Awareness, Knowledge, Action: One Middle-School Classroom’s Journey to Empowerment

By Dane Stickney
September 6, 2019

College pennants hang on the walls of a charter middle school and shout the names of academic institutions far from this western US city. “HARVARD,” one reads in big, block letters. “MICHIGAN,” “TEXAS,” “WILLIAM & MARY.*

The charter school has gone all-in on college. Students start the day by gathering in a large room the school has named “the Quad” – an homage to the open areas on college campuses. The principal – a White woman who attended a prestigious university in the intermountain west – leads a daily chant. “Why are we here?” she asks.

“To strive for college!” respond the 350 students, roughly 95 percent of whom identify as Latinx and qualify for free or reduced lunch.

One student, a sixth-grader named Jorge, makes his way to his classroom, which is named for Tulane University. He looks agitated, which isn’t typical for him given that he’s one of the stronger students in the class. Not realizing that Jorge is about to redirect the class down a yearlong path of sociopolitical development, his teacher asks what’s wrong.

“Mister,” Jorge says, “I hate saying the college thing every day.” His writing teacher, still confused, asks why.

Jorge explains that he’s undocumented. His mother brought him and his siblings across the US-Mexico border when Jorge was a small child. Money is tight. Regardless of how well he does in school, Jorge says, they’ll never be able to afford college. In fact, Jorge isn’t even sure it it’s legal for undocumented youth to go to college in the United States.

Unknowingly, Jorge has modeled an awareness of oppression, a baseline of sociopolitical development. Sociopolitical development, simply put, is the process of people acquiring skills and perspectives to identify and resist social and political oppression (Watts et al., 2002). Throughout the school year, Jorge and his classmates would progress along Diemer & Li’s (2011) continuum of sociopolitical development:

  1. Developing awareness of oppression
  2. Gaining knowledge about sociopolitical structures
  3. Finding motivation to improve social action
  4. Taking action to reduce injustice or inequality

Beyond just stating an awareness of oppression, Jorge’s comments had also agitated his classmates. They asked questions about college access for undocumented students. They expressed anger that undocumented students, who make up roughly 60 percent of the school’s enrollment, may have a tougher path to college than their U.S.-born classmates. They questioned the school’s college-centric focus that seems contradicted by state and national legislation.

Full disclosure: I was the teacher lucky enough to share a classroom with Jorge and the other students. I easily decided to ride the swell of emotion and interest about the topic. By implementing a Youth Participatory Action Research approach called Critical Civic Inquiry (Hipolito-Delgado & Zion, 2017), I guided students through a process of analyzing themselves, critiquing their surroundings, and arguing for equitable change. Throughout the year, students would write narratives about their experiences with undocumentation, deportation, and discrimination along citizenship lines. This continued to develop awareness of oppression.

They researched state and national law pertaining to undocumented student access to college, which provided knowledge of sociopolitical structures. That research pointed to what the students believed was an egregious gap in state law. Even if a student went to public school in

the western U.S. state their entire academic career, they would have to pay out-of-state tuition at a public university. Students were enraged and indicated they weren’t going to allow that to endure. They unanimously decided to take action to fix the problem. Students also learned of pending state legislation that would address that injustice. They began a project in which they worked with sympathetic lawmakers to identify on-the-fence-legislators. The students then researched the on-the-fence legislators and crafted a persuasive letter to each. This action, they believed, would reduce the inequality undocumented students face.

The legislation didn’t pass that year, but several students persisted. The next year, despite the students being 7th graders, several continued to work with me, their 6th grade teacher, to lobby legislators but to also deliver professional development to their teachers and create a scholarship for future undocumented graduates (which Jorge ended up winning five years later). The legislation has since passed, so undocumented students who attend at least three years of high school in the state qualify for in-state tuition at public universities.

Sure, Jorge was able to go to college under more equitable tuition laws, and he even won the scholarship he and his classmates created. Yes, a statewide inequity was righted, at least partially. And, lest you think these youth action experiences came at the expense of academics, state standardized test scores increased dramatically ranking in the top three in the school district with Jorge leading the way, jumping from partially proficient to advanced on his writing test.

The students and I, though, don’t point to any of that when reflecting on the class. We remember identifying a problem, finding out everything we could about it, and then taking action to try to fix it. We remember Jorge pointing out something that was wrong and everybody in the room working together to make it right. In essence, the students and I remember our sociopolitical development. (Yes, I, the teacher, had become sociopolitcally developed, as well, seeing political structures and the powers they wield in dramatically different ways than I had before.)

The story doesn’t end there, though. The students have since led school walkouts in conjunction with a Black Lives Matter demonstration. They’ve participated in the district’s student board of education. Jorge is studying engineering at a large state university and is active in a multicultural fraternity. Sociopolitical development – the distaste for inequity and fire to change it – lives on through them.

Author Dane Stickney, of the University of Colorado Denver, is a member of a Student-Centered Learning Research Collaborative-sponsored research team. Read more about their current study here.  Thanks to JFF and KnowledgeWorks’ the Student-Centered Learning Research Collaborative and its funders for their support. Learn more at

Thanks to JFF and KnowledgeWorks, the Student-Centered Learning Research Collaborative, and its funders for their support. Learn more at

Additional Resources


* This opening vignette is adapted from a previous chapter co-written by the author of this piece (Zion, York, & Stickney, 2017).

Diemer, M. A., & Li, C. H. (2011). Critical consciousness development and political participation among marginalized youth. Child Development, 82, 1815-1833. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2011.01650.x

Hipolito-Delgado, C. P., & Zion, S. (2017). Igniting the fire within marginalized youth the role of critical civic inquiry in fostering ethnic identity and civic self-efficacy. Urban Education, 52(6), 699-716.

Watts, R. J., Abdul-Adil, J. K., & Pratt, T. (2002). Enhancing critical consciousness in young African American men: A psychoeducational approach. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 3, 41-50. doi:10.1037/1524-9220.3.1.41

Zion, S., York, A., & Stickney, D. (2017). Bound Together: White Teachers/Latinx Students Revising Resistance. In R.M. Elmesky, C.C. Yeakey, and O. Marcucci (Eds.), The Power of Resistance: Culture, Ideology, and Social Reproduction in Global Contexts Advances in Education in Diverse Communities: Research and Praxis, Vol. 12 (pp.429-458).

Bingley, West Yorkshire, England: Emerald Publishing.

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