The "Through Students' Eyes" Project: Seeing Youths' Perspectives on School and Their Peers

Have you ever wondered why some youth get up and come to school every day? How do some diverse students excel in spite of an environment that doesn't value education? Are students aware of the things in their own lives that interfere with their success in school? As educators, teacher educators and activists, the directors of the "Through Students' Eyes" project are troubled by the fact that dropout (or push-out) rates average close to 60% annually in some of our nation's—and the world's—most diverse schools.

In an attempt to address this problem, the "Through Students' Eyes" project is guided by several core questions:

  • In communities around the world where youth either frequently drop out of school or are provided few opportunities to attend school, what does this most common of institutions mean?
  • What purposes do the youth in these communities see for school?
  • What supports and impedes their school attendance and achievement?
  • What role do their peer relationships play in the values for school that they enact?

The latest version of the "Through Students' Eyes" project is asking approximately 50 northern Virginia, Cleveland, Washington DC-area, and Sierra Leone high school and middle school students to consider these questions and answer them with photographs and text. We hope to offer these youths' perspectives to students, teachers, and teacher educators everywhere who are interested in increasing student achievement in urban centers. Using "photovoice" and visual sociology methods, TSE researches and documents diverse youths' and community members' perspectives on school—our nation's most important and unifying institution.

The project has already collaborated with nearly 400 city students, displayed their work at numerous regional and national exhibitions, published articles and catalogues of youths' images and reflections, and contributed to the dialogue about schools and their abilities to serve their most diverse and disenfranchised constituents. We are looking to these young adults themselves for points of view that will inform these adolescents and multiple other audiences—including future teachers—about their perspectives on school and the impact of their peer relationships on their schooling experiences. Via their photographs and reflections, these youth will literally show these audiences what school means to them.


Dr. Kristien Zenkov

Dr. Kristien Zenkov is a veteran city teacher, teacher educator, scholar, and activist. He is currently an associate professor of literacy education at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia and co-director of the "Through Students' Eyes" project. He earned his PhD in teacher education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and he's taught English, drama, and expressive arts at schools in Chicago, Seattle, and Cleveland. His teaching and research focus on the integration of social justice issues into teacher education and the use of visual sociology methods to allow city youth to document their perceptions of the purposes of school. He coordinates secondary Professional Development School (PDS) partnerships between George Mason and Virginia and Washington, DC schools and has published numerous articles and book chapters on urban teacher education and the integration of visual media into literacy practices. He is editor of "PDS Partners," the magazine of the National Association for Professional Development Schools (NAPDS).

Dr. Pamela Garner

Dr. Pamela Garner is an educator and psychologist interested in young children's school-related and behavioral outcomes. Her research agenda centers on investigating young children's social emotional skills and how these competencies influence children's long-term social and cognitive development. The majority of her research has centered on parental socialization practices. However, her current work considers the unique role that teachers play in providing children with the social and emotional skills that contribute to classroom cohesion and academic competence. She is committed to studying children experiencing serious social and economic disadvantage with the goal of expanding what is currently known about these children, particularly with regard to understanding the mechanisms that facilitate positive developmental outcomes for this population. She believes that this is especially important given that much of what has been written about children being reared in poverty has focused on risk rather than resilience.


Dr. Jim Harmon currently teaches English in the Euclid City School District in Euclid, Ohio and is the co-director of the "Through Students¹ Eyes" project. Having served as a city school teacher for twelve years, he was honored as an Apple Distinguished Educator. He received his BFA in Photojournalism from Rochester Institute of Technology and his MEd in Educational Technology from Cleveland State University. He has taught English, computers, and video production classes throughout Northeast Ohio. Harmon is an adjunct teacher educator at Baldwin-Wallace College and Cleveland State University, where he was recognized as the 2008 Distinguished Alumnus.


Marriam Ewaida

Marriam Ewaida is currently working as an eighth grade English and ESL teacher in Manassas, Virginia. She has been teaching for the last five years. Marriam has a BA in English Literature and a B.ED in English and ESL from The University of British Columbia in Canada. She recently completed her Masters in Curriculum and Instruction- Literacy from George Mason University. Marriam has worked on Through Students' Eyes with a group of ESL middle school students this past year and is extremely interested in continuing her work on this project.


Laura Horvath

Laura Horvath is a George Mason University Facilitator for the Secondary Professional Development School at South Lakes High School in Reston Virginia. She is also the Chair of the Education Committee for the Child Rescue Centre, an orphanage in Bo, Sierra Leone that provides care for 70 children orphaned by that country's civil war. Laura's committee organizes a summer school for the committee each year; taking a team of US teachers to Bo to help the CRC orphans brush up on their math and English skills.


Dr. Paul C. Gorski

Dr. Paul C. Gorski is an assistant professor in New Century College, George Mason University. He received his B.A. (1994), M.A.Ed. (1995), and Ph.D. (1998) from the University of Virginia, and is darn close to completing an M.F.A. in creative writing at Hamline University. Gorski's work and passion is social justice activism. His areas of scholarly focus include anti-poverty activism and education, critical race theory and anti-racism education, and critical theories pertaining to women's rights, LGBT rights, labor rights, immigrant rights, and anti-imperialism. Gorski is an active consultant and speaker, working with community and educational organizations around the world—such as in Colombia, Australia, India, and Mexico—on equity and social justice concerns. He founded EdChange, a coalition of educators and activists who develop free social justice resources for educators and activists. Gorski served for nine years on the board of directors of the National Association for Multicultural Education (NAME) and currently serves on the board of directors of the International Association for Intercultural Education. He is Associate Editor, Technology, for NAME's journal, Multicultural Perspectives, and Associate Editor, Multicultural Literature and Reviews, for Multicultural Education and serves on the editorial boards of Praxis, The International Journal of Multicultural Education, and several other publications. Gorski has published three books and more than thirty articles on topics ranging from digital equity to critical anti-poverty education. He lives in Fairfax, Virginia, with his cats, Unity and Buster.

Dr. Jody McCabe has been an educator in Fairfax County for 13 years. She currently teaches English and Film Studies at Robinson Secondary. She received her MEd from George Mason University. In addition to teaching high school, Jody has served as an adjunct to George Mason in the College of Education and Human Development. She has taught a graduate methods course for future English teachers. Jody is also a member of the NVWP (Northern Virginia Writing Project) and as a teacher consultant has presented throughout various school districts on topics such as voice, annotations, and poetry. She has participated in workshops with published poets Eric Pankey and Pulitzer Prize winner Henry Taylor.