A Pedagogical Design to Surface Student Voice by Integrating Youth Participatory Action Research, Restorative Practices, and Critical Service Learning

International Journal of Student Voice

A peer-reviewed, independent, open-access journal

Pennsylvania State University

Volume 5                            IJSV                           September, 2019

A Pedagogical Design to Surface Student Voice by Integrating Youth Participatory Action Research, Restorative Practices, and Critical Service Learning

Colby T. KervickUniversity of Vermont

Lance C. Smith University of Vermont

Bernice Garnett University of Vermont

Mika Moore University of Vermont

Tracy A. Ballysingh University of Vermont

Citation: Kervick, C. T., Smith, L. C., Garnett, B., Moore, M., & Ballysingh, T. A. (2019). A pedagogical design for surfacing student voice by integrating youth participatory action research, restorative practices, and critical service learning. International Journal of Student Voice, Volume 5(2).

Abstract: In this article, we describe the design and implementation of a graduate education course intended to promote student voice by weaving together three pedagogical models of emancipation: Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR), Restorative Practices (RP), and Critical Service Learning, (CSL). What has thus far gone unaddressed in the literature on student voice is how these three approaches can be integrated to empower graduate students and high school students alike to realize greater agency and undergird student engagement in school reform efforts. This article describes the theoretical and pedagogical practices that worked in tandem to impart the transformational knowledge, skills, and critical dispositions connected to YPAR, RP, and CSL within a community-based graduate-level course involving graduate students and high school students. The article outlines key features of RP, YPAR, and CSL as described in the literature and offers an argument for why RP and YPAR could be effective tools within CSL. We then conclude by reflecting on both the successes and struggles of implementing the graduate-level service-learning course. Through description of this course design and implementation, we hope to offer the field an example of how to use these pedagogical practices within a service-learning designated graduate course in order to elevate student voice.

Keywords: Student voice, youth participatory action research, restorative practices, service learning, school reform

Online Discussion Questions:

  • In what ways can YPAR and RP be utilized as tools for elevating student voice in school reform efforts?
  • After reading this article, what have been the salient learning outcomes for you related to the integration of RP, YPAR and CSL?
  • How might Universities interested in engaging in critical service-learning opportunities for their students, utilize YPAR and/or RP as vehicles for engaging in university partnerships and elevating student voice in school reform efforts?



Youth participatory action research (YPAR), Restorative practices (RP), and critical service learning (CSL) are three discrete emancipatory approaches that aim to amplify the voice of those who have been historically marginalized and under-represented in order to interrupt hegemonic structures and promote a more equitable society (Butin, 2015; Cammarota & Fine, 2008; Kline, 2016). A robust body of literature positions YPAR as an evidenced-based research methodology that promises to simultaneously empower youth while provoking institutional transformation (Cammarota & Fine, 2008; Ozer, 2016). Emerging research and data have defined and illustrated the positive effects of RP on school liberation efforts (González, 2012; Gregory, Clawson, Davis, & Gerewitz, 2016; Kline, 2016; Lewis, 2009), while a substantive literature base has advanced the role of critical service learning as a pedagogy of transformation (Butin, 2015; Carrington, Mercer, Iyer, & Selva, 2015; Mitchell, 2015).

This article details the incorporation of all three approaches in the construction and implementation of a graduate education course for school practitioners that wove together these three models of emancipation with the goals of raising critical consciousness, empowering graduate students and high school students alike, bolstering student voice, undergirding student engagement in school reform efforts, and pushing social structures toward a more just and democratic society. Here we present a description of the course and explores how YPAR, RP, and CSL elements were woven together. While data related to course outcomes are presented, this article does not report on a formal research study, but rather offers a practitioner lens on how universities might partner with a local school district to design learning opportunities that elevate student voice through the integration of YPAR, RP, and CSL. We begin with a brief overview of the university-school district partnership that inspired the creation of such a course. We then describe the major tenets of YPAR, RP, and CSL that expressly informed the course design and implementation. We also discuss the pedagogical practices and curriculum strategies we employed to: (a) raise the critical consciousness and skill sets of graduate students by training them in YPAR and RP; and (b) apply a CSL model to engage high school students in YPAR and RP to enhance their voices and level of influence in school reform. To this end, we provide examples from student work and student school reform ideas, and describe summative feedback from participating graduate and high school students about the course. We conclude by reflecting upon the struggles and successes of using CSL to engage both graduate student pre-service educators and high school students in RP and YPAR principles as a platform for fostering student voice in school reform efforts.


Our partnering school district is situated in a politically progressive small city in a northern New England U.S. state that includes a diverse urban high school with a large population of students from refugee families. The school district, like many across the United States, is struggling to equitably meet the needs of students of color, students from under-resourced families, and students with disabilities. Data from the 2016 district-wide equity report show that while students who are eligible for free and reduced lunch represent 46.7% of the student body for 2015-16, they represent 79.1% of those suspended in 2016-17. Moreover, while Black and Brown children represent 14% of the student body, they comprise 37% of students suspended in 2015-16. Nationally, Black and Brown children represent 17.1% of all U.S. public school students, yet they account for 37.4% of total suspensions (González, 2012). To the point, the racial disparities in punitive discipline within our partner school district are higher than the U.S. national average. As a result of these inequities, the school district has experienced walk-outs by students of color, employee turnover, and various community organizing efforts in recent years as the school district struggles to mitigate inequalities along racial, ability status, and economic class lines.

To address documented disparities in exclusionary discipline procedures (i.e. suspension or expulsion) among students of color, students with an identified disability, and low-income students across the district, the partner high school identified RP as an evidence-based approach to reduce exclusionary discipline and improve school climate (Diaz, 2015). Additionally, during the 2016 legislative session, the state’s legislature signed a law that called upon the state education department to explore the impact of RP on schools and to consider pursuing research on RP regarding suspensions, expulsions, and improved educational outcomes. In their effort to implement RP district-wide, and moreover to evaluate the effectiveness of RP, the school district reached out to local university faculty and the authors of this article for research and program evaluation support. In the spring of 2017, we signed a comprehensive memorandum of understanding with the school district that details a multi-year community-based participatory research (CBPR) partnership to evaluate the efficacy of RP implementation.

The emerging literature on successful RP implementation prescribes authentic engagement with youth in the design and implementation stages (Thorsborne & Blood, 2013). To address this component, YPAR was identified as a methodology to promote student voice in RP implementation and evaluation efforts. Therefore, university faculty began holding discussions with the partner school district early in the relationship to identify a platform through which faculty could connect with youth through a YPAR project. The creation of a stand-alone YPAR elective course within the high school curriculum, initiation of a YPAR after-school club, and the hiring of high school students for a YPAR school-to-work apprenticeship program were all discussed. After thoughtful deliberation, it was decided that the partner high school’s year-end exploratory learning program, which we will refer to in this article as the End of Courses Program (ECP), would be the ideal starting point for YPAR implementation.

The ECP is a two-week learning block that occurs at the conclusion of the school year, wherein teachers and community partners design a variety of interest-based classes to engage students in experiential learning. Students complete their core curriculum high school course credits by May and spend the final two weeks of the academic year in classes that are highly engaging and tailored to student and faculty interests. Examples of ECP classes offered by our partnering high school include: yoga, fishing, film studies, dance, and overseas travel. Due to budgetary and time constraints, university faculty determined the ECP class platform would be a prudent and effective way to introduce YPAR and RP to the high school student community. As such, university faculty developed an ECP class offering titled “Change Your School” that was tied to a graduate-level service-learning summer course at the university. The ECP class was intended to be a stepping off point to explore how YPAR and RP could work in tandem. Simultaneously, the class met both university faculty’s desire to engage graduate students in critical service learning and the school district’s desire to connect high school students to community partners and introduce them to both RP and YPAR with the goal of sparking student engagement. The class itself was not part of research study, as school officials felt strongly that the strength of ECP was that students could elect into classes of their choice and therefore did not want the added requirement of consenting into a research study. Faculty were comfortable with this decision as the course itself provided the opportunity to pilot integration of YPAR and RP to gain insight into how these practices might work in tandem in a future YPAR/RP related project as part of the MOU related to evaluating RP implementation in the district. We therefore offer a pedagogical overview of the course and our own insights based on participant feedback about the synchronicity between RP and YPAR within the context of critical service learning.


From the standpoint of graduate education, the purpose of the project was to train graduate students in both YPAR and RP and to provide them opportunities to apply their new knowledge in vivo with youth eager for school reform. From the standpoint of youth engagement and community transformation, the purpose was to engage high school students in: (a) learning about RP as it relates to school reform efforts, (b) experiencing talking circles as a mechanism for elevating student voice, and (c) discovering YPAR as a means to transform voice to action regarding student-identified priorities for change. More broadly our aims in presenting the components of the course design are to illustrate how we blended RP and YPAR into a service-learning course to highlight the potential for utilizing these practices to elevate student voice.

Theoretical Frameworks

We now explain the theoretical foundation of the course.

Youth Participatory Action Research

YPAR is a rigorous youth-centered research methodology that brings together youth community members and professional researchers to raise and examine issues relevant to youth needs and experiences, and to create action plans in response to the knowledge that is generated through the work (Smith, Davis, & Bhowmik, 2010). The empirical literature suggests that YPAR fosters identity development (race, gender, sexual orientation), learning skills, executive functioning skills, advocacy skills, and critical consciousness among participating youth (Schensul & Berg, 2004). Other outcomes are development of leadership, critical-thinking, decision-making, and conflict resolution skills while enhancing self-efficacy, self-respect, community awareness, civic responsibility, and awareness of social factors that shape life outcomes (California Department of Public Health, 2012; Ozer, 2016; Ozer & Wright, 2012).

YPAR has been an effective methodology among adolescents in school transformation initiatives. Integral to YPAR is the emphasis on elevating student voice (Brion-Meisels, 2014; Rodríguez & Brown, 2009). In the words of student voice researcher Alison Cook-Sather (2006), “young people have unique perspectives on learning, teaching, and schooling; that their insights warrant not only the attention but also the responses of adults; and that they should be afforded opportunities to actively shape their education” (p. 359). YPAR scholars contend that, beyond just unique perspectives, youth possess expert knowledge and authority on matters related to their educational experiences (Cammarota & Fine, 2008; Rodríguez & Brown, 2009). Moreover, it is well documented that one of the primary effects of White supremacy on youth of color is that their voices and stories are silenced and ignored (Cammarota & Romero, 2006; Haviland, 2008; Savage, 2008). YPAR is expressly political in that a significant portion of YPAR work has explicitly confronted youth issues related to racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, and cultural biases (Bertrand, 2018; Cammarota & Fine, 2008). Internationally, YPAR research teams have tackled educational opportunity gaps in poor communities, urban violence, sexual harassment, drug use, stress, restrictive school rules, discrimination against sexual minority youth of color, and the educational effects of neighborhood gentrification (Cahill, Rios-Moore, & Threatts, 2008; Fine et al., 2004; McIntyre, 2000; Schensul & Berg, 2004).

YPAR is both outcome and process oriented. More than just an apparatus for data-informed transformational change, it is a pedagogical tool. YPAR is a developmentally attuned, multi-culturally appropriate educational program that fosters developmental growth amongst students and motivates them to shape their schools and communities. In traditional education research, adult researchers observe and study various elements of schools that are important to adults. They are also solely responsible for the research design, data collection, and analysis. In contrast, in YPAR research, students themselves are part of the research team. Youth are recruited as research partners at the outset of the program to collaboratively assess the assets/needs of their community, to inform program design and implementation, and to assist in data analysis and dissemination activities (Dolan, Christens, & Lin, 2015; Ozer, 2016). YPAR projects are time-intensive and involve lengthy collaborations that are reflective of the four phases of YPAR: (a) problem identification, (b) data collection, (c) data analysis, and (d) action (Kornbluh, Ozer, Allen, & Kirshner, 2015). At the conclusion of the article, we offer a reflection on our ability to actualize all four of these phases into our course.

Restorative Practices

RP is emerging internationally as an alternative to exclusionary and punitive discipline practices in school settings. The emergent literature suggests that schools that implement RP with fidelity experience a 44 to 87% reduction in out-of-school suspensions. Furthermore, the burgeoning literature on RP also suggests that this school-wide framework improves school climate for students and staff by encouraging school engagement, connection, and transparency in accountability measures (Gregory et al., 2016; Ortega, Lyubansky, Nettles, & Espelage, 2016). A report by the International Institute of Restorative Practices examined RP implementation in schools in the United States, Canada, and United Kingdom. Data from the report suggest significant reductions in suspension rates and improvements in school climates in multiple schools and districts across the three countries (Lewis, 2009).

RP stems from a restorative justice worldview held by many non-western, indigenous peoples around the world that view crime and wrongdoing as harm done to people and communities (Cameron & Thorsborne, 2001; Fronius, Persson, Guckenburg, Hurley, & Petrosino, 2016; Zehr, 2014). When wrongdoing occurs within a school that practices RP, all stakeholders involved with the harm are given the opportunity to participate in discussions about the incident, to process who was affected and how it has impacted the community, and to determine collectively what needs to be done to repair the harm (Zehr, 2014).

RP is an overarching philosophical catchment encompassing a variety of tools that school staff and faculty can use for prevention, to establish positive relationships with all school stakeholders, and to repair relations that have been damaged by conflict and harm (Kline, 2016). Talking circles are an example of a universal strategy used as a primary prevention tool to promote understanding and self-responsibility, and to establish a critical space for youth voice and leadership (Ortega et al., 2016). Our implementation of RP within the high school ECP course relied heavily upon the principles and practices of talking circles. We applied various talking circle strategies currently being implemented in a variety of school systems with established RP philosophies and structures (Clifford, 2013; Gregory et al., 2016). Talking circles are typically characterized by these components: centerpiece, talking piece, mindfulness moment, question rounds, and closing. The centerpiece is an item that is placed in the middle of the circle that enables the participants to have a focal point. The centerpiece can be an item of meaning to the participants and/or can represent values that have been developed by the participants. The talking piece is used to signify who has the floor. It identifies the speaker with the expectation that only the individual with the talking piece is speaking while other participants are listeners. A mindfulness moment often marks the opening of the circle as a way to center participants and to support transition into the circle space. The question rounds can vary in content depending on the nature of the circle. Some circles may focus on community building, while other circles may be centered on problem-solving. Regardless, the goal of the circle is to provide a structure and format that promotes equity among the participants in that everyone has the opportunity to respond and share their perspective (Boyes-Watson & Pranis, 2015). Using talking circles enabled us to foster relationships between the high school students, graduate students, and university instructors; decentralize power; and promote equity among all who participated. This was a central feature of how we designed the course, and we used talking circles as a mechanism for high school students to voice problems of interest that would form the basis for the YPAR projects that they would explore with the graduate students.

The theoretical foundations of RP and YPAR are similar, drawing on the fields of youth organization, youth leadership, and social justice (Fox et al., 2010; Weitekamp & Kerner, 2002). As described by Fox et al. (2010), the theoretical underpinnings of YPAR create a mechanism for critical youth engagement. Thus, we intentionally combined these methodological and ideological approaches to create a socio-political platform to critically engage youth to collectively and collaboratively identify issues within their school community that were pressing, relevant, and key to student engagement and success. Further, we believe integrating these approaches fostered a critical approach to service learning for the graduate students involved.

Critical Service Learning

          Service-learning is “a form of experiential education in which students engage in activities that address human and community needs, together with structured opportunities for reflection designed to achieve desired learning outcomes” (Jacoby, 2015, p. 2). Stemming directly from John Dewey’s philosophical integration of experience, education, and democracy (Saltmarsh, 1996), service learning emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a means to integrate theory with practice by addressing pressing social issues. Operating on this foundation, the majority of service-learning courses aim, in part, to promote democratic ideals by instilling within students the values of community, social responsibility, and civic engagement (Mitchell, 2008). Research on the outcomes of traditional service-learning courses suggest moderate to significant gains in civic responsibility and pro-social attitudes (Fenzel & Peyrot, 2005); increases in levels of societal locus of control (Myers-Lipton, 1998); and the development of leadership skills, communication skills, and cultural awareness (Densmore, 2000; Kezar, 2002; Mitchell, 2008). While service learning is rooted in the beneficent ideals of social responsibility and civic engagement, social justice scholars have critiqued traditional models of service learning as reinforcing inequalities by engaging in charity models of learning that address the question regarding, “How can we help these people?” without interrogating “How did we create a society that causes such conditions in the first place?” (Bickford & Reynolds, 2002; Mitchell, 2007). Indeed, a charity model of service learning is more likely to buttress the privilege and power of the service-learning students rather than to empower the community that is being served (Verjee, 2010)

When service learning was transplanted into Freirean soil, it became critical (Freire, 1970). Brazilian educator Paulo Freire was the progenitor of critical consciousness or “conscientização.” The construct of critical consciousness can be defined as the knowledge of how resources and power are distributed in society, followed by the skills to take activist action towards a more equitable society (Freire, 1970). Freire taught that if oppressed and oppressor groups can learn to critically identify the dehumanizing social conditions that marginalize some and privilege others, the plight of the oppressed will then be understood as socially constructed rather than immutable. Therefore critical service learning, unlike traditional service learning, seeks social change in part by questioning how resources and power are distributed in society, and embracing the premise that authentic, mutually fulfilling, non-hierarchical relationships between higher education institutions and community partners are essential. By radically flipping priorities, CSL prioritizes the social justice outcomes for the community over learning outcomes for college students. A trenchant statement by Mitchell (2008), states the emancipatory aims of CSL are to “deconstruct systems of power so the need for service and the inequalities that create and sustain them are dismantled” (p. 50). Within this pedagogical model, students are challenged to identify, question, and challenge oppression, hierarchies of power, and the beliefs and practices that support the subordination of the traditionally marginalized and under-represented groups to transform oppressive structures within schools and throughout society (Kajner, Chovanec, Underwood, & Mian, 2013; Deans, 1999; Nouri & Sajjadi, 2014).

Its lofty ideals notwithstanding, CSL has not evaded critique. Allen and Rossatto (2009) pose the question regarding whether middle- and upper-class White students possess the capacity to achieve the aims of CSL. Without great care and thoughtful intention, the “border crossing” of the highly privileged into the lived experience of the oppressed can reinforce deficit perceptions (Deans, 1999). In an attempt to address these concerns, Rosenberger (2000) proposes a three-step process. First, students need to focus on their own communities, experiencing local concerns that are connected to course content. Second, the process must be extremely relational. Students develop authentic relationships with community stakeholders to gain an understanding of the problem and to form action steps. Third, students must be challenged to identify and problematize the invisible social, political, and economic issues that embody the issue. When these steps are taken together, they promote the consciousness raising that is necessary for decolonized activism.

We posit that integrating the fundamental elements and structures of RP and the framework of YPAR offers an opportunity to design CSL pedagogy grounded in relationship building and student-led action steps. YPAR as a methodological approach, and RP as a relational paradigm align closely with Rosenberger’s (2000) three steps of CSL. By design, YPAR engages participants in the examination of issues of importance within their own communities. By design, RP fosters relationships among stakeholders. Together, YPAR and RP promote a collaborative process of problem identification, and advance examination of the invisible factors that underscore identified areas of concern. Therefore introducing both the graduate students and high school students to YPAR methodology and RP ways of engaging enhanced our service-learning course design.

Course Design and Implementation

To recruit high school students, the faculty disseminated electronic fliers widely throughout the high school promoting the ECP course titled “Change Your School.” Below is an excerpt from the course description.

This course will connect [partnering high school] students to [university] graduate students through two weeks of fun and interactive sessions dedicated to social justice, youth advocacy, leadership, student voice and restorative practices all centered around student led change at [partnering high school]. [Partnering high school] students will be working with [university] graduate students in fun and interactive activities designed to foster [high school] students’ ability to be positive change agents within their school. Through interactive activities, students will identify desired areas of change within their school community. Through leadership skill building, training in research and restorative practices, [partnering high school] students will then be equipped with the tools to advance the positive change that they are passionate about.

The university summer semester schedule allowed for an ideal pairing of a service-learning graduate course and the high school ECP class. Graduate students began their course in May and received five days of advance training in RP and YPAR. They learned the theoretical roots and philosophical assumptions of both models, engaged with experts who held experience implementing YPAR and RP with youth, and role-played skills sets while jointly planning lessons with faculty for the youth. As the graduate course was designated by the university as a service-learning course, we intentionally fostered graduate student voice by inviting them to map out the curriculum and activities for the high school student participants. Following the graduate student advanced training, 16 high school students joined us on the university campus in early June for nine days of experiential learning with graduate students. During this time the graduate and high school students used core components of RP and YPAR. The course culminated in public showcases that highlighted four identified areas of needed school reform and proposed further data gathering and action steps.


The graduate course was co-taught by two graduate faculty members from special education and school counseling programs. The five participating graduate students came from an interdisciplinary master’s program, a master’s-level counseling program, and am educational leadership and policy studies doctoral program. Graduate students enrolled in a course titled “Restorative Practices and Youth Participatory Action Research” to earn three graduate credits. The course was formally designated by the university as a service-learning course. One of the faculty members attended training in service-learning course design offered through the university and upon completion of that training submitted the course syllabus for official approval for service-learning designation. The 16 high school ECP students represented ninth through twelfth grades and came from a variety of demographic backgrounds, representing diversity in ethnicity, gender identity, socio-economic status, and ability. High school students received .25 credits from their school as part of a graduation requirement. High school students were met at the participating high school by a faculty member and graduate student representative each morning to take attendance and ensure that students connected with transportation paid through university-awarded grant funds to travel to campus. Upon arriving on campus the high school students were greeted by the other faculty member and the remaining graduate student course participants. A university faculty member communicated daily with a teacher leader at the participating high school to document attendance. At the end of the course session, all high school students were transported back to the partner high school via the prearranged transportation.

Graduate Course and ECP Class Goals and Description

The goal of the graduate course was to conduct a CSL course with graduate students by training them to implement YPAR and RP in an applied manner with the high school students in order to foster their voice in needed areas of school reform. Broadly, the graduate students considered the concrete ways in which they might use YPAR or RP in future professional contexts and in authentic service-learning fashion, and they experienced how RP and YPAR can create more equitable learning structures, leveling the playing field between adult facilitators and youth. The high school students were engaged in a transformative learning experience consisting of opportunities to share their experiences and ideas related to school reform priorities. Specifically, the graduate students used talking circles to facilitate relationships and dialogue with the high school students, which enabled them to honestly discuss and reflect upon challenges related to school climate at the high school. The ideas generated through the circle processes were then leveraged to inform the problem identification phase of the YPAR process. We intentionally designed talking circles and learning activities to maximize student engagement, elevate student voice and choice, and facilitate student-led school reform action planning. Talking circle prompts ranged from “What should be the cell phone norms for our group?” to “What have you heard recently that made you laugh?” to “What are the values that you are bringing to this work?” Table 1 outlines the course description provided in the syllabus for the graduate course and the ECP class description provided to the high school students.

Table 1: Graduate Course and High School ECP Class Descriptions

Restorative Practices and Youth Participatory Action Research

*enrolled in by the graduate students

Change Your School

*enrolled in by the high school students

This course will rest upon two pillars of learning. Pillar number 1 will introduce graduate students to a theoretical knowledge of both Restorative Practices (RP) within school settings and Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) methodology. Pillar number 2 will then allow students the opportunity to apply these models through direct engagement with you from a local high school. It is our hope that upon completion of this course, these two pillars will undergird a transformative experience for all involved: one in which local youth will be empowered to take up the tools of RP and YPAR to be agents of positive, even liberatory change within their school; and that graduate students will advance their critical consciousness along with gaining the skills to advance critical research and pedagogy in their future professional lives.


Come to campus and work with graduate students to learn how to use restorative practices to change your school. Through two weeks of fun hands on learning focused on social justice and youth advocacy, students will use digital storytelling, social media and performance art create action plans to improve school climate.

Graduate Course Structure

Table 2 provides an overview of each phase of the graduate course design and implementation. Prior to delivering the 10-day ECP class to high school students, the first phase of the endeavor consisted of five days of YPAR and RP training by the participating graduate students and university faculty. Graduate students then had the opportunity to apply what they learned through facilitation of daily learning activities for the high school students under the supervision of the university faculty instructors.

Table 2: Phases of Graduate Course and ECP Class Implementation

Phase Activities

Phase 1: Professional Development for graduate students and ECP Class Preparation

Training of Graduate Students and Faculty in RP and YPAR

Initial Planning of YES Course daily lessons

Gathering materials and setting up the classroom space



Phase 2: ECP Class Implementation on the University Campus











Phase 3: Project Presentations

 Community Building

Introduction to RP and YPAR

Change Initiative Brainstorm and Problem Identification

Self-selection into 4 Prioritized Change Initiatives

High School Student work groups on self-selected change initiatives with emphasis on data collection

Daily debrief with high school students through a closing circle, and with graduate students on revising daily lessons as needed


Presenting projects to the school community and community partners as part of the ECP Presentation of Learning



Table 3 provides an overview of the content, activities, and themes from these five days of professional development. Specifically, the graduate students were provided an overview of RP principles and learned about how to lead community-building talking circles. In addition, they learned about the four phases of YPAR, explored examples of YPAR projects, and worked with university faculty to design how YPAR would be introduced to the high school students as part of the ECP class. In order to decentralize power, faculty also modeled the principles and practices of RP and YPAR that would be central to the ECP class design by encouraging the graduate students to take the lead in planning talking circles, warm-up activities, and content lessons. Faculty committed to leading specific content lessons and ECP activities in which graduate students requested they take a more active role. Daily debriefing circles were led by graduate students and faculty in order to reflect on the day’s activities, what we learned from the high school students, and how we might adapt lessons based on their feedback. Specific changes resulting from these debriefing circles included adding more recreational time in the morning, allowing students to group themselves based on their top choice of “change project,” and building more time in for planning their culminating public showcases to the school community.

Table 3: Five Days of Graduate Student Training Prior to ECP Implementation

Content Topic Activities
Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) Direct instruction on foundations and critical elements of YPAR

Icebreakers and trust games

Restorative Practices (RP) Direct instruction on principles and critical elements of RP

Defined RP in small groups

Led and/or participated in a 30 minute community-building circle

Created plan for implementation of a restorative circle

Planning for ECP Class Implementation Co-constructed course norms and individual roles

Defined YPAR in own words

Designed first five days of ECP class using a daily lesson plan format

Infused aspects of YPAR and RP into daily ECP class content


High School ECP Lessons

Following the initial five days of training and planning, the high school ECP class began and the 16 enrolled high school students joined the ECP instructional team on the university campus. Students arrived on campus at 9:30 in the morning, were engaged in team building and learning activities through 11:30, and then ate lunch in the university dining hall prior to returning to their high school. The first two days were spent building community with intention, introducing students to the foundations of RP, and engaging in talking circles. On the third day, students worked in small groups and then as a whole to generate a comprehensive list of challenges present in their school. From over 25 identified issues, four broad change projects were prioritized by the students: advisory period, school schedule, teacher evaluation, and restorative practices integration into the school handbook. After direct instruction on YPAR and research methodology, students self-selected into one of the four change project groups and began to develop a research strategy that would either highlight the importance of this topic for the school community or begin the initial change process. Working in small groups facilitated by graduate students and/or university faculty, the high school students assumed full responsibility for their change project’s approach, including gathering background information, developing data collection methods, and designing their final product for a presentation showcase. Throughout the 10 days, talking circles were used as a mechanism to elevate student voice and build community and as a vehicle to facilitate discussion on the issues that students had prioritized. Information on daily content, learning objectives, activities, and example circle prompts can be found in Table 4.

Table 4: Daily Lesson Plans for Ten-Day High School ECP Class


Day  Topic Objective Activity Example Circle Prompts
Day One Introduction to Course and Participants Build rapport, trust, and construct norms Whole group circle for course introduction, names, why are we here?


Musical conversations (team building game)

What is your name?


Make a movement or action to pair with your name


What is your preferred gender pronoun?

Day Two Introduction to RP Continue to build rapport and trust, introduce RP through circle process and principles Opening whole group circle


Direct instruction on RP


Small group processing of how students see RP applying to their high school

What is a strength you bring to this group?


What is one value you would want in your dream school?


What is something you heard from someone else today that you connected with?

Day Three Identifying an Issue Team building, generate student ideas for issues to address with change project, engage in small group restorative circle Team building activity in small groups


Brainstorm issues currently facing high school


Engage in small group restorative circles focused on student-generated issues

How do you know this is an issue that needs to be changed at your school?


How would more social engagement and less social control foster change around this issue?

Day Four Introduction to YPAR Connect YPAR practices with identified issues to elevate student voice, engage in small group restorative circle, gather student feedback on course Direct instruction on YPAR


Group brainstorm on project ideas


Midway course feedback

What questions do you have about YPAR?


What are your doubts about this process?


What do you want to know?

Day Five Introduction to Research Methods Overview of qualitative and quantitative research methodology, provide opportunities for students to practice different methods, individually select change issues Group energizer: Rock-Paper-Scissors tournament


Direct instruction on research methods


Creation and implementation of mini survey


Creation and implementation of focus group


Sign up for preferred change issue

Day Six (full day) Exploration of Selected Issue Create a research question, team building, map out change process for project Whole group restorative circle


University scavenger hunt in issue groups


Determine a guiding research question in issue groups


Group work time to generate ideas for how to make change

What do you need from others in a group to be successful?


Why is this issue important to you?


What are positive aspects of the issue you’ve identified?


Day Seven Data Collection Tools Develop a data collection tool to pilot, engage in restorative circle Group work time to brainstorm ideas on tool and begin developing a tool


Whole group restorative circle

If you could have any superpower, what would it be and why?


Give an appreciation to anyone in the circle.

Day Eight Project Development Pilot data collection tool, refine tools based on initial round of data collection Group work time on data tools (surveys
Day Nine Finalize Projects Analyze data collected during pilot round of collection, finalize visual product for project, practice for presentation at the high school, engage in restorative circle Group work time to finalize projects and visuals


Whole group restorative circle to close out course


Complete course feedback survey

Pick one of our values from the centerpiece and tell about a time when you or someone in your group demonstrated that value.


What do you feel you contributed to your group?


What are your hopes for your high school?

Day Ten Presentation of Learning Present change initiative projects to school stakeholders Presentation of Learning at the high school N/A



The primary outcome of the high school ECP component of the course was that high school students presented their change project designs, initial data, and proposed action steps to members of the school community. Again, the four school reform change projects that emerged from this group were: advisory period, school schedule, teacher evaluation, and restorative practices integration into the school handbook. This public showcase was held at the partnering high school campus. Each of the four groups of high school students planned and delivered a 25-minute presentation on their YPAR project. Over 30 peers, staff members, administrators and local university faculty attended the “Change Your School” showcase. Presentations highlighted examples of how students applied the principles of RP and YPAR to better understand issues deserving attention within their school and action steps they believed would be necessary to begin to address those challenges. During the showcase, students engaged in dialogue about their chosen change initiative with school administrators, teachers, and peers. Descriptions of each of the four YPAR projects are outlined below and Figures 1, 2, 3, and 4 provide photos and highlight aspects of each change initiative project.

Advisory Period

The student advisory period group decided to collect feedback from peers on their experience during the advisory process. Although the high school administration indicated student feedback was regularly collected about the advisory period program, the ECP participants felt there was a disconnect between how students experienced advisory period and teacher or administrator perceptions. They used the ECP class time to develop questions they wanted to ask their peers about goals and structure for advisory time and at the public showcase gathered responses to their questions from their peers. (See Figure 1 for this group’s poster poll.)

The advisory period group polled audience members to gather different perspectives on advisory.

Figure 1. The advisory period group polled audience members to gather different perspectives on advisory.

School Schedule

The school schedule group was concerned that efforts to change the daily school schedule had been initiated by school administrators with little student input. The students in this group wanted to draft a survey to gain feedback from their peers about the strengths and limitations of the current school schedule so that information could inform potential schedule changes. The students applied what they learned in the ECP class about survey design to draft a series of questions. They then learned about the need to pilot survey questions and make revisions to refine questions. The students piloted the survey with their ECP peers. They displayed the data on a poster. They also incorporated feedback from their peers to refine their questions. During the public showcase of their learning, they not only displayed their poster with the data collected from ECP peers, but also set up iPads with the revised survey and invited peers attending the presentation to take the survey. The information collected was shared with administrators. (See Figure 2 for this group’s preliminary survey results.)

The school schedule group displayed examples of responses gathered from a questionnaire they had begun drafting and piloting with their ECP classmates that asked about satisfaction with the school schedule.

Figure 2. The school schedule group displayed examples of responses gathered from a questionnaire they had begun drafting and piloting with their ECP classmates that asked about satisfaction with the school schedule.

Teacher Evaluation

The high school students who identified teacher evaluation as an area of needed school reform spoke eloquently about their desire to be able to provide feedback on their experiences in classes. They referenced the practice of teacher evaluation on college campuses and felt that as high school students they too would like to be able to provide their instructors with feedback. To begin to take action steps, the students realized that they needed to do some research to understand if the practice of teacher evaluation by students in high schools existed in any other schools within their state. Their research revealed that in fact there are practices of students completing teacher evaluations in several local high schools. They began to gather data on the nature of the evaluation processes using social media to reach out to peers attending those identified high schools. Their final presentation focused on documenting the degree to which student evaluation of teachers is present in neighboring high schools and providing a rationale for why they felt it was important. This was an important learning opportunity in phase one of the YPAR process of gaining more clarity on the problem they were identifying as a school reform need. (See this group’s preliminary findings in Figure 3.)

The teacher evaluation group displayed examples of polls they had begun drafting and piloting with each other to become more informed about how students provide feedback to teachers.

Figure 3. The teacher evaluation group displayed examples of polls they had begun drafting and piloting with each other to become more informed about how students provide feedback to teachers.

Handbook Revision

The final group expressed an interest in revising the high school student handbook to reflect language and principles of restorative practices. This group spent a significant amount of time reading through the student handbook and were amazed to discover how little they knew about the content within the handbook and the nature of how discipline was enacted. Although they acknowledged that high school students are provided links to the student handbook, they admitted that they had not ever taken the time to read it. They engaged in dialogue about several disciplinary issues that had risen to the surface during the school year that raised questions about how disciplinary policies outlined in the handbook were implemented. In particular they focused on elements within the dress code that reinforced structural sexism and contributed to educational barriers for women and girls. For their presentation the students highlighted sections of the existing handbook and then engaged audience members in a rich discussion about how the existing language could be changed to reflect principles of RP. Attending administrators were particularly struck by the importance of the conversation, as prior to the initiation of the ECP class, handbook revision had been identified as a school reform priority. The students in this group learned the importance of researching and understanding an issue fully in order to enact change. Their close read of the existing handbook raised many questions yet also provided them with insights and ideas about how to move forward.

The handbook revision project sparked an unanticipated but welcomed outcome that reinforces YPAR’s potential in provoking institutional transformation. From that work group, two of the high school student participants and one of the graduate student participants expressed interest in continuing the YPAR project they initiated in the ECP class into the following academic year. The two high school students were specifically interested in examining the school handbook, and gathering student voice school wide in order to explore ways in which the policies could be revised to reflect RP principles. The idea to reform the handbook through the lens of RP was also identified as a priority by school administrators. Extension of this YPAR project is underway. Following an explanatory sequential mixed-methods research design, the high school student researchers have completed the data collection phase in conjunction with the university graduate student, and they currently are engaged in data analysis. Their goal is to present recommendations to the school administration for revising the handbook and then to actively participate in drafting a new restorative handbook. (See Figure 4 for an excerpt of this group’s presentation.)

The handbook group engaged audience members in discussion around the current handbook’s language and how principles of RP could be reflected in a new version of the handbook.

Figure 4. The handbook group engaged audience members in discussion around the current handbook’s language and how principles of RP could be reflected in a new version of the handbook.

Participant Feedback

Anonymous high school student feedback regarding their ECP class experience was obtained through course evaluations. Feedback indicated that the high school students felt positively about the experience and were interested in engaging in YPAR more deeply in the future. Specifically, over 75% of the students expressed satisfaction with the ECP class and found the content valuable. Additional narrative comments indicated that the high school participants valued the circle processes, appreciated having a space to discuss their concerns, enjoyed building relationships, and benefited from learning more about RP. Table 5 summarizes selected student feedback.

Table 5: High School Students Feedback on ECP CLASS

Question Selected Feedback
I’m glad I took this course. Nine out of 16 participants indicated positive responses.
This course provided valuable learning opportunities. Nine out of 16 participants indicated positive responses.


What were your favorite parts of the course? “Meeting new people”

“Circles- being given a voice”

“Being able to talk freely about my concerns for the school”

“The circles were really helpful when building a friendship and trust”

“The freedom we had to work allowed me to be productive and have fun”

“Meeting new people”

If there were a YPAR course offered at your high school, would you take it?


Twelve out of 16 students would be interested in taking a YPAR course at their high school


Anecdotally, the potential for personal transformation that is possible with these pedagogical models was on full display with a few of the high school students. Not only did several high school teachers express appreciation about the thoughtful way all the students engaged in problem identification, they were moved by the students’ affect and engagement. The enthusiasm in the showcase room was palpable. In particular, two of the students, described as “disengaged” and reluctant to participate in their regular academic classes, were unrecognizable to the teachers who attended the showcase. The high school teachers were deeply affected by seeing how these two students were empowered to take on leadership roles as they confidently and enthusiastically presented their project. University faculty felt these anecdotal comments reinforced what the high school students expressed in talking circles about how they felt motivated through the ECP class experience because their voices were invited and valued: they were given space to discuss issues they felt were important, experienced adults as respectful listeners, and the tools of RP and YPAR motivated them to become active participants in designing and sharing their projects.

Graduate students were evaluated by the university instructors on three measures: participation, online journal reflections, and a competency checklist based upon observation of RP and YPAR implementation. Feedback from the graduate students via course evaluations indicated that the course was positive if not transformative and contributed to their learning in significant ways. Graduate students also indicated that the content was highly applicable, and they appreciated a structure that enabled them to collaborate with faculty while applying skills learned with the high school students through a unique service-learning opportunity. Graduate students expressed wanting to apply YPAR and RP tools in their future professional settings, and over the course of the three weeks anecdotally shared with faculty several ideas about how they might use talking circles to build relationships with students in the future.


This article illustrates a pedagogical approach that surfaces student voice by equipping both graduate students and high school youth with skills to use RP and YPAR in tandem in order to take action towards implementing school reform through a critical service-learning course. It demonstrates how universities and public schools can partner through a critical service-learning model to achieve shared goals for school change while positioning student voice centrally in these efforts. It also offers a model for ways in which RP and YPAR implementation might effectively engage youth in school reform.

For those readers who may be considering taking on such a project themselves, we want to duly note the struggles and complications that we encountered while taking on this university/community partnership. The first issue that arose was a tension between school district officials and the university faculty regarding the goals of the course. In good faith, and with a desire for school reform, the school district felt strongly that high school students needed training in leadership and executive function skills prior to engaging in school reform efforts. There was concern that if the high school students could not show up to meetings on time, adhere to timelines, and engage respectfully, then the reform work would fail to launch. University faculty empathized with the school administration concerns, but they felt determined to “trust the process” of RP and held their ground that training would be rooted in YPAR, and students would drive the goals for their learning.

The logistics of coordinating the course were also nothing trivial. This endeavor entailed lobbying for funding; coordinating between two different academic units within the university; recruiting graduate students from multiple disciplines, and working with university student services to provide the physical space (learning and play spaces), the meals, and the insurance coverage to host 16 high school students on the university campus. Our most stressful logistical oversight occurred on the very first day that the high school students were scheduled to arrive on campus. The high school students began their morning at their high school, where they were met by one faculty member and one graduate student and packed into a van provided by a local cab company to be transported to the university campus. On the other end, at the university campus drop-off spot, waited the second faculty member and the other graduate students, eager to meet and welcome the high school students. The high school students boarded the van and left their high school on time. The awaiting team at the university, puzzled by the length of time it was taking for the high school students to arrive, eventually realized that the cab company dropped the high school students off at the wrong location, on the other side of campus, without an adult chaperone. We had failed to consider that a graduate student should have ridden in the van with the students—an issue we corrected in subsequent days of the program.

Finally, perhaps the most significant lesson that we learned from this endeavor was that if all four phases of YPAR are expected to be realized, significantly more time is required. Due to both our enthusiasm and naivete, we initially attempted to integrate all four of these cornerstones into the ten half-days of the ECP class. As the course unfolded, it became evident that the timeframe of the course would inhibit comprehensive implementation of all four phases of the YPAR process with the students. In the end, the time we had allowed us to introduce the theoretical components of YPAR in a substantive manner, thoroughly engage the students in problem identification, and advise them in developing research questions and methodology. Following the first week of class, we needed to shift into more expeditious processes where participants were introduced to data analysis methods, and then encouraged to construct a project presentation, even if they never made it to the data collection phase.

Upon conclusion of the course, the advisory period team was able to develop its survey instrument and used the public showcase to gather initial data from peers in attendance. The school schedule team piloted its survey data with their ECP peers, and also used the showcase platform to gather additional data from peers in attendance. The teacher evaluation team gathered and analyzed pilot data from a convenience sample of peers from other schools. The handbook team needed the full 10 days to deconstruct and code the student handbook, and then used the showcase to highlight discrepancies between the current handbook that is grounded in a punitive paradigm and the school’s intent to shift to a restorative paradigm. For the handbook team, the showcase generated a great deal of enthusiasm and support for a year-long YPAR project that would continue the following year.

In spite of these struggles and lessons learned, the project did accomplish the goals of partnering with the school district to offer a year-end learning opportunity that introduced both graduate students and community high school students to RP and YPAR. Based on student feedback it also provided them with a learning experience that elevated their voice and empowered them to examine issues that they identified as important related to school reform. Moreover, this service-learning initiative sparked a longer term YPAR project, revising the student handbook according to restorative principles, as an important element of RP implementation within the district. It also enhanced the university and public school community partnership through supporting student engagement in school reform efforts.

From a broader policy perspective, this article offers potential strategies for schools and communities that are interested in interrupting hegemonic social structures and building capacity to elevate student voice and cultivate buy-in for RP implementation through YPAR. YPAR is an important tool for promoting youth engagement to identify problems and initiate transformation efforts. Specifically, YPAR can be a vehicle through which youth can “(a) expand their knowledge and contribute to local knowledge production process; (b) develop their critical thinking and experience consciousness raising; and (c) inspire and/or pursue action” (Foster-Fishman, Law, Lichty, & Aoun, 2010, p. 67). In the words of Fine (2008), the practice of inviting student expertise to the table of school reform:

to generate questions, gather and analyze data and determine products, created a dynamic plurality of expertise, coalescing around points of agreement, dissensus, and surprise. Collective expertise was chiseled and achieved—not determined a priori, by race, class, age, gender, status, or standardized test scores. As new bodies were brought to the table as researchers, a transformative sense of expertise evolved. (p. 223)

Moreover, using relational and community-building processes from RP enhances the YPAR process. As a key RP tool, the structure of the talking circle promotes equitable participation and the opportunity for all voices to be heard. Using talking circles to elevate student voice through the university-partner school district ECP class enhanced the experiences of the high school students and parallels emerging research on the outcomes of RP talking circles. Empirical work suggests that talking circles improve student-teacher relationships, encourage student ownership and meaningful classroom dialogue, and influence social and academic outcomes for participating high school youth (Ortega et al., 2016).

Lastly, Rosenberger (2000) describes three central steps to enact CSL: (a) focus on participants’ own community; (b) relational process; and (c) identification and problematizing the invisible social, political, and economic issues. RP talking circles can provide a forum for drawing out the relevant issues, exploring more deeply the hidden social, identity, economic, and political issues that underscore the problems at hand, while building relationships and trust among participants. Through this process, participants can also engage the tools of YPAR to authentically bring about desired school reform initiatives.


This article describes a pedagogical approach to designing and implementing a course that aims to foster student voice and school reform by employing both RP and YPAR to engage graduate and high school students within a critical service-learning model. The article outlines how RP can be integrated as a strategy for elevating youth voice and decentralizing power within a YPAR project that co-occurs with critical service learning. Examples of daily content, circle processes, and student work are provided to showcase the structure of the course. Feedback from the participants’ experiences indicate there is promise for using RP and YPAR as mechanisms to engage youth in school reform efforts. Moreover, these tools appear to be naturally suited for application within a service-learning course.

Empirical research is needed to more fully understand the benefits, limitations, and outcomes of a pedagogical approach that incorporates RP and YPAR with CSL. Specifically, we envision studies that investigate the degree to which RP practices enhance youth participation and engagement in YPAR. Furthermore, we are curious about evaluating alignment between RP and YPAR within a CSL framework. Although formal research was not conducted on the course implementation itself, this article highlights how higher education instructors might consider the unique ways RP and YPAR naturally align and support critical service-learning efforts. It provides examples of how such a learning experience might be structured through a university and public school partnership, and reflects upon struggles that were encountered.

Our nation’s schools mirror and often operationalize entrenched social disparities and inequities among historically marginalized youth. We believe that addressing these disparities requires elevating the voices of those most impacted, the students themselves, in intentional ways. Based upon our experience, we believe student voice can be bolstered through CSL university and public school partnerships that embed YPAR and RP as core components. In short, school reform efforts that expressly aim to advance social justice through school climate improvement and reduction in exclusionary discipline policies should consider intentional integration of RP and YPAR as philosophical and methodological cornerstones that hold the power to elevate student voice and deconstruct reified school-based structures of power and privilege.


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