Students Learn Strategies and Tactics for Making a Difference

April 03, 2020

You care about the world and you want to make a difference.

Can you do that in a class?

The 25 Grinnell students who took The School-to-Prison Pipeline* (STPP), a special topics course, would say, “Yes, absolutely.”


* The school-to-prison pipeline is a term for policies and practices that push students out of school and into the juvenile justice system. The pipeline has a disproportionate effect on students of color, students in special education, and students with mental health issues.


The 4-credit class examined schools’ discipline practices and policies, their impacts, and the work people are doing to create positive change. Students not only learned about the issue, but also how to contribute to the common good through social action.

Three professors from different fields team-taught the class: Tammy Nyden, associate professor of philosophy; Kesho Scott, associate professor of American studies and sociology; and Stephanie Jones, assistant professor of education. The interdisciplinary course was cross-listed as American Studies 295, Education 295, and Philosophy 295.

A key component of the course was that students would create and share digital stories, infographics, and a report on a public-facing website. Their work focused on 5 distinct themes:

  • Seclusion and restraint
  • Suspension and expulsion
  • School resource officers (aka, police officers in schools)
  • Special education
  • School push-out

“I’m so glad that they found a way for us to do something with what we’re learning and not just blindly debate things. Why spend so much time understanding systems of oppression if you're not doing anything to dismantle them?” says Sarah Beisner ’22, a psychology major from Dallas.

Sean Collins ’22, an undeclared major from Lincolnwood, Illinois, appreciated the opportunity to produce results people can use. “At the end, you hope that from it you’re making a difference.”  

Students Learned How to Use the Data and Tell Digital Stories

In the 2-credit, co-requisite lab, students learned about the ethics of gathering and distributing personal stories, the ethical uses of data, and data analysis.

In terms of practical, hands-on experience with software, students learned to record and edit audio and video, generate data visualizations, and build a website. They worked with Audacity, WeVideo, Excel, Tableau, and ArcGIS.

“I've learned a lot about … how to use multiple different software to create what you want, because we realize each software has its own limitations, and combining them is way more effective than trying to use one,” Beisner says.

The data storytelling lab was one of the attractions for Jade Bezjak ’20, a sociology major from Arizona. “I wanted to try and learn some skills that I could bring with me out into the world,” she says. “Learning a topic that I'm really interested in that also gave me some hard skills to go along with it was great.”

Students Put Their Learning into Action Within the STPP Class Itself

Throughout the course, students learned about social movements, the philosophy of action, and how the K–12 system of education fits into the school-to-prison pipeline. By thinking critically about how schools train students to follow rules and be compliant, the students in the class were primed to turn that critical gaze on their own class.

Students were already working in groups based on the 5 themes (see the list above). Each group was assigned to write about its theme for the classwide report.

Students were also assigned to create their own individual infographics and short videos that would go on the website along with the report.

“At a certain point the students got together and discussed the fact that we thought it was a bit overwhelming about everything they wanted us to produce,” Bezjak says.

Among themselves, the students discussed what they thought could be changed in terms of final assignments. They suggested 1 video per group instead of 1 per student.

“We thought it would better suit the class’s needs but also [allow us] to publish something that we were proud of,” Bezjak says.

Nyden says, “It was quite an honor to see that the students trusted us enough to bring up their concerns and do it in a thoughtful and intelligent way motivated by their desire to learn.”

Bezjak was impressed not only that the whole class came together to propose the change but that the professors listened. “I felt, and my classmates I think felt, that they would be receptive to our ideas,” Bezjak says.

“For years I have been arguing that K–12 schools need to move from a mode of enforcing compliance to collaborating with students in their learning experience,” Nyden says. “How we could not do the same in our course?”

The students sent the professors an email and then had a long conversation in class — professors and students. “And then they changed the syllabus,” Bezjak says. “It was really cool to see an action just like what we were learning.”

Nyden agrees. “What more could a professor want than to see their students embody exactly what they are trying to teach? Grinnell students amaze me every day.”

If this is the kind of learning experience you'd like, we'd usually encourage you to visit campus and check out a class in person. But during the coronavirus pandemic, we have to settle for a virtual visit. Learn more about Grinnell's academic experience and check out this short video with Professor Stephanie Jones.


This story is part of a series about the School-to-Prison Pipeline course. See also


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