West Linn High School teen-led lessons bring new learning
Friday, May 24 was no ordinary day for the West Linn High School students who stood at the front of the classroom for a change.
Several students opted to be the teachers during the third annual Unity Day — a day where students lead workshops on a subject of their choosing.
"To me, the power of Unity Day is that it is a day of serious learning driven by students," said Alex Close, English teacher and Unity Day adviser. "Too often, despite being important and necessary, subject matter is not immediately relevant to high school students. But on Unity Day they take a subject they feel is important or relevant and we help them to turn it into legitimate curriculum they can teach."
This year, there were more than 50 workshops that covered topics including the dangers of plastics, sexual assault and consent, anti-Semitism and mental health. But there were also lighthearted topics like spikeball, hacky sack and robotics.
"It's just a really cool event because it allows student interest to shine through in a legitimate way," Close said. "I mean, in what other high school can you take a workshop about Basque dance from someone who knows what they're doing?"
Three years ago, West Linn United — a club focused on fostering a more equal, inclusive school culture and community — pushed for Unity Day. What began as workshops that took place during English class periods quickly expanded into an entire day of student-led lessons last year, when student participation sky-rocketed to nearly 70 workshops.
Last year, senior Ryan Gowdy led a workshop with his friend Abdul Ali on how people living in privileged communities can help minorities. This year, he wanted to lead a workshop that was a little less intense so he decided to lead a workshop with senior Jack Medlin focusing on the interpretation of rap music, primarily Young Thug.
"He's very overlooked and I think it's interesting what he's doing with his career," Gowdy said. "He's breaking gender societal norms. He wears dresses all the time and wears whatever he wants."
Toward the end of his workshop, Gowdy let students choose other songs to interpret.
"I want people to be more critical about what they're listening to," he said. "One song can sound different than what it actually means."
Seniors Aubrey Wagy and Liv Roane led a workshop on calligraphy and the power of positive words.
"We learn about how important and how impactful our words are," said Wagy, who led a similar workshop last year.
Wagy is self-taught and uses calligraphy as an artistic outlet. Students watched videos on the history of calligraphy and she talked about what happens in the brain when people use positive words. Students each wrote down a positive word or phrase and at the end of the class, the artwork was collected and displayed on an empty wall in the high school.
Juniors Bella Royer and Audrey Lipsey also led a workshop last year, and decided to lead one on a similar topic again this year.
Last year their workshop focused on sexual assault and consent, but this year they tweaked it to address healthy relationships and consent. They talked about how sexual assault and harassment can occur in familial settings and relationships.
"I felt like it went awesome (last year). That's the reason I'm doing it again this year," Royer said, adding that several of her students reported incidents of sexual assault and harassment to counselors and police after their workshop last year.
Both Royer and Lipsey have had experiences where they felt their consent was violated and they wanted other students to know how to speak up and report an incident.
"It opened my eyes to how many people experience similar experiences to what I experienced," Royer said. "It's important to know you aren't guilty and to know you haven't done anything wrong."
This year's Unity Day culminated with a staff and student soccer game that acted as a fundraiser for the Oregon Food Bank.
"There are so many different workshops that show what people are passionate about and what they love," Wagy said. "To get that opportunity to share with others, is something that's super special at West Linn."
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