Danielle Filipiak: A Connected Educator Helping Students Find Meaning in Their Learning

Danielle Filipiak

Personal Story compiled by: Howard Rheingold

Key Takeaways

  • Start by listening. Try to understand the circumstances of students' lives. What are 9th graders or 11th graders thinking about? What is happening where they live and on their way to school? Tease out neighborhood and community issues and concerns that matter to them.
  • Enable students to find topics for digitally documented action research that are meaningful to them. Insist on rigorous standards of planning, reflection ("show your work"), and documentation, but give them the freedom to find subjects that matter.
  • Frame learning and connect community action research with classroom curriculum through well-considered questions. Filipiak's were "What does it mean to be a human being?" "What prevents people from living fully as human beings?" and "What is the relationship between language and power?" Come up with your own questions but consider the power of your questions to facilitate engagement and a sense of agency on the part of students. Build on that engagement and agency by applying it to your core subject matter.
  • Introduce literacy skills as means to achieve the ends of projects that students initiate and carry out – ask them to consider the story that matters to them before getting into the skills of digital storytelling.

Danielle Filipiak aspires to teach teachers how to "teach courageously," and she has the experience to back up the boldness of this aspiration – she was a Detroit middle school teacher for nearly ten years, youth participatory action researcher, education activist, school board member, organizer of teacher action groups -- cofounder of the Detroit Educator Network -- and participant in the National Writing Project. Filipiak is now completing graduate work in English education at Teacher's College, Columbia University because, in her words: "After tinkering for a few years with actively reimagining education, I wanted to have more of a voice and I also wanted time to step back and think about the moves I've made pedagogically."

When she talks about reimagining education, Filipiak focuses on the literacies and skills today's youth will need to succeed in a world dominated by digital media, but she is also concerned with making connections between the out-of-school activities youth voluntarily and enthusiastically participate in and the in-school curriculum that fails to interest so many youth, especially those in least-advantaged schools. When dealing with non-dominant youth in large, underfunded, urban public schools, Filipiak believes that her own experience has shown her that pedagogy must also address the circumstances of students' lives in their communities – and the challenges those circumstances present.

To Filipiak, the pedagogical process begins with listening to the students and trying to understand the context of their lives. Particularly for non-dominant youth, schooling is as much about gaining the inner resources to make your own way in the world as it is about imparting the knowledge that tomorrow's citizens and workers need to know. In the chapter she contributed to the "Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom" eBook, Filipiak wrote:

Far too often, these young people feel that their plights and their futures are of no concern – that they exist, in many ways, beyond love.

Given this, it seems important that we listen with intent to the purposes and interests that matter most to students, making pedagogical decisions that support these. Schooling should be a humanizing process. I contend that those who take this stance achieve much more than preparing students for unknown futures that may or may not include college, a steady job, and the like. Rather, they are equipping youth to be more critical, confident, and resourceful human beings in the present.

Filipiak grew up in Detroit and attended Detroit public schools until high school, when her parents moved to the suburbs. "I think that was where the seed was planted in my thinking about gross economic inequity between the people in these two spaces," Filipiak recalls: "I was the first person in my family to go to college. I set out to be a radio disc jockey. But I really wanted to do something that has an impact on young people's lives. I think that's what brought me into teaching. Teaching found me; I didn't find it."

Filipiak started teaching 8th grade English at a charter school in Detroit. Then she found a school organized around project-based learning, with 17 students in a class. She stayed at the school for more than four years. "I had the same group of 17 students almost all day long for three years." After she had about four years experience in engaging students through "Shakespeare, pop culture, and some community service projects," Filipiak started figuring out who she was as a teacher who empowered students to learn, and to work in and for their communities. After discovering the work of Ernest Morell with the Council of Youth Research, she started attending local community events where people shared what they were doing in out-of-school spaces. By the time she started teaching high school, in her fifth year of teaching, she decided to "really think about how to design curriculum that is more intentional about bringing these activities from outside school to inside school."

Filipiak asked students to design their own action research projects. "This was their senior year; previous cohorts had been assigned to write long research papers about what career they wanted to enter into, and it sucked. They were never really invested in these papers, and everyone knew it. We found more plagiarism than usual in these papers."

Then, when she was teaching 11th grade, TIME magazine published an issue with a cover story about Detroit titled "Who Will Save This City?" That magazine issue activated Filipiak. "Detroit is 90% African-American, and on this cover story about Detroit, there were no men of color. My colleagues and my students and I said to ourselves: 'If this is how Detroit is being viewed, nobody in this city is seen as positioned to be change agents.' That's a problem because we have a lot of intelligent young people. We took students through a series of sessions in which we thought aloud together about what it would require to really invest in the city and heal the city – according to the students' own standards."

Filipiak and some of her fellow teachers assigned their students neighborhood photojournalism projects in which students documented issues like education, segregation, and health issues, providing audio-video recording and editing equipment and instruction, so the student researchers could record sounds and images as well as text. Students developed binders of resources directly related to the issue they were studying. Then the teachers invited guest experts and community leaders to view students' project portfolios and resource binders. The result was so successful in Filipiak's judgement – not only training youth in multimedia skills, but also empowering them with both the social impact of their work and with direct experience at being change agents -- that Filipiak pushed to incorporate what she and the other teachers and their students had learned into the 12th grade curriculum. She said to school administrators, "Students are bored by these traditional occupational research papers and some of them are plagiarizing with these traditional occupational research papers. Why don't you let us design a research project with these students that enables them to investigate their own community's issues? I'll teach them real research. Instead of internships aligned with career interests, I can assign my students to internships with people who know about the topics of their community research."

One student was interested in the ways that art practices exercised by urban youth are criminalized, so she looked at graffiti and tattoos, deciding to do an internship with these artists. Another student investigated how the most vulnerable populations are impacted when disaster hits. She looked at and compared systems and structures in Haiti and Detroit. To better understand the health issues, this student undertook an internship with a nurse. When she was asked to design a project to address the issues she had discovered, she said she wanted to go to Haiti. Figuring out how to finance the trip was part of the assignment.

"At first, this particular student's interests seemed to me to be superficial. She would come into class with her hair carefully done and her new purse and she didn't want to apply herself to required schoolwork without being pushed. I told her that she had to come up with a series of artifacts, that she had to put some work into it. When she came up with the idea of going to Haiti, I told her to develop a business plan and a list of people she would try to arrange appointments with in order to obtain funding., which she did with gusto she had not exhibited in her other assignments. We did some crowdfunding, but much of the fundraising came from the list of potential funders the student developed."

She and Filipiak did go to Haiti. The student showed young people in Haiti video she had made with young people in Detroit, asking both Detroit and Haitian youth how they dealt with devastation. She interviewed Haitian youth and brought video back to her classmates in Detroit.

Having co-designed this process with her colleagues, Filipiak asked herself, "We know we can bring this action research into schools with 17 kids in a class and internships available, and we know it can be transformative for young people, but what does this look like in a typical, large, overcrowded, over-tested, urban high school in Detroit? So I went to Western International High School. In some cases, I had 50 students in a classroom." At the same time, Filipiak applied to a program, Detroit Future Schools, that pairs teachers with digital media artists to design curriculum that starts students thinking about transforming themselves and their communities.

Detroit Future Schools provided Filipiak's students with access to laptops, video cameras and recorders. "I was called into the office a few times to be asked 'what are you doing with these digital media projects?' and I told them that the students were invested in it…trust me." The digital media artist that Detroit Future Schools introduced came into class once a week to help execute projects and "be a thinking partner." Filipiak says" I was committed to building projects that would merge well with the actual curriculum, but came from real-world explorations that actually mattered to students. At the same time, the administrators who had hired me were saying 'We need to get our test scores up or we're going to get turned over to the state. There was pressure to teach in a standardized manner."

Filipiak didn't start with technology, or even with the core curriculum or community issues. She started with questions: "What does it mean to be a human being?" followed by "What prevents people from living fully as human beings?" Filipiak's reasoning: "If you don't believe you have a voice and that your literacy practices can do anything for you, then you aren't engaging fully as a human being." The third question was "What is the relationship between language and power?" The questions were designed to encourage the students do discover how to use their literacy practices, traditional and digital, to "rewrite their world." The three questions were used to discuss the traditional texts required for the class; students then designed media projects that could supplement their reading by exploring not just the texts but the community.

One of the reasons Filipiak is in graduate school is to get some perspective, to reflect on the experiments she & her students engaged in, the obstacles & challenges they met, and the way their local environment affected learning: "I get something different from it every time I look back on that last year. That year, students organized a walkout in solidarity with 11th grade students in another high school that was getting shut down in their neighborhood. According to my friend, Tom Pedroni at Wayne State, who researches this, we went from 250 schools in Detroit to 96 over ten years. Even though all this is going on around us, we're all under pressure to bring test scores up. No excuses." 200 students were suspended for a week over their walkout. They started their own freedom school across the street.

Filipiak thinks that her current examination of the data she collected will support her hypothesis that the combination of digital media tools & skills with community action research empowers students who were "able to step away from whatever school had represented to them in the past and construct, in very critical ways, new visions of themselves. We couldn't have done it without both the questions and the tools. It's not enough to just give students video cameras or iPads. We have to really think about the questions we're asking these students to pursue when they're using these tools – otherwise, the same issues of inequity can remap themselves onto these new spaces. Students need to engage with critical questions so that they can navigate spaces of digital expression and communication with power."

When teaching, Filipiak uses the summer to think about the questions she is going to ask her students. "I always keep in mind three things when I think about the questions: What's going on with the individual students I'm going to be teaching? (9th graders require different questions than 11th graders). What are students thinking about at 14 or 17? And what's going on in our neighborhood, community, the world right now?"

Filipiak conducted research on how her students conducted research. It helped that the students' projects were self-documenting in the ways conventional papers were not. "Because the projects were documented in multiple media, I was able reflect on my pedagogy in a much different manner than just looking at statistics. As a practitioner as well as researcher, I could see by reviewing the digital artifacts created by students what worked & what didn't, and what guidelines I had given for those that worked & those that didn't. This felt richer to me than the traditional ways we've learned to evaluate students. I could see evidence of collaboration and creativity that is not captured in a testing report. I also found that the digital documentation was helping me as a teacher. Teachers often are in a bubble. They get these numbers back that say students are failing and they are pressured constantly to think about only the kind of data that tests provide. Thinking about the artifacts students produce as another kind of data helps us make a better case for non-traditional practices that work."

Now that she is working on her doctorate, Filipiak is going back through the data she collected and thinking about what it means in a postsecondary context. "I'm reading and writing a lot and trying to use my experiences to help build a case for investing in education differently. "I know it's important to be able to inspire other educators because teaching to the test is such a crushing machine. If we tell others about ways we have found to get out of that trap, others might be able to join and and help their students in finding meaning in their learning."

Image credits: Digital IS, Digital IS, Digital IS, EduConPhilly.org, NaomiRPatton.com, and YouTube.com