Middle School Civics, Jed Bloom, and Johana Rivera

8th Grader Johana Rivera speaking at a hearing for public comment on the use of a wall on Portland’s East End Wastewater Treatment Facility for graffiti art.

In order that [people] may be prepared for self-government their apprenticeship must commence in childhood.  The great moral attribute of self-government cannot be born and matured in a day; and if school children are not trained to it, we only prepare ourselves for disappointment. - Horace Mann, 1845.


How do citizens make a change in their community and the world? How does an idea become a law? How do social movements work? These are the big questions many of us are thinking about in 2017. The 7th and 8th graders at Breakwater are exploring these questions in our integrated Civics Unit. We started the unit by having eight guest speakers from across the civic spectrum: lobbyists, representatives, party leaders, justices, and a mayor, republicans, democrats, and libertarians. 

Students were able to learn about how an idea becomes a law and how the branches and levels of government work together to create the laws of our land. 

We explored social movements through the lens of protest music. Students listened and analyzed songs from the 1940’s to 2017. Songs from diverse artists like Nina Simone, Kendrick Lamar, Against Me!, Rage Against the Machine, Bob Dylan, and Ani DiFranco. Students used the songs to think about how social movements are started and sustained. 

Next students looked at authentic legislation being discussed in Portland, Augusta, and Washington D.C., and chose a bill that they are interested in studying in depth. Students read articles, email experts, and gain deep knowledge of the issue and bill through thorough investigation. They will choose a side - either in support of the bill, or against it, or a “third way”. What compromises, solutions, or new initiatives could be applied?  

Students then advocate for their side by writing letters, placing phone calls, making posters, and creating video. Students may choose to continue to advocate for their cause by attending public hearings, committee meetings, or marches. Already one student spoke at a public hearing about the “legal” street art wall near the Eastern Prom. Students are engaged in real world issues and real world problem solving. They are doing authentic research and learning. And by using the design/writing process they are creating real work to make a difference in their community, state, and country. So as we continue to write our American story, know that Breakwater’s 7th and 8th grade students are gaining the skills and passions to fully engage the democratic process - and be the change they want to see!

 - Jed Bloom, 7/8 Grade Teacher, Breakwater School

Johana Rivera Speaks Up

Last month, the trustees of the Portland Water District held a hearing for public comment about whether the district should continue to allow artists to use a wall on Portland’s East End Wastewater Treatment Facility for graffiti art. The wall is designated a legal space for artists to paint without being arrested. The hearing was in response to a request made by a Portland resident that artists be banned from using the wall for graffiti art.

Breakwater 8th grader Johana Rivera attended the hearing and spoke against ban. Here are the reasons:

Q. What is the issue?

Johana: Last month, the district’s board of trustees held a brief workshop to consider a request from a resident in Portland who has asked that the trustees and Portland Water District to ban artists from painting the legal graffiti wall at the East End sewage plant.  This wall is a space for artist to paint on without being arrested.

Q. Why is it important to the community?

Johana: I think that this issue is important to not just one community, but several. The legal wall is a space where many different people go to create art, and without it, there is no space in Portland where that can happen. It is a beautiful place, even though there have been many controversial things happening around it. The legal wall has many beautiful pieces painted on it daily and allows artists of all kind a place to share their art, without having to worry about consequences. Overall, it creates a safe space, and keeps what many people say is “graffiti problem” in Portland, less of a problem. 

Q. Why is it personally important to you?

Johana: I have been studying street art for my Capstone* for about 3 months. I have learned a lot about how people use it for self expression and many other things. I have also met many wonderful people because of my Capstone. I know many people that use the legal wall. It is a space where they go often, and a place that they are very fond of. I hope that later on as I explore graffiti and street art more, I will be able to use the legal wall myself.

Q. What are you doing about it?

Johana: I attended the public hearing that the City of Portland held, and was given the chance to testify. I talked about why the legal wall should be kept, how it helps people, and why logically it makes sense to have it, as well as the emotional connection many artist have to it.  

Q. How did you know how to get involved?

Johana: My teacher Jed Bloom shared an article released in the Portland Press Herald about the issue. He asked me if I was interested in attending the hearing for the sake of both my Capstone project and our Civics Unit. I was able to attend the hearing, and share my thoughts on the matter. 

Q. How does your current 7/8 civics unit relate to this experience? 

Johana: We have talked about how a bill becomes a law, and we have had many important local figures come in and talk to us about what we, as members of the community can do to create the city we want to see. Because of this unit, I was able to have a better understanding about how the situation worked, and how my participation would be helpful. 

Q. What information in your current 7/8 studies do you find most inspiring or interesting or concerning?

Johana: I think that the most inspiring information I’ve learned, is how much of an impact everyone on the community can have in important matters.

* As part of their eighth grade year, Breakwater middle schoolers complete a Capstone Project, which requires them to pick a subject of interest, investigate that subject in depth, complete a research paper, make an oral presentation, and create a gift to their community around that subject.