Oakland community to share their thoughts about incarceration in a thirty-minute tape-recorded interview. In brainstorming the list of interviewees, my students tried to choose people from a diverse range of ethnicities, ages, and viewpoints. In the end, their interviewees included ex-convicts; deputy sheriffs; attorneys; youth activists; former gang members; and parents, siblings, and spouses of inmates. My students transcribed their interviews word by word, and each chose the most poignant excerpts to turn into a monologue he or she would perform. With the help of a volunteer from a local drama company, the students memorized their monologues and injected emotion and action into their performances.

The senior art class built the set for the play, and the government class designed the program, which included historical facts and statistics about incarceration in the United States. Our final performance, “We Don’t See, We Only Hear: A Play about Incarceration,” featured all 34 students in my senior English class, not a single one of whom had any acting experience when we began. Most of these teens had entered high school with middle or elementary school level literacy skills, and more than a quarter of them were English language learners who had been hesitant to speak publicly even in small group settings. But in the end, every single senior performed a memorized monologue, with vocal inflections and action, in front of a packed auditorium. For me it was a vivid reminder of the transformative power of project-based learning.  


Teaching Portfolio

The Immigration Podcasts

Inspired by the spirited national debate over immigration, the Unity High School Immigration Project was a collaboration between David Castillo's U.S. History 11 and my English 11 class. Over the course of a month, our juniors interviewed Oakland immigrants about their countries of origin, their journeys, and the reality of life in the United States. After conducting these interviews, the students wrote their own radio scripts recounting their interviewees' stories and recorded and edited these scripts into individual podcasts using Apple's GarageBand software. As they documented these new immigration stories, the students also read and watched documentaries about a wide range of immigration experiences, including those of refugee boys from Sudan (Lost Boys of Sudan), Hmong refugees from Laos, undocumented immigrants from China, and "balseros" from Cuba.  Selected student projects were featured on La Raza Chronicles - KPFA 94.1.


Primary text:

Each year, thousands of immigrant children from Central America and Mexico make a harrowing journey north to find their mothers in the United States. Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter Sonia Nazario's book, Enrique's Journey, chronicles the odyssey of one such Honduran boy. As he travels atop the freight cars of "El Tren de la Muerte" (the Train of Death), he and other migrants are hunted like animals by gangsters, bandits, and corrupt cops. Despite being deported seven times by Mexican immigration authorities, Enrique continues to risk life and limb to find his mother.

The Podcasts:

The Unity Cookbook

The Unity High cookbook brought together English and Science, two subjects that sometimes make for a challenging collaboration. While the eleventh graders studied the molecular composition of nutrients and minerals in Chemistry, we were studying the elements of the memoir in English. Together, we decided to publish a cookbook of food-inspired memoirs, accompanied by chemical analyses of the recipes’ nutritional content.

As my students wrote memoirs inspired by a treasured family recipe, they explored the ways in which food can have cultural and emotional significance. Some pondered food’s unique ability to bring families together, as in Roman’s tale about eating maffe, a Senegalese stew, at family reunions. Others associated recipes with a homeland they had left behind, like Patty’s memoir of growing up in Mexico, drinking caldo loco, or “Crazy Soup,” after a day of horseback riding on her uncle’s ranch. Still others connected food with loved ones who had passed away, as Yareli did in her memoir of learning to bake baklava from her Russian grandmother.

To celebrate the cookbook’s publication, my students organized a food fair. They each brought in the dish they had written about in their memoir, and they invited many of the family members featured in their stories.

Download the full cookbook here: The Unity Cookbook

Or read an excerpt:  Yareli on Grandma’s Baklava, Roman on Senegalese Maffe, Amado on Mom’s Pambazos

The Hero Gallery

The Hero Gallery was a natural collaboration between English and Visual Art. In Visual Art, my tenth graders had been learning to draw the human figure, with a focus on portraits of people's faces. In English, we had been studying the biography and reading profiles by professional journalists offering an in-depth look at the lives of prominent movers and shakers. For this project, we asked our students to choose a person in our community whom they considered a hidden hero--someone who might never be featured in a magazine or newspaper but who nevertheless deserved to be honored for their work. Many of our students chose local activists, including sexual health educators, pastors, and anti-war protesters. A few wanted to honor mechanics, cabinet makers, and construction men, whose depth of skill often went unappreciated. Others decided to profile animal police officers, surgical nurses, and local musicians--those whose career paths inspired young people to new possibilities.

Over spring break, each student spent one day shadowing his or her community hero. They arrived with their sketchbooks to make preliminary sketches for a portrait and to take notes for the hero's profile. They also prepared a list of open-ended questions for an interview with their subject. After extensive revision and polishing of the profiles and portraits, our students displayed both in a Hero Gallery, where we held a gala event honoring Oakland's hidden heroes.

Snapshots of Oakland

The community where my students live receives frequent negative attention in the press, as a place riddled with crime, poverty, and violence. Rarely do the media celebrate the positive aspects of Oakland or offer a glimpse into its pockets of beauty. My ninth graders, equipped with disposable cameras, set out to capture a more nuanced perspective. After snapping pictures of unusual places, intriguing people, and unique cultural practices in our city, they sat down to write vignettes--anecdotes packed with sensory details, figurative language, and vivid verbs--that would bring their pictures to life.

After several rounds of revision, my students bound their photos and vignettes into their own personal photo logs. They also chose their best photo and writing piece to be included in a class compilation, which we published and distributed to the community. Finally, my students organized an art show opening, where we displayed their pictures and vignettes blown up and framed. Exhibiting their writing for a live audience motivated my students throughout the revision process and drove home the concept of “writing as art.”

Project-Based Learning            My Classroom            Journalism            Trips            Intersession     

Flavors: Unity’s Guide to Bay Area Restaurants

For the Unity High Flavors project, every student visited a different local eatery. Some chose old stand-bys like their favorite burger joint or taco truck, while others took the opportunity to explore new cuisines, getting their first taste of fiery Korean stews, Ethiopian injera bread, and Peruvian beef hearts. The students took notes on the restaurant's design, service, and, of course, food. They also interviewed the restaurant's owners to learn about its origins and conducted research on the history of the foods they had sampled.

Students wove their observations and research into a newspaper-style restaurant review, a genre that integrates description, narration, and persuasion. In art class they created black and white drawings of featured dishes. We published their reviews and drawings as Flavors: Unity High's Guide to Bay Area Restaurants and sent a copy to the food critic of The East Bay Express, a regional paper. He printed excerpts from my students' reviews in his weekly column and accepted our invitation to speak at our school about his experiences as a professional critic.

Download your own copy of Flavors (Year 1) here and Flavors (Year 2) here.

Or read an excerpt:

Livy ‘s You Heard it Through the Crepevine, Jazzmin’s Jammin’ Jamaican Soul, Jose’s Sizzling Sofrito, Karla’s La Torta Loca

The Investigative Reporting Project

In freshman year, the projects I designed usually asked my students to celebrate the unsung positive aspects of our community. By senior year, however, they were more than ready to take on the negative aspects. For this project, my students became investigative reporters charged with digging into a social problem ailing our community. They found no shortage of problems to investigate, including: residents' limited access to affordable health care, domestic violence among minority families, abused teens turning to prostitution, gang violence between Nortenos and Surenos, and scams targeting undocumented immigrants.

In preparation for writing, each student conducted two interviews--one with a local resident personally affected by this issue and one with a rep from a local non-profit organization working to ameliorate the problem. My students also conducted library and Internet research to unearth the historical facts, key statistics, and legislation surrounding their topic. They wove their interviews and research into a lengthy article that vividly recounted the victim's story, presented the issue in context, and articulated the challenges facing community activists. With help from their U.S. Government teacher, the seniors also wrote a section analyzing what the government at the local, state, and federal level could contribute to the solution.

This project lent itself easily to interdisciplinary collaborations. The first year we did this project, our Visual Art teacher added an art component by having our students make linoleum print posters that we put up around the community to raise awareness about these issues. The second time around, the Government teacher and I helped our students turn their articles into scripts for five-minute documentaries, which the students made using Adobe Premiere. We screened their documentaries for family members, community leaders, and local activists at a Senior Movie Night.

The Business Plan

In preparation for their lives beyond school, this senior English and Economics collaborative project asked our students to step into the role of entrepreneurs. Students worked in pairs to devise an original business idea and create a coherent plan for the operation and finances of their business. In preparation for writing, the partners carried out preliminary research by interviewing a local business owner about his or her start-up process, marketing strategies, and management philosophy. They also conducted research on the Internet and in their neighborhoods to learn about local market needs and the strengths and weaknesses of potential competitors.

After exchanging feedback with fellow classmates to fine-tune their ideas, the students composed a business plan targeted at potential investors. In their written plans, each pair clearly articulated their mission statement and described their product or service. They also prepared a competitive analysis and marketing strategy explaining how they would attract new customers and overcome competitors. Finally, they wrote a detailed breakdown of their projected expenses and revenue and showed how they would use these calculations to determine their break-even point.

Each pair distilled their plan into a five-minute PowerPoint presentation pitched at potential investors. They presented their slides before a panel of local business owners, who challenged the students with questions and judged the viability of their proposals.