My students and I had read activist memoirs and studied injustice and means of fighting it. We’d also written about how activists use their strengths to promote justice and discussed how to overcome internal barriers to acting on our values. Now that we’d come to the end of our unit on activism, I wanted to design a writing assignment that would allow students to connect their experiences to their activists.
As luck would have it, a lesson about Bayard Rustin in my Teaching Tolerance feed suggested that students create an award to recognize “students who embody the qualities that made Bayard Rustin such an important activist.” This gave me the idea to have my students write essays in which they would invent fictional awards named after their activists, awards they could imagine being given every year to a student at our school: for example, “The Irene Gut Opdyke Award” for ___ or “The Will Allen Award” for ___.
To brainstorm possible criteria for awards named after their activists, the students went through their notes and made lists: injustices a winner of this award might have stood up to, actions a winner of this award might have taken, strengths a winner of this award might show and ways a winner of this award might have overcome barriers to action. From these lists, each student selected a few criteria for the award and used examples from their activists’ lives to explain these criteria in their essays.
For example, one student’s “William Kamkwamba Award” was for using one’s love of learning in a way that benefits the community. She wrote about how Kamkwamba taught himself about electricity and engineering so he could build a windmill that would power his family’s farm. Another student’s “William Kamkwamba Award” was for taking action against injustice in spite of peer pressure, and he described how Kamkwamba endured name-calling and teasing as he worked.
The harder part of the assignment was nominating a fellow student to win the fictional award. I asked the students to find someone enrolled at our school so they couldn’t avoid the opportunity to notice the “activist potential” in their classmates. That potential might have manifested as taking small but significant actions against injustices such as online bullying or teachers’ misuse of power, or it might have meant showing character strengths like kindness, creativity and prudence that could one day be used to combat injustice.
I then asked students to share their concerns and suggestions. Many said they felt awkward writing about a classmate or worried their friends might feel bad for not getting nominated. They suggested keeping their nominees private or deliberately nominating a student who wasn’t a friend. Another common worry was that they wouldn’t be able to find anyone to nominate. Some asked if they could change their criteria, saying things like, “I don’t think there’s anyone here who designed a creative alternative to an unjust system like Will Allen did.” I reminded them that people like Will Allen who write memoirs have “big” actions to write about, but that smaller acts count, too. In fact, part of the point of this project is to appreciate these small yet significant acts. I encouraged the students to look for people and actions they hadn’t noticed before.
Many students ended up writing about their friends, but many didn’t. One boy, a popular athlete, nominated for his “William Kamkwamba Award” a less popular boy who’d pursued his music in spite of being teased. A girl nominated for her “Irene Gut Opdyke Award” a sixth-grader who’d overcome her fears to star in the school play. Some students appeared in multiple essays, like the boy who started a club to educate his peers about racial injustices and the girl who created a survey to convince school leaders that a daily snack would help improve students’ focus in class.
An assignment like this could be used in classes besides English, too. Students could learn about human rights activists in history or civics. In science, they could study advocates of justice for health care or the environment, and in the arts, they could read about artist-activists. Even a short article about an activist could give students a sense of how the course’s content intersects with social justice and how practitioners of the disciplines they’re studying use their work to effect change. From there, students could choose award criteria, nominate a classmate and write an essay that demonstrates their understanding of the subject and helps them notice and appreciate their classmates.
As I continue to teach this unit, I want my seventh-graders to use their assignments as opportunities to discover within themselves and each other the potential to be citizens, leaders and activists in their communities. I want them to be more than readers and writers of texts; I want them to be readers and writers of their own lives.
Porosoff is a seventh-grade English teacher, curriculum design consultant and author of Curriculum at Your Core: Meaningful Teaching in the Age of Standards.
- The Place for Activism in English Class
- Bayard Rustin: The Fight for Civil and Gay Rights
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- Toolkit for The Day I Swam Into a New World
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- 2016 Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching
- Its Seat Is In the Heart
- Building School Culture Where All Kids Feel Special
- Reading and Writing to Learn About Activism
- What We’re Reading