Francis W. Parker School Fourth Graders Recognized by Harvard Graduate School of Education

Students at Francis W. Parker School learned lessons about the environment and indigenous rights through a social justice lens.

The mission of Francis W. Parker School, an independent PreK-12 school in Chicago, goes well beyond teaching children your basic subjects — the school prepares its students to ultimately become responsible citizens.

That mission is on full display with Parker’s Integrated Learning and Information Science (ILIS) collaborative projects that blend traditional library-based learning with research and information science. These projects allow students to engage in experiences that encourage creativity, collaboration and adaptability. 

This past summer, fourth grade students were highlighted by Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero Classroom conference for their work in a months-long study about social justice movements of Native and Indigenous Peoples.

During the 2022–23 school year, those fourth grade students engaged in critical thinking practices following the JusticeXDesign framework, which encourages students to critically analyze systems of justice and injustice.

“It’s all about looking at human-created systems,” explains Mary Catherine Coleman, Lower and Intermediate School Library and Information Services Specialist. “Humans created the systems, but it’s still a system, and when you identify the system, you can identify an opportunity for change. We wanted to get the students engaged in activities like these so they can start to see opportunities to make meaningful change from a young age.”

About their project

The students chose to look at the environmental and Native Tribes and Indigenous Peoples’ protest at the Standing Rock camp in South Dakota, the largest gathering of Indigenous Peoples from around the world protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016.

The project focused on the imagery of the Standing Rock protest, including photographs from the protest itself, as well as a deeper dive into the protest signs and messages being represented in them. 

By studying these images, students began to understand the message that the Lakota and Dakota Sioux were trying to get across regarding land rights, treaties, environmental protection and the larger world as a whole, Coleman explains.

Photo credit: Francis W. Parker School

“When students learn about Native American history, they don’t typically look at the contemporary American Indian,” Educational Technology Integration Specialist for Grades JK-5 Sarah Beebe points out. “They have the mindset of teepees and buffaloes at that age — it’s very disconnected from what contemporary American Indians experience and the civil rights struggles they face. We wanted to find a way to make that connection and the contemporary nature of it.”

The protest drove home the ILIS curriculum because it helped show those fourth grade students what messages the American Indians were trying to send regarding the system of injustice they were facing, as well as the impact of those messages.

“They were fascinated by the length of time of the 10-month protest — they were surprised to learn protestors were living there the whole time, that they set up a whole community there including a school and a post office,” Beebe says. “The students were surprised to learn how the protestors really created a protest with their bodies by building an entire community. It seemed to be an eye-opening thing for them that protesting is not just people marching with a sign.”

But it was the result of the protest that surprised them most.

“The students were shocked to learn that the efforts didn’t stop the pipeline,” Coleman said. “When you’re trying to create change and make an impact, you don’t always have the result you want right away. It helped connect this thread of decades- and centuries-long civil rights and social justice moments for them that everything doesn’t just get fixed — the fight is ongoing. Them grasping that and understanding that was interesting to see.”

Displaying what they learned

Project Zero required the students to create a physical artifact or visual display as part of the challenge that the students could then display to share their findings with their peers. Students were drawn to the Mile Marker sign created at the protest camp that is now on display at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. and chose to make their own.

Photo credit: Francis W. Parker School

Using a laser cutter, students etched their own words or images into signs to place on their own Mile Marker that is now on display at the Kovler Family Library in the school so others can learn from this project.

Both Coleman and Beebe hope what their students take away from this project is that it takes a community and, sometimes, a lot of time to bring about change to systems of injustice.

“This project all ties back into Parker’s mission of creating responsible citizens,” Coleman says. “We’re building that foundation here of understanding complex systems for when they do move out into the world so that they can take these ideas and lessons with them and hopefully use what power they do have to bring about change and to be advocates for a better world.”

This five-week project is just one of the many ILIS projects completed each year by students at Francis W. Parker School. 

To learn more about Parker and the ILIS curriculum, visit online at


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