female teacher standing in a classroom surrounded by four students
March 24, 2023

The Climate Breakfast Club

A collaborative syllabus design to improve inclusion and engagement
by María Martínez
A post from the Tang Action Research Program*
"Each of us is a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. Does that answer your question? — The Breakfast Club

A Snapshot

It is a Sunday morning. There is no rush, and the school’s dining room serves brunch to the few boarding students who opted not to sleep in. At one table, seven students and I chat and enjoy our food. From afar, you might think this is a drop-in advising meeting, a dorm bonding activity, or office hours.

In reality, I am asking members of the Phillips Academy Sustainability Coalition (PASC) to identify the issues they perceive in implementing a climate-oriented curriculum in our school. PASC is a group of ten student-led sustainability-related initiatives to promote climate advocacy on campus. This coalition started its work in 2019 by organizing “The Climate Cafe” and round tables with faculty. I am aware that some of my community members may feel that questions about implementing curriculum should be reserved for my fellow teaching faculty. However, I am impressed by how much these young advocates have to say about this topic and how deeply they care about their learning. They are honest, witty, and engaged. They can talk and listen to each other’s experiences and thoughtfully muse about solutions.

This “breakfast club,” as we call this regular Sunday-morning gathering, is a space to exercise agency, try new practices to improve inclusion, and help build connections between classes and co-curricular initiatives at Phillips Academy. Unlike the breakfast club portrayed in the eponymous 1985 film, we are not here for disciplinary reasons. Our effort seeks to equalize the power dynamic between the teacher who designs the curriculum and the students who follow it.

The Problem: What brought us here?

The Phillips Academy Sustainability Coalition (PASC), advised by campus sustainability coordinator Ms. Allison Guerette, plays an essential role in helping our school to address the global sustainability agenda. Their initiatives include hosting climate discussions with guest speakers, conversations with the Board of Trustees on divestment, action projects on sustainable dining, Earth Day planning, and youth climate rallies outside the Massachusetts State House in partnership with other organizations.

PASC’s passion for climate advocacy has captured my attention since the first faculty-student round table I attended in 2019. In these student-led small group discussions, faculty from a wide range of departments describe how they address the environmental agenda in their classes, and students share their views about the changes they would like to see in the school.

After attending several round table meetings, I noticed a disconnect between the faculty and students. The teachers present were, on the whole, proud of the work that they do to educate their students about the consequences of the degradation of ecosystems, pollution, and climate disruption. The student advocates however, applying the principle that localized solutions become effective when they are part of systemic change[1], believed that these curricular changes must be part of a greater curricular transformation. They were calling for the school administration to implement a policy requiring all faculty to make environmental education a core curricular component across all academic departments. The faculty valued the students’ argument and felt that students might be underappreciating the extent of changes underway within the school.

As I listened to the conversations about the extent and impact of curricular changes, I wondered if the students’ perception that not enough was being done might be linked to deeper feelings of exclusion and a desire for empowerment. I also observed that, in the larger effort to orient the curriculum toward environmental issues and activism, students were not involved in the curricular design process. The reforms were being implemented by teachers, out of view and without direct input from the students who were asking for these changes. Could a more inclusive design process help everyone achieve their shared goals more effectively?

This year, with the support of the Tang Action Research Program, I decided to explore this question: How do Phillips Academy faculty create and sustain an environment in which students feel they are part of the school curriculum's growth with respect to environmental education? I hypothesized that students would feel included and empowered in this larger process of curricular evolvement if they were involved in the decision-making for the creation of course syllabi. As Ben Kirshner states in his book Youth Activism in an Era of Educational Inequality, “empowerment is not an entity that can be handed over to a person, ready-made. It requires the young person to exercise agency.”

When students' goals and concerns are at the center of the curriculum, they develop a profound sense of inclusion and empowerment. I predicted that a collaborative process for designing syllabi[2] would both give students input and affirm their agency. I also wondered if the students who were not involved in co-creation but who take the resulting course would feel more engaged as participants.

To try this intervention, this past fall I invited PASC’s student members to become co-creators of the Spanish 523 course, which I am facilitating during spring term. PASC members agreed, and we formed the Climate Breakfast Club to discuss and create the syllabus together. After this co-creation process, I will reassess these student’s feelings of inclusion and empowerment. This spring, as I facilitate the course, I am monitoring my class’s level of engagement and collecting their feedback on the course as a whole.

Achievement Challenges

The Sunday meetings with PASC students are a new practice for everyone. In the beginning, the biggest challenge was to shift the teacher-student interaction. I needed to move away from teaching and adopt a neutral stance in the discussions, but at the same time, expose the group to some basic materials to broaden their vision for this class. And at the same time, the climate advocates needed to gain confidence in initiating the reflections and building upon each other's ideas without my direction or commentary on the process.[3] Our first mission was to frame their goals regarding environmental education on campus and establish our expectations for the co-creation process. Later we started exploring possible titles for the course, objectives, and outcomes.

Taking risks and trying new practices is hard. Still, the Climate Breakfast Club is proving that when youth get the opportunity to exercise agency and provide solutions to the problems they care about, their frustration or disappointment with the systemic dimension of the problem declines. Learning how to map the process of this project and measure our first outcome is helping me plan the next steps and create more explicit protocols to lead this type of collaboration.

What will we do next?

The Climate Breakfast Club finalized the syllabus for Spanish 523, and we are currently putting it to the test. At the end of the class, students will have a chance to share their ideas and feedback with the course design team, and PASC students will have the opportunity to reflect on the feedback provided by their peers.

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Acknowledgements

This project is only possible with the hard work and commitment of Brian Masse, Gauri Kumar, Alice Fan, Dominique Williams, Sakina Cotton, Tania (Yuexin) Zang, and Anthony Moody. Also, I am grateful for Susannah Reed Poland's support during the writing process and the great feedback from Eric Roland. — "Sincerely yours, the Climate Breakfast Club."

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[1] See Wallace-Wells, David.Greta Thunberg: ‘The World Is Getting More Grim by the Day.”

[2] See Katopodis, Christina. “A Lesson Plan for Democratic Co-Creation: Forging a Syllabus by Students, for Students.” and Fisher, Gabrielle and MJ Engel. “Hacked and better for it. Two alumnae reflect on Palfrey's teaching.”

[3] See Ben Kirshner “teaching without teaching.”

Works Cited

De la Fuente, María J., Editor. Education for sustainable development in foreign language learning: content-based instruction in college-level curricula. Routledge, 2021.

Fisher, Gabrielle and MJ Engel. “Hacked and better for it. Two alumnae reflect on Palfrey's teaching.” Phillips Academy. 19 July 2019, https://www.andover.edu/news/2019/hacked-and-better-for-it. Accessed 10 Jun 2022.

Katopodis, Christina. “A Lesson Plan for Democratic Co-Creation: Forging a Syllabus by Students, for Students.” 12 Nov. 2018, https://christinakatopodis.net/2018/11/12/a-lesson-plan-for-democratic-co-creation-forging-a-syllabus-by-students-for-students/. Accessed 10 Jun 2022.

Katopodis, Christina.Writing Learning Outcomes with Your Students.” hcommons.org.19 Feb. 2019, https://teaching-learning.hastac.hcommons.org/2019/02/19/writing-learning-outcomes-with-your-students/. Accessed 10 Jun 2022.

Kirshner Ben. Youth Activism in an Era of Education Inequality. New York University Press, 2015.

Ministry of Education Te tāhuhu o te Mātuganga. “Developing a theory of improvement.” Educational Leaders. Jun 2016, https://www.educationalleaders.govt.nz/Problem-solving/Online-tools-and-resources/Theory-for-improvement. Accessed 12 Oct. 2022.

Nelson, Amy. “Collaborative Syllabus Design Students at the Center.”Open Pedagogy Notebook. 19 March. 2019, https://openpedagogy.org/course-level/collaborative-syllabus-design-students-at-the-center/. Accessed 8 Jun 2022.

The Breakfast Club. Directed by John Hughes, A&M Films Channel Production, 1985.

Wallace-Wells, David. “Greta Thunberg: ‘The World Is Getting More Grim by the Day.” New York Times. 8 Feb. 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/08/opinion/greta-thunberg-climate-change.htm. Accessed 10 Feb. 2023.

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*María Martínez is a participant in the Tang Action Research Program, which provides a year of training and support to educators who wish to improve an area of their school. Educators apply the principles of Improvement Science, using rigorous inquiry and testing to guide development.

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