Standing on a busy intersection in an industrial part of town, Juan*, a senior at Oakland International High School (OIHS), discusses what it’s like to work as a day laborer: how to get picked out from the crowd for jobs, how to avoid getting cheated and how scary it is to operate heavy machinery. Juan worked as a day laborer for a year after arriving in the United States before enrolling in high school. He still goes to look for work at the parada, the corner where day laborers gather to be hired, on days he isn’t in school or when making the rent is tight.
The parada is part of OIHS’ annual community walks. Last year, students and families led seven different all-day walks through different neighborhoods in the city. Because the school serves newly arrived immigrant and refugee youth from around the world (more than 35 countries are represented), learning about students’ lives and the communities they live in is essential for educators and staff.
In this back-to-school season, planning community walks as a professional development day, like OIHS does, can be a useful way for schools to see firsthand what their students’ realities are outside of school and better engage communities. Lauren Markham, OIHS’ community school program manager, plans the walks in collaboration with students and families and coordinates the logistical details. Teachers and staff members visit students’ communities, are introduced to important landmarks and cultural centers, meet with community leaders and engage in discussions.
Markham describes the walks as “professional development sessions [that] educate teachers about students’ backgrounds, challenges, community and cultural assets, and the educational concerns of OIHS’ diverse students and families. They also serve to immerse teachers in the home environments of their students, and give students and family members the opportunity to serve as leaders, inverting roles such that our teachers become the students and our students and families become the teachers.”
As a research partner of OIHS, I attended one of the community walk options last October that focused on the Guatemalan community, a sizeable student population at the school. For the first hour, educators and staff on the walk gathered to discuss intentions and goals for the day before the students and families joined in. After the introduction, four students led a session where they had the room of 15 or so participants read and discuss a one-page excerpt from Rigoberta Menchú’s book about Guatemala’s civil war (1960-1996). They shared information about the different indigenous groups in Guatemala and which ones they belong to, and showed us on a map the regions where they are from. The students selected three short videos to show more about their home country: one about teen pregnancy—one student talked about her sister having to drop out of school back home after getting pregnant—another about political reforms and a third with scenes from different regions of the country. Each also talked some about their family and migration story.
Next, we all loaded into cars and headed to the parada, where Juan introduced us to what it’s like to look for work. We then entered a Mam (indigenous)-language church for the Guatemalan immigrant community that the father of Amalia*, one of the four leaders of the walk, pastors. He discussed how the church welcomes newly arrived immigrants and organizes donations to send back to parishioners’ home villages. He also told us about the history of the church and the Guatemalan community in this part of Oakland.
We then headed to a local restaurant where several other students and their families joined us to eat and get to know one another better. After lunch, the group headed back to the high school to debrief and share reflections from the day. One of the teachers mentioned that this was her third OIHS community walk and that it’s one of her favorite parts of the year because “it’s really good for us to know what our students are going through.”
Most schools do not have as diverse a student population as OIHS does, but great diversity still exists among families and neighborhoods with students of similar racial and ethnic backgrounds, and there is often a knowledge gap about students’ social and cultural realities. Any school can engage in community walks through neighborhoods, meet with local community leaders and provide forums for families to share their insights and concerns outside of the traditional parent-teacher conference format. This approach aligns with what education professor Christopher Emdin in his best-selling book calls “reality pedagogy,” in which educators and school leaders better understand students’ experiences and can tailor curricular content and school practices more effectively.
By entering into students’ lives and giving families a chance to lead the educative process—even for just a day during the walks—educators and school staff can learn from those they teach, creating a stronger and more responsive school community.
*Students’ names changed for anonymity.
Bajaj is an associate professor of international and multicultural education at the University of San Francisco. She has authored numerous books, articles and curricular resources related to education for human rights, peace and sustainability.