Co-Creating Virtual Learning Spaces for School-Based YPAR

Redesigning Youth-Led Research during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Curated by Molly Buckley-Marudas
August 29, 2022

Written by Molly Buckley-Marudas & Angela Fant, Cleveland State University & The City is Our Campus Team Members

Opportunities for critical inquiry, deep learning, and civic engagement are critical to young people’s development as thinkers, problem solvers, and community leaders. Within the context of a global pandemic, however, many of the most typical adolescent experiences for engagement were inhibited by social distancing mandates, school building closures, and the absence of in-person connections with others. Like educators around the globe, a team of teachers, professors, and community partners in Cleveland leading “The City is Our Campus”, a year-long Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) project at a public high school, had to pivot the project to an exclusively remote teaching and learning context. This YPAR project, a NWP (National Writing Project) LRNG Innovator Challenge, was originally designed as a place-based, in-person classroom project.

Drawing on YPAR and Connected Learning frameworks, this project, based in a Cleveland public high school, invited 9th graders to identify, research, and act on a community issue related to the larger theme, “The City is Our Campus.” Youth participants would have the opportunity to collaborate with a specific community partner to “read” a space and engage in place-based efforts to shift how youth use the places they share with other community members. 

YPAR has been documented (Cammarata, 2016; Cammarata & Fine, 2008; Duncan-Andrade & Morrell, 2008; Mirra et al., 2016) to support students as they explore the communities of their school, neighborhood and city. Our school-based YPAR program was designed to include multiple field trips around the city of Cleveland, with specific visits to our project partners. Designed around the dynamic concept of placemaking (Trekson, 2018), it was essential to the goals of the project that all of us (students, teachers, community partners) spent time, in a physical and embodied way, in different spaces around the city. We wanted youth to visit different places and to “read” the spaces. Together, we would consider who we believed different spaces to be designed for, who spent time there, and, conversely, who did not spend time there.  When faced with the unexpected remote teaching and learning context precipitated by COVID-19, it was unclear how we would redesign the YPAR curriculum, specifically the intent to experience city spaces in a physical and embodied way. We had to imagine alternative ways for students to experience, analyze, and “read” different spaces in the city.  

Re-imagining YPAR in a virtual context  

Given YPAR’s explicit emphasis on community engagement and young people working with key community stakeholders to address pressing issues in young people’s local communities, including their own school, it was a challenge to predict how a remote implementation of YPAR would unfold with 9th graders. It was especially challenging because the group of 9th graders had never spent a day in the building and very few students had ever met any of their 9th grade peers in person. Furthermore, what would YPAR look like without the ability to visit, walk around, observe, and engage with Cleveland communities and neighborhoods or the students’ school? How would students engage with the intended field observations and surveys?  

Pandemic era teaching and learning presented broad-reaching challenges for all teachers, students, and schooling within and across the United States during the 2020-2021 academic year. In the face of the many pressing challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic for families, communities, and schools, it was a highly imperfect context for YPAR. As we navigated pandemic challenges and an unfamiliar space for facilitating YPAR, we found that several of the adaptations and shifts that came with remote teaching created new possibilities for community engagement and afforded new kinds of connections. As our project team navigated our way to a revised version of YPAR, the youth participants also found their way to new versions of themselves as youth researchers and people, all in ways that were not predicted or planned.  

Bringing “Spaces” and “Places” to the Virtual YPAR Classroom 

The pandemic laid bare many of the deep racial and educational inequities in the United States that challenge and will continue to challenge the health, well-being, and education of young people. For this collection in The Current, we focus specifically on the progression of the YPAR course in a fully remote classroom. In the face of political unrest and divisiveness, the “City is Our Campus” partners supported and advocated for another in a way that created hopeful opportunities for young people and, essential to the aims of YPAR, revealed the potential for our students to create change in our community and society in the face of constraints.  

 At the core of the “City is Our Campus” LRNG Innovator project were the ideas of “space” and “place” and, relatedly, the notion of “creative placemaking.” Of course, with the transition to remote instruction, building closures, and social distancing measures, many of the physical spaces for students and the community to come together, share ideas, and collaborate were removed. Since our project was built on the idea of bringing students to different physical spaces around the city in the process of reading and redesigning these spaces, we had to imagine and create new kinds of spaces. As a result, virtual fieldtrips and virtual guest speakers came to life.  

Virtual fieldtrips had not been woven into our original vision or plan for this YPAR project and they were not something that we had previously used in any systematic way for teaching and learning in this course or the school. Virtual fieldtrips provided the experience of interacting with organizations, gaining insight about their visions, and provided information that drove many of the students’ research projects. The success of the fieldtrips and guest speakers was tied to the connections between the students’ projects and the community organizations.  

Members of many organizations, by committing to a virtual visit, documented an interest in young people’s lives and their projects. For several groups, the community connections and relationships that were fostered were critical to the ongoing development and success of students’ projects. In cases where students’ projects did not directly connect with a specific guest speaker or organization, the guest speakers and virtual field trips offered students a vision for ways to engage with the community and the world as activists, board members, artists, curators, educators, and more. It dramatically expanded our individual and collective knowledge of community members and organizations already working to address many of the issues that concern students.  

This collection of posts offers a glimpse into how we redesigned our school-based YPAR project for pandemic era schooling during the 2020-2021 academic year. The remote learning context for Cleveland’s public schools required our City is Our Campus team to bring community members, leaders, and organizations from the greater Cleveland community into the classroom via live video sessions. Over time, we found that pedagogical move helped the team to build a useful and meaningful space for 9th graders to ask questions and engage in critical conversations about topics and issues that young people had identified as important.  

Upon reflection, this simple move to invite guests and local organizations created a space for creation and innovation. Our YPAR Zoom room was a virtual, synchronous platform for YPAR facilitators and YPAR students to gather in the service of learning and development. In recognizing the range and variation of topics related to the 9th graders’ research topics, the opportunity to bring Cleveland area community members into the classroom with relative ease became an instrumental part of the process for pandemic era YPAR projects. The insight and knowledge shared by members of different Cleveland organizations co-created and constructed the young people’s participatory action research projects. There were three key affordances of this space for YPAR:  

  • In past years, given schedule constraints and the nature of group work, most students only connected with the community leader or organization tied to their project. In this Zoom-facilitated version, all students heard from every guest speaker. 
  • Given class schedules and classroom capacity, students would have been divided into four sections, with different YPAR facilitators and only a quarter of the grade in their class. The remote version was able to run as one live section with all 9th graders and all facilitators sharing the space and progressing through the project together. This allowed students to get to know more students in their grade and some more flexibility to find peers interested in a similar topic of interest. YPAR facilitators were able to co-teach the course. The shared space allowed YPAR teachers to share ideas, resources, materials, timelines, and more. Furthermore, instead of four distinct Google classrooms, there was one Google classroom for the whole grade.   
  • During the presentations and discussions, students were able to participate by speaking aloud to the group or writing into the chat. Given the class size of over 70 students, as well as the recognition that many people appreciate the opportunity to write something when it comes to mind or simply prefer to write, the chat was an active and dynamic space in Zoom.  

On May 7, 2021, students presented their research findings and the actions that would address their issue in the context of a synchronous virtual conference, hosted on Like the ways in which the virtual space of Zoom provided students with meaning making opportunities throughout the year, students exhibited their work and their findings in virtual space and place. 

Read the other posts in this collection to see three posts that highlight the virtual visits that supported pandemic era YPAR and two posts that highlight elements of the culminating virtual conference. Specifically, we highlight virtual visits with The Campus District, the Museum of Contemporary Art (moCa), and the Cleveland Print Room.  

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