Teaching to Change LA > Youth Voices > Vol. 5, Issue 1 > Electoral Politics
Electoral Politics > Features > Watts Group Paper

How to Be a Critical Researcher



The dictionary defines “critical” as the tendency to judge harshly and adversely, and “civic” as of, or relating to, or belonging to a city, citizen, or citizenship. We found out in the IDEA Summer Seminar that literacies are tools that help us become politically active and fight for what we see that needs to be changed in our society. When these terms are combined it sends a powerful and sometimes threatening message because these terms mean that citizens are judging politics or the government in a very harsh manner. The use of this phrase tells you that they plan on taking action on it. It is very important for youth today to study critical civic literacies because if more students knew what this meant there would be less of them saying that they “can’t make a difference” or “my voice won’t be heard anyway, so what is the point.” With the simple phrase, critical civic literacies, the whole mindset of many minority students would change and equality would come around very soon because the outcry for change can not be ignored. So the lives of some future students will be impacted if the students of today understand and believe in critical civic literacies or not.

Students can also use critical civic literacies to get themselves out of current situations at their high schools where they are being violated, such as, at Locke High School where students are getting very adamant about how they are being treated. As Michael Slate said students are “demonized and criminalized just for living where they do.” These students are starting to understand that they do not have to be put on what students call the “shit lists” of LAUSD and that they can fight for a better education which will hopefully lead to a better life not just for themselves but for their broken communities that have broken spirits. Malcolm X put it best when he said, “We have to keep in mind at all times that we are not fighting for integration, nor are we fighting for separation. We are fighting for recognition …for the right to live as free humans in this society.” That is exactly why the people of Watts must act politically and learn about critical civic literacies. They need to fight for their right to be treated like human beings and not animals. Although teachers admit that the building conditions are starting to look better, one teacher put it best by saying that “It’s like having a bird in a golden cage. It still feels like jail.” This is true because the fact is that LA schools might become the most beautiful schools in the world, but without a qualified teacher and a more positive attitude about students from the administration, teachers, and school police, they will always be the worst.

Through the research that was done and all of the data that was collected, this paper was formed. There are several sections that this paper will be divided into – grounded theory of critical civic literacy, methods, community case study, and recommendations. In the grounded theory section, we will be speaking about the overall beliefs of the paper and how certain people define civic engagement, what tools and skills you need, and more about civic engagement and literacies. The methods section will discuss the different ways that we came up with our data, such as, interviews and surveys. The community case study will talk about demographics of the community and schools, and about how youth participate civically. The recommendations section will talk about what we think can be done about the problems in Watts based on our research.


Too many people have tried to make a difference when it comes to changing something that they do not like. Many have done this but do not accomplish that much because they never get their voices heard and this makes them lose their confidence. Many people have tried, but get their voices shut down and they decide that it is not worth it and then give up. Well, we are tired of that and we decided that we are going to make a difference and have our voices be heard. In our research project we compiled a comprehensive data set of interviews and surveys. We observed both the community and the schools, and we used digital photography to document the community. We used these strategies because we feel they are very important. These tactics are very important because they give voices to the voiceless. Now people who were not able to speak out before and say what they have been hiding for so long are able to do so. This lets people express their feelings about things that are not even touched and are ignored. Now everyone who sees this data will get to see the other side of the story and recognize that there are two sides to every story and that things aren’t always right just because the majority says it is.

Interviews were one of the strategies we used to compile data. Interviews are a good way to get visual and verbal information and the majority of people prefer to see a video than read something. We interviewed students and teachers from NHS, SEHS, and City HS, and we interviewed community members and activist from the Watts and Santa Monica communities in order to see how they became activists and how they felt about politics. We interviewed students in order to get a comprehensive data set and as many perspectives as possible. The questions varied for each person. Some examples of questions we asked students were: 1)Is your school preparing you for college/life?,” 2) What is the worst thing you have in school? and 3)“What is your definition of being politically involved?” These are just some of the questions we asked the students. The answers we got to question one was most often, “no we aren’t getting the education to prepare us for college or life.” However, the answer to the second question varied. One female from North High said, “Security is bad. Instead of doing their job, they flirt with us and try to be our friends.” A student from South East High said, “The worst thing we have is the big fence and the county food.” Some students thought that being politically involved was being involved with the government, Bush, and politicians.

We encountered different types of students. We encountered students who said there was nothing wrong with their school or their education. Others said the total opposite, and said they felt like demanding changes and that their education was not preparing them for college or even preparing them for the workforce. A variety of class interviews were conducted where the class was divided into smaller focus group interviews. These were very important because we got to see the different perspectives of different people. One magnet class focus group at North High School was used to compare “magnet” students and “regular” students. A “regular” student is a student who isn’t enrolled in the magnet program and isn’t considered “gifted” enough. It was a group interview and the names of the students will be kept anonymous. Other students who are in the “regular school” never heard some of the things that were said by the magnet students. A student said that the magnet students have more expectations and are motivated since the beginning of high school. They are not only encouraged to graduate from high school but also to pursue a career. Another word that was said by one of the students was that the students are informed when they are doing badly in their classes by their counselors who actually take time out of their schedule.

Another classroom that we interviewed was a “B” track economics class. “B” track is one of the tracks that is at North High School during the summer until late August because of Concept 6. The environment there was much different from that in the magnet class and you could feel it as soon as you walked in. For one, the teacher wasn’t even present in the class and we weren’t well received by the class or the substitute teacher. We did not interview the whole class because not everybody was comfortable, so a small focus group of 6 was interviewed. The answers we got from these students totally contrasted with the answers from the the magnet class. We received answers like, “this education isn’t preparing us for college or the workforce. Teachers just don’t care about the 'B' trackers because the teachers believe that because the students are Latinos they are no good and they are stupid.” One girl said that when you go out to get a job or try to apply to a big name college and they see the diploma with the name North High School on it, they see it as nothing or worthless. So that is the reason why many kids drop out of school. A teacher’s name kept coming up when we talked to these kids. The students felt that she was the worst teacher of them all. She was constantly putting down kids instead of doing her job. One student mentioned that she had made a racist comment about Mexicans one time in class. The teacher said that she doesn’t like eating fruits “because Mexicans pick them.” These are some of the things that we encountered at North High.

Another high school that we visited was Southeast High in the community of Watts. This was probably one of the most exciting high schools that we visited. The things that we saw there were ridiculous. The fences were making the school look more like a prison. That was kind of scary. We learned from the principal about the small learning communities and their purpose. They are supposed to make the school a better place to learn and its supposed to reduce the overcrowding at the school. The group was also informed about the two principal system, and that Southeast High is the first school to do this. The sad thing though about all the schools we went to is that they do not know what it really means to be politically involved and the first thing that pops up in their heads when they hear the word "politics" are the words “government” and “president.” Most kids that we interviewed do not even know they are politically involved and they say they are not when they are. Another thing that kept being repeated was how bad the new principal is and later on we found out that this is true. We couldn’t believe this at first because even though our access to Southeast High School was postponed, the principal was very nice to us and we really felt like we were welcomed until she kicked us out of her school with the police behind us and terminated some of our data. The students also said that the old principal was a much better principal and that she was more like a student and actually cared for them. A guy who really made a good impression on us was the “Great Quotes Guy.” Some of the things that he said were amazing to hear. This student talked about the things he saw just coming to school. He said he saw crack heads, prostitutes, a liquor store on every corner, and, an all-around bad looking community. He made sure his opinions were heard. He said that the administrators were not used to students having a voice, so when the students did speak out, they were amazed. He also talked about how unsafe he felt inside his own school. How there are gangs inside the school and they affect the way you dress in the community. He spoke about the way cops do their jobs and how they only seem to do it when somebody gets hurt or dies. He felt that the cops are just there to call an ambulance after somebody has died. He also said that the administration is not aware of many of the things that happen in school even though they are in the government/leadership class. They were unaware of the learning communities. He gave us some suggestions on how youth might be interested in being involved politically. He said that if someone they looked up to, like a rapper or singer, started promoting these things in their songs youth might start acting politically. That led him to say that there is no way the community is changing if the people in community don’t change their ways. The last and most important statement that he made was that he felt that “the community has been the way it is so long that it won’t change.” When we interviewed the teachers, we approached them with different questions. We gave them questions like “What is your idea of teaching and how will it help you? Why is it that schools in the LAUSD do not have as many AP classes as Beverly Hills High? And are your textbooks counter-narrative?”

We asked them these questions because we wanted to get everyone’s perspective on these questions. We wanted to compare and contrast the perspectives of teachers, students, and community activists. The answers we got included statements like: “I really don’t know why but I wish all students could get the same education,” “My idea of teaching is making sure that students learn in my class and I also try to make it as entertaining as possible," and "Our textbooks aren’t counter narrative. What is counter narrative?” These are some of the answers we got from teachers. Community members and activists were approached with different questions as well. The questions we asked them included, What does it mean to act politically? What influenced you to start working with your community? And what literacies do you recommend youth use? Answers to the first question included, critical thinking, questioning what is not right, reading, internet researching, public speaking, and protesting, etc. One community activist stated that acting politically was reading a book called “Occupied America.” Reading the book made him angry and made him start to question why is it that Latinos are so poor or why is it that we have to live this way. Another activist said that what motivated him to start acting politically was reading in college some of the text he never got to read in high school. He wanted to make sure nobody missed out on the things that he missed out on.

We handed out surveys to students in some of the schools we went to to get more information without doing an interview and to see how they felt about politics and how politically involved they are. There were a total of 54 questions on the survey that were compiled by the Summer Seminar students. Each group came up with a set of questions and we combined them to make up one whole survey. A one on the scale system symbolized "strongly agree" and a five symbolized "strongly disagree." There were a total of eight sections, each one focusing on a specific topic. Voting is an important political activity and the two schools that we handed out surveys to strongly agreed on it. Another question that they strongly agreed on was question 13, section 2. It said knowing how to speak publicly is important to act politically and here they strongly agreed on it with an average of 1.8. A third question where they strongly agreed on was in section 5 where the question was if schools should teach students about the rules of government. They strongly agreed with an average 1.85. There were also questions that stood out because they strongly disagreed. One of them said “I participate in protests on issues that affect me in negative ways.” The schools that we went to said that they agreed on it, “a little bit over somewhat.” Another question where they disagreed “a little bit over somewhat” was how would you rate your community, which came out to be around 3.3. A third and final question where they disagreed a bit more than somewhat was how would you rate your school, which came out to be around 3.4 combined. The goal was to see how strongly people agreed and how strongly they disagreed about each of the questions asked and to find out how politically involved students are and if they are, where they got this from. There was a total of 123 surveys and only 80 surveys were completely answered with the open-ended questions. We surveyed a government and a student/leadership class in Southeast High and we surveyed a history class and a government class at City High School. Individually, there were a total of 67 surveys for City High School. 53 of those people that answered were Latinos, 8 were Asians, 5 N.A., 2 were multi-race, and 1 was Filipino. At Southeast High School there was 51 people surveyed. 41 of those were White, 51 were Latinos, 5 N.A., 4 African American, and 1 multi-race.

We observed all the time and took notes everywhere we went to make sure we got every important thing said, and so we could come up with more questions at the moment. Digital photography was used to get some of the important pictures, like murals, that are a form of literacy that we saw in school communities, etc. It was very helpful when the video camera was focused on something else because the digital camera caught important images. They showed the community stereotypes and struggles and how they are living among them and other oppressors. At the same time, these mural about their city’s struggle show their beauty and the way the community unites to make it better. We also took pictures of students in their schools and how they are locked in a school as if it were a jail. They have big, long bars surrounding their schools. We also took pictures of community leaders that are trying to make a difference so that we could put it in our presentation to show that there are many people around that cry out for social justice.

Data Analysis

Today’s youth are more out of control because they have ideas that they just can’t express or they are just frustrated, and they can’t and are not encouraged to voice their opinions. There are youth that make sure that their voice gets heard. I think these youth are the civically engaged citizens in this world. Then there are those citizens or youth that stay quiet and just wait to see some action so that they could get involved in something. These students and citizens are the ones being used to make sure that those voices get heard by supporting them. But for those students that don’t fall into these categories it is just a matter of time before they just get tired of the situation and realize that there is always something to do out there in the world so that it could be a much better place to live, not just for themselves but for future generations.

The phrase “civically engaged citizen” is something that is hard to comprehend when you do not have any background on these words. The meaning of the word “engaged” can be derived in many different ways by many different minds. Today’s youth has it’s own thoughts and feelings about these words. To some people engaged means “to be involved in” and others do not have a clue. The whole definition has been derived by the dictionary’s definition which is, “To involve oneself or become occupied; participate.” The dictionary’s definition of civics is, “Of, relating to, or belonging to a city, a citizen, or citizenship; municipal or civil.” Many people feel confused and unsure of what this word means. When we combine the words civically and engaged, it means a person who is involved in their community, politics, etc. and who considers themselves a citizen of their community and has citizenship in their country.

Through the research that we have conducted, we’ve concluded that youth have been acting civically without even knowing it because they don’t spend time thinking about what the word “civically engaged” really means. So when people ask them, the students are totally unaware of their form of activism because nobody has ever spent time to explain or use what the words really means. Most of the students don’t even know that they are civically engaged because most of them are not exposed to that kind of language. Youth are civically engaged by voting, by joining the student government, rioting, forming walkouts, marches, being involved in their community, and by talking to the administration about any issues that they might have. Gangs, however, are not civically engaged. An example of some students being civically engaged would be when we went to visit North High school where the students created a walkout to show how they felt about the war in Iraq. Another place that we went to and the students were acting civically was South High School where the students might create a walkout because they do not want the district to change the principal that they currently have at their school.

Many people wonder where these kids get all these ideas. The people that these youth encounter in their everyday lives are a strong influence in helping youth produce all these ideas. Some of these people are found in their community, school, home; they could be a mentor or any adult that they might know. The way that these people influence the youths mind is by creating an awareness of what is going on in the world. Also, by making them understand the different problems and inequalities that are going around in their everyday life without them noticing. These people are a big chunk in the life of students because if these people were not present in the lives of our youth we would have a world that is conformist and not willing to improve their lives in any way.

School is a place where students get to experience how injustice with the people in power is like some of the teachers and administrators that we have encountered in our interviews at the many different schools that we have visited. The school and the school system have this huge role in the student’s life as they grow up. From the time the students start the fifth grade, they start to notice the things that happen in their school. As the students grow up and reach middle school, some start to voice their doubts and concerns to the teachers or to other adults. That’s where all those mentors and teachers come in, because they take the role of the eye-opener and generate the idea to students to open their minds and to learn how to analyze what’s out there in the world. They never know if what they see or hear is the solid truth of every situation they encounter, and they get this lesson of how to read the word and the world. As students finish middle school and go to high school students encounter other adults and students who feel the same way and try to make a change in their life and in other's lives, too. A great example of this would be Ms. Solomon and Ms. Minster. They are teachers at City High school and are involved in an organization called Coalition for Educational Justice which gets students involved in making a change in their school and community. The huge role that they play in the student's mind is that they open the mind of students and make sure that the students get the point that asking questions is ok. Many of you are probably wondering what does this have to do with being a civically engaged person? Well, it has a lot to do with it because schools create the opposite of an activist who is involved in trying to make a change in the life of not just themselves but in others as well. That’s where the teachers that are involved in groups like CEJ help erase those mistakes that school has brought upon the lives of youths.

Another way that youth are influenced civically is by the media. The media carries all these different ways that people express themselves like art, music and paintings. There are many things that we could learn from the different media types because they all teach us different kinds of literacies that are useful for everyday life. One interviewee said that the media teaches how to “think outside of the box.” This shows how people consider the media as a learning tool because it lets you expand your mind to many different levels and encourages and lets people know that it is all right to question and to ask questions whenever they have a doubt. Through murals we learn the different feelings and emotions that these artists are bringing to the world. Murals intrigue whoever passes by and gets minds thinking. Music lets us know how different people think of many different issues that are out there in the world and just lets us have the experience of hearing others' points of views. The news and television contribute to the part of the media that helps people to learn how to analyze and to learn that everything you hear or see does not necessarily means that it is true. A place that helps youth in using art as a way to express their emotions and feelings is The Center at Watts where they offer art classes for whoever wants to take them. This is a great example of places out there that are willing to help students. The only thing that the students have to do is be willing to participate and get informed about where they could participate, and have some fun at the same time.


A critical civics curriculum in schools could be a series of demonstrations of activities that a critical civic thinker practices. That way, students are learning the process and they also get the opportunity to practice and be motivated to continue the practice of their critical thinking skills. For example, a traditional curriculum in a government class will have the typical explanation of the three branches of government and voting. They will teach students about the branches and the responsibility of each one. However, this limited curriculum does not validate students’ voice and experiences.

A critical civics curriculum teaches the same content as a traditional curriculum, but it also takes the extra step and teaches students about community and organizing to motivate students to be involved in their communities. Also, teaching pupils critical literacies (TV, films, art, music, texts) helps students involvement. The main goal of a true critical civics curriculum is for students to think for themselves and to make decisions that are going to affect them later in life. Critical thinkers are engaged citizens (but not necessarily in the traditional sense of the word). An engaged citizen is (but is not limited to) someone who wants change, ask questions and demands answers, stand ups for his/her beliefs, shows concern for people and strives for social justices (walk-outs, surveys, interviews, protest, marches).

Teachers, administrators and other adults in the schools should encourage students to vote, but they should also take the extra step and encourage them to do other important organizing skills that are going to help them expand their minds so that they can help themselves and others in their community by participating in surveys, interviews, protests, public speaking, and organizing. All these are important critical civic organization skills that a critical thinker who is politically involved, or wants to be politically involved, uses because it gives students the opportunity to speak about the problems and/or inequalities that they have to face in their everyday life. Schools should also have counter narratives books that are going to show both sides of history and give the pupils the chance and opportunity to make their own decisions instead of having them made for them for example, the sides of the “oppressed” and the “oppressor.” A true researcher will investigate and give back the information of both. Schools don’t expose students to counter narratives because it takes money and effort and they have fear that students will have the power to question. Most of the time the media doesn’t gives us both because they are biased and afraid that they will also be oppressed. Also, teachers should bring to the table what they know about that piece of history so the students can understand it further.

The other meaningful opportunities that students need to develop is their civic capacities in schools. Students need some type of space where they can work with workshops and organizations that are going to help them develop their thinking skills and teach them how to think critically and question critically. Maybe that way students will have the courage to participate and take the risks that a great critical researchers need to take. Students also need the support from these adults so that they feel comfortable and safe speaking out. When students have the capacity to read the word and the world, they become powerful individuals. That way they can see what is wrong with the world and put it in their words. It is important for students to speak from their experiences because that is their way of living. People of power cannot take experience away from students and say it is wrong because that is their reality of their life. Paulo Freire stated, “Who are better prepared than the oppressed to understand the terrible significance of an oppressive society? Who suffers the effects of oppression more than the oppressed? Who can better understand the necessity of liberation? They will not gain this liberation by chance but through the praxis of their quest for it, through their recognition of the necessity to fight for it.” It is really important to learn how to read the word because that gives students an understanding of how people want you to see the world, but once you see and learn the world students need to trust their own ideas. Young people can study youth participation by making surveys and finding statistics that will help them compare youth participation in different schools and communities. Interviews give students information on other points of view and the counter narrative in the research. Talking to community activists and taking observational notes is going to help students study their surroundings and the type of environment that other youth are living in. By doing research on political participation students gain knowledge of the world.

Some of the protections that a researcher needs are limited. They need someone that has connections with schools, communities, and organizations so that they could be welcomed and they will not feel the necessity of hiding their research tools. They also need less powerful people around because they are the ones that fear a researcher the most because they do not want to lose power and do not want other students to start questioning their authority.

Being a critical researcher is not an easy job. It takes risks that may harm you one way or the other. Many people lose their jobs or get transferred because they want to teach youth how to be political and make a difference in their life. People are being punished for wanting social justice. Being a critical researcher is a will that we all choose to take. This is not the conclusion of this project; it is only the beginning of it.

Teaching to Change LA is an online journal of IDEA, UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Education, & Access