Youth and Philanthrophy Initiative: Senior Project A better world project

“We showed that the youth has a strong voice and potential for influence in our community. As seniors, we served as role models for those younger students in the crowd who were watching us. They will soon be in our shoes and will have to continue the social justice work we began. We are carving the path that they will take to become active and responsible citizens of the world." -Ahlenne
"The first step to fixing a problem is acknowledging that there is one. I believe that’s exactly what our WHEELS community did with this project. This was our way of fighting back and voicing as a young generation for change." -Denisse
"It’s important for the youth to take action because it opens people’s eyes about the world we are living in. The most important thing I would take from the Better World Project is the knowledge that it only takes one person to start something meaningful.” -Frances


Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS), an NYC Outward Bound School and partner with EL Education, is a prek-12th grade public school serving Upper Manhattan and the Bronx. Nested in a diverse urban environment, issues of race, poverty, and social inequality are pervasive.

As a capstone to the senior year, students at WHEELS engaged in a participatory action project to raise awareness about issues that matter. Through a process of research, fieldwork, documentary-making, and persuasive presentation, students helped direct $2,500 worth of grant money to local community-based organizations (CBOs) that work to solve important social issues such as mass incarceration, gender inequity, domestic abuse, and immigration status. Students explored concepts of philanthropy and service, thinking about what individuals can do to enrich a community and the power of collective action.

Using interview and documentary-making techniques learned in class, students visited local non-profits, met with clients and experts in the field, and captured first-hand how social issues are impacting our local community. Teams of seniors visited nineteen different organizations around Washington Heights and New York City and brought their learning back to the classroom.

Crafting documentary-style videos and public presentations, students educated their peers, raised awareness for their chosen social issue, and advocated for change.

Twenty teams presented their work to the community, competing for a chance to present on Better World Day and award a $2,500 grant to their partner organization.

On Better World Day, three student teams shared their work for hundreds of community stakeholders. One organization, deemed most deserving by the students, benefited from a monetary grant to support their continuing work in our community. By educating others about the social issues that affect the local community and increasing exposure for the great work that so many organizations are already doing, students at WHEELS are working to make the world a better place.


"Trusting students with real-world problems, asking them to find real solutions, and collaborating with our community to collectively take action has transformed my classroom. For me this is what learning can be about--using knowledge and skills to ignite passions and make the world a better place." -Anthony Voulgarides, 12th Grade English Teacher

At WHEELS we believe that engaging with the local community, taking on issues that are critically important to students, and designing relevant learning experiences drive student achievement. School can and should be a place where people come together to do good.

Taking place primarily in the our Senior English class, "The Power of Language," our Better World Project showcases how skills like research, rhetorical analysis, and argument can come together to empower individuals and communities.

As freshmen, students participate in the Youth and Philanthropy Initiative (YPI), an project that trusts students to direct grant money to local organizations. Over six years, WHEELS students have collectively infused $30,000 into organizations around our local community. Our Better World Project is an extension of work students began in ninth grade.

With the knowledge and skills, culture of collaboration, and acumen for high quality work seniors had gained over their time at WHEELS, revisiting the project as seniors seemed like a natural capstone. Students engaged in a more robust level of research, learned documentary-making skills, and had the opportunity to intern with their partner organizations.

With the help of the Better World Project initiative, seniors were able to give back to their community, explore topics that may pique their interest before embarking for college, and leave legacy of service for generations of WHEELS students to come.

"YPI was transformative for my classroom and teaching. Students would talk about the project years after it was over and would form relationships that would last beyond the scope of the project. My goal was to tap into that same passion and energy, but take it to the next level.” -Anthony Voulgarides, 12th Grade English teacher

Mastery of Skills and Content

Empowering students to engage in real world work requires rigorous development of academic knowledge and skills, especially when it will impact the lives of citizens. Students must be knowledgeable, compassionate, creative, professional, and bold if they are to create meaningful change. Therefore, teachers must carefully design academic experiences to lead students toward mastery.

PHASE 1: Building Background Knowledge and Research

We began by building background knowledge and exploring issues that affect our local community -- issues like mass incarceration, domestic violence, homelessness, gender inequity, youth development, immigration status, and access to healthy food.

Through a series of structured discussions, we tapped into the collective experience of our student body to uncover the most pressing issues that face our local community. Students began to make connections and share common experiences.

Next, we explored the social service sector, looking at how 501c3 organizations fundraise, budget their money, and support the community through a focused mission and set of services.

In heterogeneous groups, students researched local organizations that work across a range of social issues. To showcase their work, students created posters about more than 30 different local organizations across Washington Heights and New York City.

Using a gallery walk protocol, students learned about the organizations that are helping support our community, as well as the similarities they share.

The gallery walk was the first opportunity to present their learning clearly, and captivate an audience's attention. It was also an opportunity for students to explore which organizations they would like to partner with for the next phase of the project.

Students formed teams of three or four around common interests, and began a more in depth research process: creating research proposals, developing research questions, writing working thesis statements, and eventually developing annotated bibliographies that would inform a final presentation of learning. Students conducted research using academic journals, books, websites, and documentaries to learn in depth about their chosen research question.

Phase II: Fieldwork and Experts

“The most memorable moment of my project was going out to visit the people behind all that hard work. The founder of New Alternatives spoke about how she went to Washington D.C. and protested to bring more hours of shelter to her clients. My eyes never left her gaze - she cared so much to bring good to other people. I felt the motivation she spoke of in me, and that made me more interested in my project than I already was.” -Nelly
“On our visit to WeAct, we met Genesis, a Latina woman not much older than ourselves. I was so nervous that the only thing I keep thinking about was how hot the room was. After a while, things started to cool and I started to get comfortable with everyone around us; It was almost as if I were at home.” - Emelis
"The day of our visit to DWDC, I woke up very early because I was very excited and nervous about our visit. I wondered, “How was this place? Will the people there welcome us?" When we got there I felt a good energy, and the staff was wonderful." -Michael

After learning about their chosen social issue through more traditional methods, student teams were ready to contact their organizations to set up a site visit. Using standards of professional communication from the real world, students prepared scripts, rehearsed, and contacted each organization through email, phone calls, and/or voicemails.

A site visit would afford students an important opportunity to learn first hand from experts, meet and interact with clients in the field, and capture the necessary footage to educate their peers and advocate for their chosen topic. To prepare, students created interview scripts to ensure they captured essential information on the visit.

Training with Expert Video Artists

As site visits were arranged for outside the classroom, inside the classroom students trained with expert video artists about how to document their visit: setting up an interview, writing informed and open-ended interview questions, and capturing B-roll footage. Already adept at using smartphone videography, students were able to quickly enhance their skills with the support of experts. With the help of smart-phone tripods, students became amateur filmmakers ready to capture their visits.


Using their research, fieldwork, and newfound expertise about their topic, student teams crafted ten-minute presentations designed to educate the community about a social issue and advocate for their chosen organization.

Students created scripts, virtual presentations, and documentary media to showcase their learning. Bringing it all together to emulate standards of the professional world took hours of revision, critique, and rehearsal. With an authentic audience and purpose, students were compelled to put in the extra hours to create a high quality product that could make a difference.


Team "Empowering the Powerless" representing Alliance of Families for Justice

Team "Guardians for Gender Equity" representing Girls for Gender Equity

Team "Unmute Us" representing VIP Mujeres

Phase IV: Presenting on better world day

After weeks of research and fieldwork, students were prepared to present their learning. One team with the most compelling presentation would have the opportunity to direct a $2,500 grant to their organization on behalf of the WHEELS community.

Along with the logical appeals of their research, student teams were encouraged to be creative, adding elements such as spoken word poetry, original video content, and skits to engage their audience.

To narrow the field, students would first compete in a semi-final round at the classroom level. Using a rubric, students rated each presentation based off a set of specified criteria to help select three top presentations to present at a final event for the larger community.

On May 4th, Better World Day, three top student teams squared off with the mission to educate the community and advocate for collective action.

Audience members included 6-12 grade students, members from each community-based organization represented, parents, staff, and other community stakeholders. A panel of 6-11th grade students would score each presentation, deliberate and come to consensus, and determine the most compelling presentation.

“I loved that people could see my passion through my actions and the projection of my voice. Everyone’s eyes were focused on me, my voice, and my actions. I could tell that everyone was captivated by the poem and it really landed for some.” - Ahlenne
"As my video is about to end, I smile because I felt so accomplished. We became a voice for those who couldn’t speak. As I’m beginning to finish my last sentence, I look down at Soffiyah Elijah, the founder of Alliance of Families for Justice, and she nods, as if the mission her organization was well-executed by my presentation.” - Magie
“As the interview video keeps on playing, I see her [mom], sitting just staring at the screen. She doesn’t know I am looking at her, but I am. I see her eyes, those light brown eyes I have seen almost every day, but this time they seem like a stream.” -Priscila
"As I sit in the audience speculating the presentation of the Better World project, I look over at the middle-school community and can not help but feel overwhelmed as I recognize how intrigued they are. I begin to consider the influence this presentation has upon them and contemplate how this very moment might initiate determination, dedication, and innovation in every child and adult within the premises." -Giselle

Cultivating Character through Community Participation

The power of this project rests in the authenticity of the product: students are working to create a presentation that will raise awareness, call for action, and direct grant money to a deserving CBO. Beyond the power of the task, students engage deeply with their local community -- meeting with groups that are often marginalized in our society.

By seeing how the social service sector operates, students are empowered through understanding: Understanding how the system works, understanding how human each of these problems can be, and understanding how people can make a difference through investment of time, money, and political action.

At the conclusion of the project, students engaged in a final debrief to reflect upon our essential questions: What social issues affect our local community? How are social issues interrelated? How are communities coming together to help solve social issues? What can I do to take action for issues I believe in?

A final debrief would afford students an opportunity to synthesize their learning and lift out formative experiences from the project.

"Bringing people together to effect change, turning concern into organized action, and identifying those with a stake in the issues helps the community build will and capacity for change." -Charlize
“Students have an opportunity to help these organizations and make a difference. The impact the project had on me was that it made me want to be involved in issues that are affecting my community.” -Joan
“Learning more about the issues in our society helps us realize that change needs to occur and that the change must start with us. We need to follow Mahatma Gandhi’s wise words, “Be the change you want to see in the world." -Dannibel


Following Better World Day, our project was featured as the cover story in the Manhattan Times, a bilingual newspaper in Uptown Manhattan and the Bronx.

Two students, Hamlet Fernandez and Ahlenne Abreu, featured their voices on EdWeek's Learning Deeply Blog.

Leading up to Better World Day, our project helped to launch the national initiative across the EL Education network.


Trusting students with real-world problems, asking them to find real solutions, and collaborating with our community to collectively take action has transformed the classroom.

As educators, we have a responsibility and the privilege to tap into that passion, engage students with texts and topics that matter, and provide opportunities for students to create authentic work that goes beyond an audience of one. This is what learning can be about--using knowledge and skills to ignite passions and make the world a better place.

With our Better World Project, we believe we've only scratched the surface of what is possible, and are eager to grow our work. We are interested in Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR), Social Justice Youth Development (SJYD), Project-based Learning, and other methodologies that help cultivate advocacy and engage students real-world learning.

If you are compelled by this work, have questions or comments, or would like to collaborate in any way please reach out to Anthony Voulgarides at a.voulgarides@wheelsnyc.org.

Special thanks...

Thank you to each community-based organization that took their valuable time, energy, and expertise to collaborate with our students for the Better World Project: Violence Intervention Program (VIP) Mujeres, Girls for Gender Equity, Alliance of Families for Justice, ACBX Capoeira, BioBus, WeAct for Environmental Justice, Word Up Community Bookshop, Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, Everytown for Gun Safety, Washington Heights Corner Project, Bronx River Alliance, South Bronx United, Alianza Domincana, Dominican Women's Development Center (DWDC), Uptown Stories, Safe Passage Project, New Alternatives, Riverside Hawks, and Sanctuary for Families.

Thank you to the WHEELS Documentary Crew, a group of seniors who trained extra hours with experts learning fundamentals of photography, production, and post production to help capture this project for a national audience.

Thank you to Rosa Gaia and Jeremiah Jones, video artists and class experts, for your dynamic trainings and continued support throughout the project.

Thank you to our WHEELS community, especially teachers across Team 12 for your patience, support, and collaboration. Special thanks to Keith Lau for your expert photography and Kerry MacNeil for your ongoing mentorship and inspiration. Finally thanks to Tom Rochowicz, principal, for your trust in this work and for your ongoing support.

"For young people to acknowledge things that go on in our daily lives - such as violence or mass incarceration - allows us to better connect to our community. These are the things people experience every day. This project captures the essence of trying to have change and peace; along with protesting or boycotting, this is just another way we can see changes, even if they are small." -Denisse
“It's important for the youth to engage in this type of work because we need the youth in order to bring about change.” -Nelly
"We are going to be the future on day and need to know the problems happening in our communities, and how we can help. It wasn't about winning the money, but instead more about being part of a movement to help to solve the issues instead of sitting around and letting issues unravel like we usually do." -Joan
"Events like our assembly on Friday matter because they remind us how many organizations are out there working, trying to make change in our world. It reminds us that everyone should feel supported. We need places to support us, and we need to support each other. We need to come together more." -Anthony
“I learned about caring for my community, being involved, and the importance of work coming from the youth. This is an experience I will forever cherish.” - Darianny

Special thanks to the WHEELS Class of 2018, for your passion, energy, and continued inspiration. You make the world a better place.

Created By
Anthony Voulgarides


WHEELS Documentary Crew

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