by Alyssa Chen, Ava Ransbotham & Theo Younkin, Features Editors
graphic by NSHS Collage Club
Even though “boring” is the first word that comes to mind when someone says “state-mandated assignment,” South juniors have found a way to make it their own, pursuing projects fueled by passion and a desire to improve their community.
South chose to assign the civics project, imposed on all public high schools by Massachusetts law, to juniors near the end of the school year, reasoning that the timeline would allow students to recall past civics events taught in their history course and turn their knowledge of government and civics into tangible actions and goals.
Julie Masi, who has taught junior United States history for six years, said that the civics project is designed to create educated citizens who will be active in their community beyond high school.
“Over the past several decades, there’s been a decline in civic engagement and people’s understanding of what civics even means,” she said. “[The project] is definitely valuable to raise awareness about that issue, but then also to give students the opportunity to not just learn about civics, but also do something.”
The idea of students taking their education into their own hands is at the core of the project from the very beginning of the process. Senior Grace Santos, who created a stop-motion video with felt pieces about food deserts for their project last school year, said that the project gave them the freedom to explore a topic that had interested them for a while.
“The question that was asked of us at the beginning of the project was ‘find something that you’re passionate about, something that you could really spend a lot of time on and be really interested in learning about,’” they said. “[Food deserts] have been on the front of my mind for a while, and it’s always just been something that I’ve heard about, but I didn’t actually know what it was.”
Senior Diya Misra, who did her project on reproductive education with senior Alyssa Haidar last spring, said that this project inspired her to go a lot farther than she would ordinarily, even creating an online forum for people to discuss their experiences and ask questions.
“Typically [with] projects, teachers assign them, so you probably don’t feel the most passionate about them,” she said. “But [when] picking your own topic, you truly feel strongly about it, so you actually want to make a difference.”
While individuality is a big part of the project, junior history teacher Jennifer Bement said it’s also about community and teaches students how to navigate the world.
“I hope they take away that it’s possible to make changes in their communities and that they should be looking at the world through a critical lens and noticing when things are unfair, noticing when things are disproportionately impacting certain groups,” she said. “I hope that this project makes them familiar with the process of how to create a movement, how to make change.”
Before many students have even begun working on their civics project, North senior Zonna Okonkwo said the student body at North was already looking through that critical lens and advocating for change in their community.
“Many rising juniors really wanted the history curriculum to be more current and more [relevant] because they keep teaching us about the same old white guys,” she said. “[We wanted them to] include more groups like people of color and the LGBTQ community and women and all of those people.”
The civics project offers some respite from old white guys, but after the COVID-19 pandemic, the history department is still debating how to implement the project. Time is a significant constraint, augmented in AP United States history classes by a strict curriculum to prepare for the exam in May.
Michael Kozuch, who has taught junior history for the past 12 years, said that students could likely achieve greater success and feel more fulfilled with more leniency in the timeline and with more time to complete the project.
“The juniors are all doing it at the same time, so [staff and representatives are] going to get inundated with all these requests and emails for information and interviews… it’s all creating a system that truncates the possibility for success because school’s almost out and people will run out of time,” he said.
“If you did it in your club, you’d have the whole year to do it, or if you couldn’t finish it that year, you could do it the next year. I think students would have more success.”
Masi said that inviting individuals who have worked in government or in activism to speak with students would provide a multitude of benefits from connections and guidance to morale and insight.
“I had my dad come in because he worked in the local government which was a very nice opportunity [for] students to meet someone — not a teacher or someone within the school community — who has experience in this and [for the students to] be able to ask questions and engage in conversation,” she said.
Above the nitty-gritty details, Masi and Santos said the project’s premise is the same from both the teacher and student perspective: fostering a voice and a passion that will go beyond the classroom.
“Whatever you choose to work on or whatever action you choose to focus on doesn’t have to end with the project,” Masi said.
“Even though we’re young, and even though we’re still kids, we can absolutely make change,” Santos said.