Participatory Action Research in a Pandemic
The culminating course of the NYU Teacher Residency focuses on a year-long participatory action research (PAR) journey residents take with a small group of students. PAR is a collaborative, iterative process of inquiry and action in response to an organizational or community problem. Residents and their students work as a team to identify a problem of practice, research that problem of practice, craft action and data collection plans, implement those plans, and then evaluate their impact through analysis of gathered data. In presentations at the end of the course, residents reflect on the entire process and how it helped develop student agency, advocacy, and voice as well as their own leadership. It is the faculty’s hope that during the PAR journey, residents practice radical listening and how to be mindful learners and leaders.
In March 2020, COVID-19 entered the residents’ PAR experience like a wrecking ball. I gathered with the other PAR instructors to decide how we were going to adjust the project for our residents, considering the radical change in access both to physical spaces and to the students in the PAR teams. We ultimately decided to offer the residents two choices: a reflective path, in which they could craft a presentation on their team’s original plan and the progress they were able to make pre-COVID, and a virtual pilot path, in which they could adjust their projects to the virtual space we all suddenly found ourselves in. Understandably, most residents chose to pursue the reflective path, but one resident, Lorraine Zhong, and her team of students chose to continue their project virtually. Her project is a model for how the PAR instructors in the NYU Teacher Residency will be approaching the project this year, with COVID-19’s grip still firmly on our schools. Her journey is a beautiful example of the transformative power of PAR—its ability to strengthen relationships, build student investment, and spark meaningful change—even in the face of this new and terribly difficult time for our schools.
I’ll let her take it from here.
The PAR project that I led with students at Balboa High School in San Francisco was an eye-opening experience filled with successes and failures and many fun conversations in between. Our project focused on promoting respect and kindness at the high school, specifically using social media as a tool for positive change.
The first few meetings with my team were primarily focused on building community and relationships among our group members and on deciding a problem of practice to frame our project around. We eventually agreed to focus on the lack of respect exhibited by students and teachers in the school community. After a few more meetings, we narrowed our research question to: How can the stories of diverse individuals be used to promote kindness and respect among the school population?
When the pandemic arrived and schools shifted to distance learning, it became more difficult to communicate with my PAR student-researchers. I had lost hope and motivation in the completion of the project. While I remained passionate about the work that we were planning to do, I had many reservations about the feasibility of our plan.
When I shared my reservations with my PAR students, they expressed their continued interest in completing this project, even though communicating and collaborating virtually was going to be much more difficult. Looking back, I am so proud of my students for staying resilient and completing the project. I am also immensely grateful for their passion, which inspired and reenergized me to become a better leader and collaborator for them.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, our plan was to collect pre-action data in March, initiate the action plan from April to May, and collect post-action data in May. Unfortunately, when the global pandemic shifted our work to the digital space, we had to condense our project to the month of May only, with one day of pre-action data collection, three weeks of action plan implementation, and two days of post-action data collection.
We launched our social media campaign, Humans of Balboa, on Instagram in May 2020 and were met with lots of support from students, teachers, and other community members. My PAR students were excited to interview students and teachers and to feature them on our page. They always looked forward to our weekly meetings and would email me if I showed up late or arrived underprepared. The students in my PAR team were the true leaders and driving force of this project, and its success is due to their deep dedication to improving the social climate at our school.
Comparing the pre- and post-action data, we were pleasantly surprised by the slight increase in respect among the school community. Along with that, throughout the PAR journey, I witnessed my PAR team members transition from being students who were hesitant to challenge the status quo to leaders who were motivated to create real change for their communities. The process opened my eyes to the depth of understanding students have about their own environments. At the initial research phase, my PAR team brought forth problems of practice that I and other teachers had previously been oblivious to. The social and emotional awareness that my students carried with them taught me how to be a better ally and leader.
Fortunately, I have been able to maintain contact with almost all of the students on my PAR team. I recently met up with a few of the senior girls, now freshmen in college, for a socially-distanced picnic reunion. We shared our thoughts and feelings about PAR and discussed things we wished we could do again or improve. As we reflected on this journey together, I was overcome with gratitude. I am thankful for the opportunity to address a need that existed within the school community, to be challenged in continuing this project during a global pandemic, and ultimately to my students for their tenacity in addressing an issue for the benefit of the community.
Christine Gentry is a visiting assistant professor and residency director in the NYU Teacher Residency program.
Lorraine Zhong, an alumna in the NYU Teacher Residency program, is a biology and chemistry teacher at San Francisco International High School.