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Social Movements Meet Family Dynamics

CAS history prof finds his daughter is his best research partner

Jeff Rubin, a CAS associate professor of history, and his daughter, Emma Sokoloff-Rubin, have developed a secondary school curriculum about social movements in Brazil. Photo by Fred Sway

Three years after traveling to Brazil to learn the stories of the rural women’s movement there, historian Jeffrey Rubin and his daughter, Emma Sokoloff-Rubin, are sharing those stories — and their own — with students across the United States.

Rubin, a College of Arts and Sciences associate professor of history and a research associate at the Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs, found an unexpected professional collaborator in his teenage daughter during a Fulbright-sponsored research trip to Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 2001. While Rubin was studying social movements and the emergence of Brazilian democracy, Emma became fascinated by rural women’s fight for basic rights, such as owning a birth certificate. When the two returned to Brazil in 2004 to focus their research on the Movement of Rural Women Workers, they found that their relationship not only made their research more enjoyable, but opened new doors to their subjects’ lives.

“People ask how being a father-daughter team influences our work,” says Emma, who found that their family relationship made their subjects more willing to talk about their own families. “I think it gives us access, and brings on trust because people could see us interacting.”

Now, being a father-daughter team is giving them a new kind of access: to middle schools and colleges across the country. Emma, a high school senior, has spent the past two years developing a social-movements curriculum based on the research she and her father did in Brazil. In October, they met with Teach for America teachers in Miami, and tomorrow, March 10, they’ll lead a daylong workshop for Boston-area teachers at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard.

The project — which has occupied most of her last year of high school — has given Emma a better understanding of teaching and Rubin a more solid grounding in making his academic research accessible to people outside of the Latin American studies field. It has also had an unexpected effect on the students they’ve encountered along the way, Rubin says. After meeting with him and Emma, students stop thinking of research as something conducted through books and start thinking of it in terms of people and experiences garnered around the world.

“Seeing Emma really makes a difference to students — it shakes them up, inspires them,” says Rubin. “It says that this is really something young people can do.”

Rubin and Emma returned from Brazil in 2004 with journals, photos, and more than 20 hours of videotaped meetings, rallies, and interviews and spent a year editing, transcribing, and narrowing their focus to five women in the movement. When they were finished, their work was put to the test when they presented the curriculum in Rubin’s Modern Latin American History and Social Movements in Latin America classes and at Emma’s school, the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Academy in South Hadley, Mass. Both father and daughter were nervous about the student response, wondering if the excitement they felt about the project would come through in the classroom. But students were fascinated by the stories of a modern-day workers’ movement and equally interested in the family’s unorthodox research process. As the curriculum developed, Rubin and Emma found themselves answering as many questions about their procedures as about Brazil.

“In class, I was explaining that when we were in Brazil, I was listening to what people were saying in meetings, and Emma was looking at who was positioned where in the room,” Rubin says. “A student shouted out, ‘That’s because you’re a guy and she’s a girl!’ People were surprised, but I think it’s an example of people being more engaged than they would otherwise be.”

The project has continued to take off since those early days in front of Rubin’s BU classes. In her junior year, Emma taught a class for middle school students at Pioneer Valley, and the two have team-taught other classes at BU and at Pomona College in California. The curriculum has been expanded to four units, to include the landless workers’ movement and the rise of Afro-Reggae music, and is now promoted to teachers as a stand-alone lesson series, complete with handouts, teaching recommendations, and DVDs of the interviews. “The idea is that if you’re interested, everything you need is here,” says Rubin. “You can leave with everything you need to teach this in your classroom.”

Emma will head off to college — Harvard or Yale — next fall, but she and her father aren’t slowing down. This month, after the workshop at Harvard, they’ll lead another workshop for teachers, held at Duke and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and then present the curriculum at the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association. Next winter, they hope to visit NYU, Columbia, and the University of California, San Diego. They’re also considering new ways of packaging the curriculum into smaller sections, which would make it easier for secondary schools focused on standards-based testing to adopt part of the research for their own lessons.

Eventually, they plan to return to Brazil and visit the people who have inadvertently shaped the direction of their lives.

“The project has really formed my high school experience,” Emma says. “It’s so exciting to do something that feels very real.”

“It feels like we’re able to put into reality what people say about bringing globalization into the classroom,” adds her father. “It would be great to reconnect to the women who have informed how I see the world.”

Jessica Ullian can be reached at jullian@bu.edu.