Student disengagement in writing at the secondary level is a pervasive challenge school districts face nationwide. Many students perceive writing as formulaic, disconnected from their life experiences and lacking opportunities for personal agency and expression. Recognizing the need to reimagine student engagement in social studies inquiry writing, Frank McCormick, an instructional technology coordinator from Sunnyside School District in Tucson, Arizona, embarked on a transformative journey. He engaged in the Advancing Secondary Writing initiative led by Digital Promise’s Center for Inclusive Innovation, recognizing the importance of involving students directly in the research and development (R&D) process.
The Power of Inclusive Innovation
Inclusive Innovation is an R&D model that fosters collaboration among school districts, teachers, students, parents and community members to address challenges and transform teaching and learning. In this context, Digital Promise welcomed four exceptional student interns from Sunnyside School District—Anjelica, Citlalli, Iracema and Judith—enrolled in the Education Professions career and technical education class taught by Elizabeth Skeggs. This collaboration empowered students to take the lead, shifting the dynamics in the classroom and inspiring transformative outcomes. Skeggs expressed her pride and gratitude, “To have the privilege of being the teacher while the student interns engaged in Inclusive Innovation was truly the honor of my career. For the first time, I truly was the facilitator and definitely not the expert in the room, and the feeling was freeing and inspiring. When we hand the reins of learning over to our students, the results are more relevant, creative and authentic than we as adults are capable of on our own.”
The Center for Inclusive Innovation had one parameter guiding this journey: After providing the overarching guidance and resources the students needed to do their work, adults moved out of the way and relinquished control. The students possessed complete autonomy and leadership throughout the project, extending beyond mere input or influence. The result was a life-changing experience for the students and the adults.
The project’s focus was to engage historically marginalized students in writing, with a specific emphasis on social studies inquiry topics. The Inclusive Innovation team, championed by Frank McCormick, collaborated with a team of district and community members to define solutions that provided students with a voice in topic selection, a choice in writing options and opportunities to contribute to curriculum development. The original student leader Sarai Juarez worked closely with the team to define the challenge, identify priority students, conduct research and imagine solutions. The Inclusive Innovation interns designed and developed the solutions.
For six months, the student interns engaged in the Inclusive Innovation R&D process. They led the way, designing surveys, analyzing data, presenting to students and teachers, conducting interviews and focus groups, developing solution concepts and prototypes and overseeing resource development and design. Their efforts resulted in the following solutions around voice, choice and contribution.
In Their Words
To truly transform education, education leaders must move beyond simply giving students a voice and embrace their leadership, collaboration and co-design. The following insights from the students themselves—provided in interviews conducted by Digital Promise—shed light on the significance of their involvement in education R&D.
Why should students be involved in education R&D?
As Anjelica aptly points out, students should be actively involved because they are the ones for whom education is designed. Their insights and perspectives are invaluable in understanding their needs and improving educational systems. Furthermore, Citlalli emphasizes that student involvement allows them to actively participate in shaping the very things they learn, gaining a deeper understanding of the process and overcoming limitations. Judith adds, “Students need to be involved as these programs and products affect them. If they are allowed in, then they can give their own ideas.” Iracema echoes this sentiment, “I believe that the students are the voice of their education, and to be a part of the development and research is one way to get students interested and involved in their learning.”
What is your definition of Inclusive Innovation?
The students provide diverse perspectives on the definition of Inclusive Innovation. Judith emphasizes its purpose of providing solutions that assist those in need and promoting equal opportunities. Anjelica adds, “Inclusive innovation is the creation of new ways to bring the best out in people.” Iracema views inclusive innovation as the ability to improve something for the benefit of everyone.
What is the most important skill you learned in the internship?
The students highlight various valuable skills they acquired during their internship. Judith identifies improved communication as a crucial skill she is developing through the internship, overcoming previous challenges in this area. Citlalli acknowledges the importance of time management, recognizing the need for growth in this skill and its positive impact on her work. Iracema appreciates the ability to effectively merge her ideas with others, recognizing the collaborative nature of the internship and the importance of open communication. Anjelica surmises, “The most important skill that I took from this internship is looking at things from a broader perspective. There is a connection between anyone and anything, and even if you think it doesn’t involve you, it should still be important to you.”
How do you hope students benefit from the writing tools you developed?
The students express excitement for the writing tools they developed, such as the Student Curriculum Club and Compact Writing Assignments. Anjelica aspires for students to gain confidence in their writing abilities and to approach writing without fear of failure, fostering a sense of comfort and growth. Citlalli aims to engage students in writing sincerely, beyond mere academic tasks, serving “as a tool that can be used to express oneself while conveying thoughts and ideas that they may not have otherwise with other methods.” Judith hopes that the writing tools will instill a love for writing in students or, at the very least, encourage them to give it their best effort, thereby nurturing their writing skills and self-expression. Iracema envisions the writing skills developed through these tools transcending the classroom, benefiting students in their everyday lives. By recognizing writing as a means of self-expression, she believes that students will become more engaged in their learning journey. “Writing is not just a skill we use in school but is really something that we use every day to express ourselves as people,” says Iracema. “If more students realized and saw writing in this way, I believe that they would ultimately be more involved in their learning.”
As we celebrate the graduation and future endeavors of these exceptional student interns, we are reminded of the transformative power of inclusive innovation. Through their leadership, collaboration and co-design, these students have paved the way for a new era of student engagement in education. Citlalli emphasizes the importance of involving not only interested learners but also those who may face difficulties in learning, as their inclusion can have long-term benefits. Education leaders must embrace students’ insights and experiences, empowering them to actively participate in research and development initiatives. By doing so, we can collectively create an educational landscape that truly values student voice and fosters their growth, ensuring a brighter future for all.