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Participatory Action Research and City Youth: Methodological Insights from the Council of Youth Research

by Mark A. Bautista, Melanie Bertrand, Ernest Morrell, D'Artagnan Scorza & Corey Matthews - 2013

Background: The research community has long documented educational disparities along race lines. Countless studies have shown that urban African American and Latino students are systematically denied educational resources in comparison to their white counterparts, resulting in persistent achievement disparities (Ladson-Billings, 2006; Ladson-Billings &Tate, 1995; Duncan-Andrade & Morrell, 2008). Though this research is thorough in many regards, it consistently lacks the voices of the Latino and African American students themselves. This omission not only silences those most affected by educational inequalities, it also denies the research community valuable insights.

Purpose: This article discusses an analysis of a youth participatory action research (YPAR) program, the Council of Youth Research, in which urban youth of color research educational conditions. We address the following research questions: 1. How do the Council youth appropriate traditional tools of research? How do they adapt and transform these tools to serve their purposes? 2. What methodological insights can adult educational researchers draw from the study of an intervention project that seeks to center the voice and perspectives of youth? 3. How does YPAR as it is practiced by Council youth challenge what is considered as legitimate and transformative research?

Research Design: To address our research questions, we conducted ethnographic research on the Council during the summer of 2010 and the 2010-2011 school year.

Findings: We demonstrate how the students in the Council appropriated traditional research methods for critical uses and employed creative approaches to conveying research findings. We focus on the studentsí use of participant observation, database analysis, and interviews, and describe the multimodal avenues through which the students conveyed findings.

Conclusion: Our study points to alternatives to traditional research that take advantage of urban studentsí positionality and insights. We argue that the perspective of youth of color, especially in working-class, urban areas, is integral to our understanding of problems in urban schools as well as approaches to transforming inequitable learning conditions and structures. Until we make the power of research accessible to young people and other marginalized communities, educational research will be limited in its scope and impact.


The research community has long documented educational disparities along race lines. Countless studies have shown that urban African American and Latino students are systematically denied educational resources in comparison to their white counterparts, resulting in persistent achievement disparities (Ladson-Billings, 2006; Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995; Duncan-Andrade & Morrell, 2008). Though this research is thorough in many regards, it consistently lacks the voices of the Latino and African American students themselves. This omission not only silences those most affected by educational inequalities, it also denies the research community valuable insights.

This article explores how youth of color attending city high schools become lead agents in the process of research.  We investigate this topic by looking at the Council of Youth Research, a collaborative of high school students, teachers, graduate student researchers, and professors who engage in critical and action-oriented research. Over the past 11 years, the Council has researched systemic inequalities and presented its findings to school and community stakeholders and academic audiences. This collective presents an example of youth participatory action research (YPAR), a type of inquiry that centers on youth’s expertise. Through our exploration of the Council, we analyze the methodological tools within YPAR that allow youth and adults to conduct collective research designed to incite changes within the urban schooling environment. While we recognize the importance of articulating the pedagogical processes that occur in a community of practice such as the Council, we have reserved that discussion for another study. Our aim here is to address the methodology tools used to engage youth in action research. In so doing, we illustrate how the Council expands the definition of legitimate research and offers valuable methodological insights for educational research in broader contexts.


Educational researchers face increasingly limited notions of what counts as legitimate scholarship. In a moment when we need to be as creative and thorough in our explorations as possible, many research institutions promote mainly quantitative, distanced, and “objective” methodologies. (The National Research Council is one such example.) Though important, these methodologies provide only a partial picture of educational issues, excluding important perspectives.

Often these “objective” research approaches are framed as legitimate because they cleave to tradition. Foucault (1972) argues that “the notion of tradition . . . is intended to give special temporal status to a group of phenomena that are both successive and identical (or at least similar),” and that in this process, we hold to pre-existing concepts (p. 21). This temporal status privileges one group’s set of ideas over others’ ideas and prevents us from challenging existing paradigms as we seek truth. In recounting Malcolm X’s road to critical consciousness, Perry (1991) articulates the need to “consciously create a connection between old and new knowledge” (p. 69).  This critical examination of inherited frameworks of knowledge allows researchers to explore their biases toward traditional research.

Traditional and “objective” research, in legitimizing the perspectives of some, but not others, not only silences whole populations, it also narrows the field of knowledge production. In our hopes of expanding both what we know and how we come to know what we know in educational scholarship, we argue that we need to embrace critical approaches to educational research like participatory action research (PAR). PAR, like YPAR, represents a communal approach to research that empowers participants to challenge the “who” in knowledge production. This type of research helps participants use conceptual and intellectual tools to think differently about the nature of the problem and how to solve it. Unlike traditional research, which grants authority solely to academics to generate new information, it carves a space for community members to share experiential knowledge, conduct research on their own experiences, and act as agents of change in issues that impact them directly. PAR is participant-based research and focuses uniquely on issues that affect particular communities using a methodological approach in which participants become the knowledge producers. The participants, as researchers, co-create a research agenda that characterizes the nature of the problem according to their lived experiences and in turn, outline alternatives to address the problem.

Participatory action research with youth, or YPAR, as a critical research methodology, focuses on centralizing the voice of youth and positioning them as the experts of their own educational experiences (Camarota & Fine, 2008; Morrell, 2006).  This methodology directly challenges traditional research by asserting that students have the power to conduct research and that research is more than just empirical experimentation. YPAR provides students with a space to create and enact research agendas that help them understand the power of their voice in the move towards educational reform (Morell, 2006).  Further, researchers who use YPAR contend that students provide a critical perspective that must be called upon to shape educational reform agendas. Students’ experiences can help reframe problems and solutions in education while simultaneously producing knowledge that is student-centered and action-driven.


Understanding the context and realities of youth of color within low-income communities increases the urgency for a collective approach to achieve social justice.  Students in urban schools are frequently dehumanized, denied agency, and are not allowed to speak on schooling conditions from their perspective (Akom, 2003; Giroux, 1983).   To respond to this problem, the Council of Youth Research was created in order to promote youth voice using YPAR and currently works to empower students to become agents of change.  The Council is composed of African American and Latino students from five Los Angeles-area high schools, as well as teachers, graduate students, and professors.  Employing deliberate pedagogy and curriculum, the adults in the Council work to help students gain a critical understanding of how research can be used as a tool for transformation and resistance.1

Students are expected to learn and use research methodology in order to produce knowledge about their educational experience so that they can develop identities as critical agents who work to facilitate change in education.  The Council seeks to empower students and recognize their voices as a critical component in educational reform (outcomes, policy, practice, etc.).  It is through YPAR that we present a mode of knowledge production that stems from students as participants and agents of change.  

Supported by this understanding of the radical potential of YPAR, our study seeks to answer these questions:

1. How do the Council youth appropriate traditional tools of research? How do they adapt and transform these tools to serve their purposes?

2. What methodological insights can adult educational-researchers draw from the study of an intervention project that seeks to center the voice and perspectives of youth?

3. How does YPAR as it is practiced by Council youth challenge what is considered as legitimate and transformative research?

We reached these questions as we sought to understand the practical implications of YPAR.  While we recognize that many researchers have worked to legitimize its use in educational research (Cammarota & Fine, 2008; Morrell, 2006), we found it necessary to present the specific ways youth of color adapt these tools to meet their emerging and ever-changing needs.  This study is as much about the methodological approaches to educational research as it is about youth who use these tools to tell their story.  As such, our data reflect the stories youth told when attempting to speak truth to power.

To address our research questions, we collected ethnographic data over the course of our data collection period, the summer of 2010 and the 2010-2011 school year. During this time period, we participated in the Council as a whole and subgroups of the Council connected to the five high schools. We attended all Council presentations and whole-group meetings, along with the bulk of the subgroup meetings associated with three of the high schools. We audio- and video-recorded many of the meetings—both whole-group and subgroup—along with the presentations. In addition, two authors (Mark and Melanie) collected in-depth data for two subgroups of the Council, attending virtually all subgroup meetings. These two authors wrote down “jottings” (Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw, 1995) captured in the moment that were later used to compose detailed field notes. In addition to recordings and field notes, Mark and Melanie conducted interviews with student and teacher members of the Council. These interviews, along with other recordings, were selectively transcribed. We also collected student-produced work, such as PowerPoint presentations, documentaries, and written artifacts. We analyzed our data using ethnographic methods, developing codes and looking for trends that spoke to our research questions.


YPAR, as a subcategory of PAR generally, is many things: a pedagogical practice, a form of resistance, a re-envisioning of whose knowledge is valuable, a tool of decolonization, and a radical research methodology (Akom, Cammarota, & Ginwright, 2008).  On its face, PAR is a collective model of research that rests upon three principles: (a) A problem is jointly investigated; (b) “indigenous” knowledge is used to better understand a problem; and (c) there is a desire to take action to address the problem (McIntyre, 2000, p. 128). In engaging in PAR, “[p]articipants . . . become researchers about their daily lives in hopes of developing realistic solutions for dealing with the problems that they believe need to be addressed” (Duncan-Andrade & Morrell, 2008, p. 109).

PAR represents a radical shift from traditional research because of what it investigates and who does the investigating (Morrell, 2006, pp. 112-113).   Emerging from the work of Kurt Lewin (Herr & Anderson, 2005), action research has taken significant strides to enter the domain of educational research.  First adopted in the United States in the business environment, action research became increasing popular as John Dewey argued for the use of human experience, both professional and practical, to generate knowledge that improves teaching and learning (Herr & Anderson, 2005).  With the emergence of Freire-inspired participatory action research, American researchers found this approach useful to challenge dominant educational institutions in order to force power relations to shift.  Some drew from critical theory and critical race theory to critique systemic inequalities based on race, gender, and class (Cammarota & Fine, 2008). Some of the issues that PAR examines include “educational justice; access to quality health care; the criminalization of youth; gang violence; police brutality; oppression based on race, gender, and sexuality; gentrification; and environmental issues” (Torre & Fine, 2006, p. 271).

Unlike traditional research, which aims to objectively and disinterestedly investigate a given phenomenon (Horkheimer, 1937), PAR strives to uncover systemic issues from the standpoint of social critique.  This critique is intimately tied to the subjectivities of the PAR researchers themselves. Unlike traditional research, in which marginalized groups are often the objects of research, PAR places these groups in positions as “subjects and partners in the research process” (Duncan-Andrade & Morrell, 2008, p. 108). In this way, PAR is far more inclusive than traditional, academic-led research (Morrell, 2006). Also, PAR is a collaborative process, involving several or many members of a research team working together on a project. As a collaborative effort driven by marginalized groups, PAR presents an “epistemological challenge” about whose knowledge is deemed valuable (Fine, 2008). “PAR . . . assumes that those who have been most systematically excluded, oppressed, or denied carry specifically revealing wisdom about the history, structure, consequences, and the fracture points in unjust social arrangements” (Fine, 2008, p. 215). PAR with youth (YPAR) involves the same principles, positioning youth as researchers of the conditions in their schools and communities (McIntyre, 2000; Schensul & Berg, 2004; Schensul, Berg, Schensul, & Sydlo, 2004; Torre & Fine, 2006).

YPAR, which builds upon critical youth studies (Ginwright & Cammarota, 2002, p. 82; Giroux, 1998; Wyn & White, 1997), argues that positionality matters in conceptualizing educational problems. Countering deficit notions about youth of color, YPAR insists that sometimes the framing of the problem is a problem itself (Torre & Fine, 2006). This points to the need for student voice in articulating the issues within their own schools. To this end, youth in YPAR programs develop their critical consciousness, or, as Freire (1970) called it, conscientization, by holding “structural and material inequities up to the light of inquiry” (Duncan-Andrade & Morrell, 2008).  With this ability to name their world (Freire & Macedo, 1987), identify, and deconstruct the socio-cultural realities that impact their lived experiences, youth are better prepared with the knowledge and resources to engage as public intellectuals and participate in the public sphere.  In this way, youth are empowered to challenge exclusionary research practices and push back against the deficit forms of analysis that emerge when certain educators attempt to conduct research “on” marginalized and oppressed communities.  As a result, students are positioned at the center of knowledge creation, where their perspectives are moved from the periphery to the center.


In this study, we view YPAR as an opportunity for young people to address, question, and take action against social and institutional injustice, specifically in schools. We conceptualize the Council’s iteration of YPAR as a tool to break apart and theorize oppressive conditions from youth’s perspectives. Also, we see the Council as a site to learn about more effective ways to push the boundaries of traditional educational research.

The Council is a community of scholars that is committed to conducting research projects that analyze, problematize, and address the conditions of students in public schools in the Los Angeles area.  The high school student-researchers in the program attend five schools in East and South Los Angeles, communities that have historically suffered from poverty and institutional oppression while, at the same time, engaging in countless forms of activism.  We see much of the work of the youth in the Council as a continuation of that activism, with the re-appropriation of tools from the academy, like empirical research.

Over the past eleven years, the Council participants have engaged in research projects that have addressed specific topics and issues concerning education, such as the marginalization of youth voice in school districts and the impact of the economic crisis of 2009.  In recent years, the Council program has involved two components: an intensive summer seminar portion in which participants meet daily and a school-year component in which participants meet one or two times per week. During the data collection period, the Council focused on the conditions of California schools, specifically Los Angeles schools, in light of the 10th year anniversary of the 2000 filing of the Williams v. State of California class-action lawsuit.  Since the 2004 ruling, the State of California has been responsible for making sure that every student in the state receives an “adequate” education.  It became the Council students’ mission to find out to what degree California students receive an “adequate” education and whether it meets their academic needs. The main research topic was divided into five different areas: teaching, curriculum, learning resources, leadership, and social and physical ecology.

To research these topics during the 2010 summer seminar, Council members met five days a week, for about eight hours a day. At the beginning of the seminar, much of that time was spent in a classroom on a university campus. In this space, the adults taught classes that introduced the students to critical sociological texts and research methods. When the students were not in the classroom, they were collecting data in and on local schools and the state. If the data collection involved an outing, the adults acted as drivers and chaperones as the students videotaped interviews with teachers, students, school administrators, elected officials, community members, and other educational stakeholders. Also, the students wrote field notes, created and distributed surveys, and gathered statistics on the Internet. Toward the end of the seminar, much of the class time involved the students, with the guidance of the adults, analyzing the data and arriving at research findings and demands for changes. With this information, the students, again with the help of the adults, crafted PowerPoint presentations, verbal reports, and short documentaries that included clips of the videotaped interviews. The activities of the summer seminar continued during the school year component of the Council.

We now turn to an analysis of some methods that the youth researchers used for their projects on the Williams case.  We examine the ways the students conducted critical research in order to reveal both the appropriation of traditional research methods for critical uses, as well as the creative approaches to collecting and analyzing data. All of the student researcher groups’ data collection encompassed both quantitative and qualitative research methods, as we show in the following sections.

Our study documents the Council students’ processes of conducting research and indicates what can be learned from their unique experiences and approaches as young scholars. We used PAR as our own methodological approach for this study, gathering data in collaboration with the student researchers to help us better understand the nuanced ways that they approached research. In this way, we researched how our students conducted research.


Two of the many processes that the Council students used to create research claims were participant observation and database analysis.  Our observations indicate that these processes were eye-opening experiences for some of the students as they utilized both methods to triangulate arguments for their research projects. In this section, we discuss how students used participant observation and connected this to current statistical data on specific schools in their district. Through these methods, we argue that students developed a keen analysis and understanding of some of the inequitable conditions and discrepancies in educational opportunities in urban schools compared to more affluent schools.

Throughout the 2010 summer seminar, student groups in the Council planned field days in their weekly schedule to collect data for their projects.  During these times, they scheduled interviews with many educational stakeholders, such as students, principals, and counselors, while passing out surveys to students willing to participate in their research.  One of the most worthwhile aspects of the field days was the students’ documentation of their own educational experiences and their engagement with people at different school sites. In traveling to various schools, they were able to see first-hand the differences between schools in rich neighborhoods and those in low-income neighborhoods, such as their own.  For some of the students, who may have never imagined what education looked like outside their own experiences, these field days disrupted their understanding of reality. By learning what resources and opportunities other schools offered, the school visits gave them a context to understand their own schooling experience and that of other youth in similar situations.

In one of her field notes, Sasha, from South Central High School, discussed visiting three different high schools and how there was a discrepancy in the types of educational resources that the two “inner city” schools had compared to the more affluent school.  Sasha wrote:

When my group went to Richside High School a teacher who gave us a tour of the school said that that school didn’t have much either, comparing Richside to other inner city schools. But that school had a planetarium, three cafeterias, and a whole new science and technology building. While when my group went to my school South Central High, teachers complained about not having enough time to teach students because of furlough days and the ESL and Special Ed teachers don’t have enough staff for all the students. And when my group went to Innercity High we saw how terrible the schools physical conditions were.

The first institution that Sasha mentioned was the most well-equipped school. What she began to describe in her field notes was the Ivy League atmosphere of the school, which boasted multiple auditoriums, an indoor basketball court that retracted into an Olympic-sized swimming pool, and classrooms that seated no more than twenty students at one time.  As she ventured onto the two other campuses with her group, one that was her own, she witnessed the stark differences between these two schools and Richside High School.  To add to Sasha’s account, South Central and Innercity High Schools featured dirty bathrooms, bars covering classroom windows, fences surrounding the campus, and outdated computers.  Also, upon speaking with students and teachers at these two schools, she and her group learned about the programmatic issues that cannot be seen on the surface.  Sasha’s field notes about these schools provided her a means to understand the differences between inner city schools and schools in wealthy neighborhoods.

With these participant observations of various school environments as their foundation, Sasha and her group questioned whether there was a relationship between the schooling environment and the educational outcomes for students at each respective site.  To answer this question, they analyzed statistics from existing databases and connected these to participant observations.

Sasha and her group analyzed existing databases published by the U.S. Census Bureau, the California Department of Education, and the Education Data Partnership. The database that students turned to most frequently was UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access (IDEA) California Educational Opportunity Database (UCLA Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access, n.d.).  This website provides data about individual high schools and middle schools, including demographics, availability of rigorous coursework and qualified teachers, and No Child Left Behind compliance. The website also published a “college opportunity ratio” for high schools, schools districts, and legislative districts across the state. This statistic reports proportions of students who graduate from high school with minimum requirements and those who graduate ready for college.

Figure 1. College opportunity ratio of four high schools


Figure 1 shows a bar graph that the students designed illustrating the differences between the college opportunity ratios of three urban schools (including Innercity and South Central) and Richside High School. From their observations and their analysis of the ratios, they developed the argument that, due to a lack of institutional support, insufficient learning resources, and overall uninviting learning environments, graduation and college eligibility rates for the three urban schools were drastically different from those of the other school.  As the graph indicates, less than 35 percent of students at the urban high schools ended up graduating, compared to 95 percent at the more advantaged school. The differences in college-ready graduation rates are even starker. By connecting these data with their first-hand experiences, the Council student researchers were able to demystify what an equitable or inequitable education looks like.  Through this research, Sasha and her group concluded that education for students in urban areas was inadequate in that it did not prepare all students for college.

These participant observations and data analyses were more than just traditional research methods to these young researchers.  For many of them, like Sasha, they were learning experiences that were lacking in their education. These opportunities to see other schools helped the students not only develop strong arguments for their research projects but also, at a personal level, guided them towards a critical consciousness about their existential experiences within the public education system.  In a later interview when asked to name one thing that she learned from being in the Council during her first summer seminar, Sasha answered:

One thing I like is being able to know more than I knew before and being able to point out more things and be more aware of my surroundings or the things that I could have.  Before I thought South Central was a really good school.  Because I have heard of worse, worse schools.  So that’s why I came to South Central.  Because I thought it would be better than some other schools, but it’s really not.  If you know about better schools then it’s not at the same level.  It made me more aware of that.

Through these research methods, the student researchers honed their critical analysis to understand schooling in urban areas, making a strong case that their projects epitomize the concept of grounded research.


One of the qualitative research methods that all the groups used was interviewing.  To demonstrate how the Council students developed interview questions and pinpointed whom they were going to interview, we describe the interviewing experiences of the South Central High School research group. During the school year, this group designed a study to examine the learning resources at their school.  The students’ main research question, which they used to guide the formation of their interview questions, was, “What learning materials are essential to ensure that students are equipped with the necessary skills for college and to receive a meaningful and viable education?”

The first step in their process was identifying key players in their school community who had insight regarding this topic, such as students, teachers, administrators, and counselors. The South Central students first focused on interviewing students since they wanted to make sure that they began their inquiry with student perspectives, allowing them to better develop questions for other stakeholders.  They believed that, in order to get the most realistic and relevant narrative about the learning resources at their school, they needed to go to the individuals who were most impacted by this topic. In Figure 2, we show the interview protocol that was used by the South Central students during the school year.

Figure 2. South Central student researchers’ interview protocol

Prospective Interviewees



Interview questions regarding learning resources at SCHS



-       What do you like about your education here at SCHS?  What do you not like about SCHS?

-       Do you think you are getting a high quality education here at this school?  Why or why not?

-       What resources do you think students need to receive an effective and quality education?

-       What type of learning resources do you have access to in your classes?

-       What type of resources do you utilize here at the school?

-       What kind of resources do you think we still need to acquire at the school?

-       What extra-curricular activities are available to you?

-       What type of learning resources do you think you need access to receive a “high-quality” education?



-       What resources do you think students need to receive an effective and quality education?

-       What learning resources do you use in your classes?

-       What support would you need to make your teaching effective?

-       Do you have students that come to you with personal issues?  Do you think that is part of your job?

-       Do you think students would be more focused in school, if they had more support in their personal lives?



-       What resources do you think students need to receive an effective and quality education?

-       What resources do you think students need other than textbooks?

-       We have found out from student interviews that students do not have the opportunities or resources to talk about their personal issues.  What are you doing about it?

-       What does the role of disciplinary procedures play in helping students do better in school?

-       What are you trying to do to distribute the technology faster?

-       What do the students need to do to use the technology that we do have?  How can we make technology accessible to everyone?

-       Why do teachers have to go out of their way and utilize their own resources to write a grant for laptops?



-       What resources do you think students need to receive an effective and quality education?

-       What is the job of the counselor?

-       Do you counsel students on just classes that they should take or do you counsel on personal issues?

-       What is a manageable caseload for a counselor?

-       What challenges do you run into as a counselor under the current conditions of the school?



From the interview protocol, we are able to see that the South Central students asked their fellow students a barrage of questions regarding access to relevant learning resources available at their school.  The questions show that the student researchers wanted to (a) learn from their peers’ own words about the lived experiences of being a student at South Central and (b) find out what learning resources their peers sought to address their needs and fulfill their academic and extra-curricular interests.

After they interviewed their peers, the students constructed interview questions for the other stakeholders at their school based on a pre-analysis of their peers’ answers. For example, for the teacher and counselor interviews, some questions were constructed to inquire about learning resources that addressed not only students’ academic needs, but also their personal needs.  The South Central students formed these questions as they began to conceptualize learning resources as falling within two distinct categories: physical (e.g., text books, computers, etc.) and meta-physical (e.g., teacher support, college counseling, safe environment, etc.).  This shows the recursive process of analysis and research intuition that the student researchers cultivated in order to develop a grounded theory about learning resources at their school.  As for the interview protocol for the administrators, some questions focused on issues that the student interviewees mentioned, such as having support for personal issues and accessibility of up-to-date technology. Since it is the responsibility of school administrators to oversee the disbursement of resources throughout the school, the students made sure that they asked questions about accountability.  Ultimately, from these interviews the South Central students developed this main argument: “Students at [South Central] do not have access to quality technology and culturally-relevant textbooks which in turn makes them less college competitive and able to contribute to the well being of their community.”

This example points to the strategic nature of the insider perspective of students within the educational system under study.  Unlike traditional researchers, who are often outsiders looking in, student researchers have the ability to easily navigate their school environment and figure out effective ways to gather data to make arguments for their research projects. Also, student researchers may encourage student interviewees to be more forthcoming in their answers. Overall, since student researchers are familiar with the environment that is being studied, they have an advantage that no outsider can replicate.


The Council students draw upon all the processes and products mentioned above—participant-observation, outside statistical data, survey data, and interviews—in order to create PowerPoint presentations and video documentaries to convey their research findings at events. Studying the processes involved in creating these research products can point to creative ways to approach both research methodology and dissemination. Often traditional educational research results in written products—journal articles, books, or reports—aimed for academic audiences. In contrast, the Council’s research products are far more inclusive in terms of both researchers and audience. The PowerPoint presentations and documentaries highlight and validate a range of voices and speakers while explicitly critiquing systemic racism and classism in education and calling for change. In other words, the documentaries are different from traditional research products in that they are multimodal (involving more than just printed words), multivocal (Bakhtin, 1981) (involving multiple voices), and critically action-oriented.

To create the PowerPoint presentations and documentaries, the students synthesize the data collected through their other Council activities. In the tradition of critical race theory research, they draw upon their written reflections—or counternarratives—of their experiences as students of color in racist institutions. These counternarratives are not considered peripheral, but, rather, as valuable pieces of data. Also, the students select clips from video-recorded interviews with a range of individuals, including: students, teachers, school administrators, parents, elected officials, representatives of elected officials, and community leaders. Importantly, these processes are always collaborative, involving student and adult members of the Council. In this way, the students, who traditionally would be the objects of research, become the researchers themselves.


The PowerPoint presentations convey traditional research components—such as research questions, theory, data, and claims—through multimodal means, including text, graphics, and photos. The students use a combination of text and graphics to simplify complex concepts. For instance, one presentation shows a triangle, base down, with the words “Sacramento [California’s state capitol] officials” at the top, and “Students” at the bottom. Later in the same presentation, in the demands section, the triangle is inverted, with “Students/Parents/Teachers” at the top, now the widest part of the triangle, and “Sacramento Officials” at the bottom. Also, students combine text and images to make strong statements. For instance, in a presentation about learning resources, an image of then-California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger holding a knife (taken from a video he produced to discuss budget cuts) is juxtaposed with a quote from him calling for equal education for all students. (See Figure 3.) A similarly dramatic combination of text and image occurs in the same presentation: Above photos of empty California Assembly and Senate chambers are the words, “Where are the legislators?”

The combination of words and text is especially effective in showing comparisons. One presentation shows an image of a green lawn and well-kept school, with students lounging at the top of a slide, while an image of a field of dead grass and a dilapidated fence occupies the bottom. The upper picture is labeled “Biophilic” (life-affirming) while the lower one is labeled “Necrophilic” (death-affirming). Another presentation includes a two-columned chart with the headings “Traditional” and “Organic,” referring to types of leadership. President Obama’s image appears under the first column, while Malcolm X’s image appears under the second.

Figure 3. A PowerPoint slide from a presentation about learning resources



As much as the presentations are multimodal, they also are multivocal. This can be seen in a PowerPoint presentation about quality teaching. It juxtaposes the U.S. Department of Education’s definition of a highly qualified teacher with a quote from an interviewed student: “My ideal teacher is one that actually listens to her students and doesn’t just talk and read out of the book.” After presenting a range of data, including more quotes from interviewees, a slide provides the Council students’ definition of quality teaching: “Teachers must be fully credentialed AND support students emotionally, personally, and use problem posing methods to be culturally relevant to students.”


Documentary filmmaking allows students to use multimodal and multivocal elements to an even greater degree than with the PowerPoint presentations. The video format provides a space to meld both visual and auditory stimuli while offering a rich platform for the incorporation of a range of stakeholder voices.

The documentaries use sound and image in a variety of ways. In many cases, the image and sound are tied together, from the same video clip. This is the case with clips of interviews the students conducted, which entail both visual images of interviewees, along with the interviewees’ voices. Similar clips are of Council students themselves, who may speak to the camera about the subject matter, perform a rap, or enact a skit. The documentaries may also include clips obtained from the Internet, of, for example, Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech or a State of the Union address from President Obama. Oftentimes, however, the audio and visual elements are drawn from different sources. The documentaries may include voiceovers, either taken from interviews or recorded by the Council students, overlaid on top of other video footage or still images. For instance, in one documentary, video and audio of an interview with a teacher transitions into images of arrows, as the teacher says, “People pass the buck, pass the buck, until it gets on someone’s table.”

More complicated still, sometimes a documentary has a voiceover, shows images, and plays background music all at the same time, creating a poignant multimodal message. An example of this occurs in a documentary about the physical conditions of school facilities. The words “A Los Angeles Divided 2010” flash on the screen, as the instrumental part of a rap called Tribes at War, by Nas, Damien Marley, and K’naan plays, and a female student voice says, “Schools with affluent student populations like Richside High and Sea Breeze City are able to access to what they are entitled.” As she says these words, an image appears of a multistory red brick building of Italianate architecture featuring a bell tower in the center, fronted by an expansive green lawn. This image is followed by two others of equally ornate buildings and manicured landscaping, with the words “Richside HS” and “Immaculate Heart HS” at the bottom of each. The student then says, “However, poor students of color only seem to have access to this.” At the word “this,” an image appears of black plastic sheets taped over a wall with duct tape.  As she stops speaking, the vocal part of the rap ensues: “Man, what happened to us? Geographically they moved us from Africa, we was once happiness-pursuers, now we back stabbing, combative and abusive.” During this, more images of dilapidation appear: an outdoor pile of desks and wooden pallets and a row of open lockers covered in tagging.

The multimodal nature of the documentaries works in concert with their multivocality. Unlike traditional research products, such as journal articles, in which the authors’ voices present the research results or findings, the documentaries frame many speakers, not just the documentaries’ creators, as the conveyers of the findings. As mentioned above, the Council students interview a range of individuals, and clips from these interviews are included in the final products. Of note, the documentaries treat clips from individuals in a range of social positions with the same validity. For instance, in a documentary about learning resources, an interviewed student comments, “Richside High School, they have everything they need. They have new books, new desks, new pencils, everything, because instead of the school board helping them, the parents do. And how can our parents support us with that?” Following this comment, and supporting it, is a clip of a teacher voicing a concern about the lack of school reading materials. Such a pattern can be seen in several documentaries, in which students, parents, administrators, and high-ranking officials are all treated as experts.

Another aspect of multivocality is related to the actual language(s) and language types used. Often, traditional research products are written in “academic” types of English replete with jargon. When the Council students speak in the documentaries, they mainly use these varieties, addressing complex academic topics, such as social theory and education finance. However, unlike traditional research products, the documentaries are accessible to a wide audience, because when the students use academic jargon, they explain it. Moreover, the students not only use academic varieties of English in the documentaries, but also deploy a range of languages and language varieties. One documentary, for instance, included a Council student’s rap, which showcased a combination of English varieties, including a marginalized variety: “Look, listen, think of the state of education. I’m not waiting here, not gonna be no patient. I advocate a change to rearrange the game so the next generation isn’t left behind. I got to stop my teacher from teaching just glitz and glime.” This rap was not seen as an object of research, but rather as a vehicle for conveying research findings. This same documentary featured Council students thanking their parents for being their first and primary educators, and three of these students delivered the thank yous in Spanish. One student said, “Me gustaría agradecer mucho a mis padres por el apoyo que me han dado, porque sin ellos no estuviera yo en este momento aquí. Gracias. Los quiero mucho.” (I would like to thank my parents very much for the support they have given me, because without them I wouldn’t be here at this moment. Thank you. I love them very much.) Though the documentaries still leave room for growth in incorporating a range of languages and types of English, they have gone further than the bulk of educational research in this arena.

The Council students use the tools of multimodality and multivocality to convey critical and action-oriented content. The documentaries explicitly and passionately document and denounce systemic racism and classism in education and call for specific changes and social actions. This is accomplished in a variety of ways. Often, critiques of educational conditions and demands for change come from clips of interviews. For instance, in a documentary about teaching, a student comments, “I feel like I’m being robbed of an education.” Later in this documentary, a teacher says, “Come to the school sites. Come to the school sites and see what’s actually going on so that you can understand what teachers are asking for, why we’re asking for more support, why we might be asking for more funding, why we’re asking for more technology.” Critical and action-oriented messages are also conveyed through Council students’ voiceovers. For instance, in a documentary that investigates educational spending, a Council student comments, “Questioning why schools in Los Angeles continue to receive only a small portion of billions of dollars is our duty.”

By incorporating a range of modes and voices, the documentaries challenge traditional notions of how research should be communicated to others. The PowerPoint presentations function in a similar way, using visual information from a variety of sources. Both of these research products highlight and validate a range of voices and speakers while explicitly critiquing systemic racism and classism in education and calling for change.


As much as we have illustrated within this paper the strategic positions young people take up in conducting educational research, we do not want venture far from the idea that the process of YPAR is an effective learning tool and experience for young people.  Scholars (Freire, 1970; Duncan-Andrade and Morrell, 2008; Lee 1998) have shown that the most effective learning occurs when students are able to connect what is being taught to their lives. Undoubtedly, this process of conducting YPAR draws upon students’ lived experience to inform their studies, redefining their identity as not just passive consumers of their education but rather as experts. This challenges traditional researchers’ often-implicit assertions that they are the only ones who can develop insightful research about educational issues. The repositioning of youth as experts of their educational experiences is revolutionary in itself considering that many youth in urban schools are disengaged from the schooling experience, as shown by high attrition rates.  The essence of YPAR lies in city youth finding and cultivating their power amidst all the challenges society puts before them.  

This project has also taught us that when young people learn how to collect data and are exposed to various critical theories, their ability to frame the problems and issues in their education from a critical perspective are unmatched. The idea of developing critical consciousness is key in that young people eventually develop (a) a language to name their oppressions and (b) the critical skills needed to address those issues.  Therefore, this leads them to develop a voice and an informed perspective that needs to be considered as we, as adults, develop policies and practices that impact them.

What is also important for us to consider, as adult researchers, are the creative ways that these young people make their research accessible to others.  Indeed, the respected, peer-reviewed scholarship that is published in journals and presented at conferences is still valid in soliciting dialogue around research findings and conclusions.  However, our young people also show us that there are alternatives that are just as powerful, if not more effective, in soliciting dialogue and action within the community.


As participants in YPAR for numerous years, we recognize that this work comes with its challenges.  Some may assume that conflict arises within the processes of our research groups.  However, in our analyses of the Council spaces over the past year, we conclude that challenges of this work more often emanate from outside the Council than from within.  Although there is much documentation of adult audience members applauding the youth researchers’ work and voicing their willingness to ally with them in their struggle for educational equity, there have also been instances of push back and critique from other adult audience members (see Bertrand, 2012).  In presenting their social critique and pushing for social change, we expected that not everyone was going to agree with the youth and their research findings.  Therefore, the radical nature of this work lies within the students challenging the norms of their schooling experience while having the bravery to withstand the self-defensive posturing of teachers, administrators, and even local officials.  However, it is important to note that the students were only able to develop their resiliency and poise through their collective endeavors.  Our study of the Council of Youth Research is but one example of the power of YPAR and more importantly, young people developing their agency together.  

If it is really our duty as educators and researchers to address the failures of an ineffective and, at times, oppressive educational system, then we need to provide more opportunities for our youth to also engage in the struggle.  Their perspective is crucial to asking the right questions to understand and solve many of the issues that we see in urban public schools.  We argue that the perspective of youth, especially in working class, urban areas, is integral to our understandings of what is going on in urban schools as well as what needs to be done to transform inequitable learning conditions and structures.  Until we make the power of research accessible to young people and other marginalized communities, educational research will be limited in its scope and impact.


1. We have reserved discussion of Council pedagogy and curriculum for another study.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 115 Number 10, 2013, p. 1-23
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17142, Date Accessed: 9/29/2020 11:33:11 PM

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About the Author
  • Mark Bautista
    University of Texas, Arlington
    E-mail Author
    MARK BAUTISTA is a Posdoctoral Faculty Fellow at the University of Texas at Arlington. Dr. Bautista's research focuses on the intersections of participatory action research, critical youth studies, and critical pedagogy with urban youth, looking specifically at the development of their sense of agency and community advocacy.
  • Melanie Bertrand
    Arizona State University
    E-mail Author
    MELANIE BERTRAND is an Assistant Professor in the Division of Educational Leadership and Innovation at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University. Her research employs micro- and macro-level lenses to explore school reform and leadership as they relate to matters of racial equity in education.
  • Ernest Morrell
    Teachers College
    E-mail Author
    ERNEST MORELL is the Director of the Institute for Urban and Minority Education (IUME) and Professor of English Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. He is also the Vice-President of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and will assume the presidency in 2013. For nearly twenty years Dr. Morrell's research has focused on drawing upon youths interest in popular culture and participatory media technologies to promote academic and critical literacy development, civic engagement and college access.
  • D'Artagnan Scorza
    E-mail Author
    D'ARTAGNAN is a Ph.D. Candidate in the UCLA Department of Education, UC Regent Emeritus, and Founder & Executive Director of the Social Justice Learning Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to help youth use research to create change.
  • Corey Matthews
    E-mail Author
    COREY MATTHEWS works in development and fundraising for a New York based public policy think tank. Corey studied at UCLA as an undergraduate and a graduate student, and his core research interests are on African American male educational trajectories in the K-16 pipeline, critical consciousness, and the sociology of education.
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