For high schools in low-income communities, a new way for students to get a Stanford education
A teaching fellow in a new Stanford Digital Education writing course for teenagers, Raise Your Voice, describes how it provides an opportunity she wishes she had available to herself when growing up.
Jump to three remarkable student papers written for the course.
By Dasia Moore
I put off grading final papers until the very last moment. After 12 weeks, I still didn’t feel ready for the course to be over. My co-teaching fellow, Alejandra, and I had already said our Zoom goodbyes to our class of 20 students. But grading their papers — writing my final bits of praise and advice to these young people whose voices I had come to recognize and delight in — would carry a finality that waving into my laptop camera had not. For the first time in my life, it felt like summer had come too quickly.
It was December when I received an email calling for applicants to help teach high school students a Stanford English course. The class had a name, “Raise Your Voice: Learn to Write Successfully for College & Beyond.” It also had a mission: To use digital learning to expand access to college-prep material. The course was offered in collaboration with the National Education Equity Lab, a nonprofit that partners with top universities to offer dual-enrollment courses in low-income public high schools. Students would earn both Stanford credits and credits from their high schools. The curriculum and virtual lectures would come from Stanford Online High School, and students would complete coursework with support from their in-person classroom teachers and long-distance teaching fellows hired by Stanford.
Although the details were sparse, I knew from that first email that I wanted to be part of the course — and not only because I love writing. Like the students in the course, I had attended school in underserved districts. Unlike them, I had left my family and community in order to access the resources I needed. At 14, I began attending a boarding school on scholarship.
Reading about Raise Your Voice, I was drawn to a model that, unlike so many others I knew of, invested in the schools that talented low-income students already attended. It recognized their existing teachers as worthy and qualified partners in preparing them for college. It also took advantage of virtual learning as a way to connect students to resources beyond their communities, without requiring them to leave.
The course structure was similar to an intro writing course I had taken as a first-year student at Yale. The syllabus broke the work of writing a longer research paper into smaller assignments that spanned several weeks. It’s a structure that gives instructors time to check in each step of the way to make sure students absorb the fundamentals of academic writing. To make this type of course work for high school students, the program offered a robust support network. Stanford Online High School instructors offered lecture videos.
Classroom teachers guided students through the videos and other self-paced materials. Stanford-hired teaching fellows led discussion sections and office hours. Assignments were not watered down from their college-level rigor, but each school had the flexibility to adjust deadlines to fit students’ schedules and needs.
The class kicked off in February, with eight schools and over 100 students signed up. The schools stretched from Connecticut to Florida to New Mexico, with as few as three students and as many as 20 per section. Stanford had hired teaching fellows with a range of backgrounds to match: Journalists and creative writers, graduate students and retired K12 teachers.
When I looked up All City Leadership Academy, the Brooklyn, New York school that Alejandra and I had been assigned, I knew we were in for a great term. ACLA has near-perfect attendance and graduation rates and, more importantly, a strong, community-oriented culture. The school’s demographics reflect its neighborhood, more than three-quarters Hispanic or Latinx. And teachers reflect their students, too, with two-thirds being Hispanic, Latinx, or Black. We learned that our students would be mostly juniors, many of whom had attended ACLA, a combined middle and high school, since sixth grade.
The first morning of class, as our students logged into the Zoom room, their typed chorus of “good morning!” quieted my anxieties about the lesson ahead. Alejandra and I introduced ourselves and asked students to tell us what excited or worried them about the class. Many expressed concerns about the workload and vague anxieties about “getting it right.”
“This class is called ‘Raise Your Voice’ for a reason,” Alejandra and I repeated. “We’re interested in what you think, write, and care about.”
Through the end of May, we met each week for our discussion section and office hours. Each student picked a topic to research for the semester, with small weekly assignments leading up to a five-to-seven-page paper. There were budding psychologists and computer scientists, students passionate about climate change and trans rights.
Alejandra and I met weekly to plan lessons, doing our best to squeeze every usable second out of a forty-five minute time period in which our attention was divided among 20 students. There were many days that felt like victories. Fortunately for us, there was a great deal our students knew already — about writing, their chosen topics, and the world. There were also things they did not know but confidently asked us to explain: What is a teaching fellow? How is a Works Cited page different from a bibliography? What is Google Scholar, and how do you use it? How late is too late to ask for an extension? Is it even okay to ask for an extension?
Answering these questions — and knowing how to anticipate the questions they did not yet know how to ask — was the real work of preparing high school students for college. Our students came to us as strong writers. They could do college-level work. But they were still young, and many had not yet been exposed to the jargon, tips and tricks, resources, and etiquette that end up being so essential to college success. Whenever we could impart some of that critical knowledge, it felt like a victory.
There were also days when our course felt like the smallest drop in the biggest bucket. Both women of color who had attended elite, predominantly white universities, Alejandra and I worried about things we didn’t have much time to teach, things that had nothing to do with writing: What to do when people question your right to attend your own college. How to navigate the unexpected obstacles you confront as a low-income or first-generation student. How to cope with the difficult truth that higher education in the US produces as much inequality as it does opportunity, if not more. That’s something I’m still figuring out myself.
I felt lucky to have a co-teaching fellow to think through these questions with, something not every section benefitted from. We were even luckier to have support from ACLA assistant principal Michael Quinones and the classroom teacher for our section, Stephanie Salazar.
And above all else, we had this wonderful group of students who had so much to teach us, too. There was the student who wrote about the centuries-long stigma surrounding menstruation. Another student made a complex argument about the many social mechanisms that work to normalize domestic violence. Yet another took on the persistence of gender inequality in sports.
When I finally began grading final papers, I was overjoyed. Each and every student had written a final draft that improved upon their first. The students whose work I had awaited anxiously each week, worried that they might be falling behind, made me proudest of all, with smart arguments and carefully-crafted sentences that reflected every hour of work they had put into improving. By the end of grading, I was actually beaming. That’s how delightful the papers were.
The course itself got a grade of sorts, too. National Education Equity Lab’s report on outcomes for the class showed that 96 percent of students would recommend “Raise Your Voice” to students like them. Even more importantly, 89 percent of students left the course feeling more confident about their ability to take on college-level work than they had before.
I might not have been ready to move on, but our students were. They were ready for just about anything.
Dasia Moore is a masters of fine arts candidate in poetry at New York University. She previously worked as a staff writer at the Sunday magazine of The Boston Globe.
Three remarkable student papers written for the Stanford Digital Education course Raise Your Voice
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Published September 1, 2022