The Activist Award Essay

Editor’s note: This is the final blog in a series about an English unit using activist memoirs to teach about social justice. Read the first, second and third blogs here.

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.


Gear Up for Mix with “Mixers”

One way to get into the Mix It Up spirit before Mix It Up at Lunch Day is with…mixers. Confused? Don’t be.

Teaching Tolerance offers dozens of free online resources to use in the classroom during the weeks before your Mix It Up event. We call them “mixers.” These lessons are available for all grade levels, and they cover a variety of subjects.

Mixers are a great way to help raise awareness about divisions and boundaries that might be present at your school. Check out these options.

It’s About Me: Students introduce themselves using a photo or object that is important to them. (Grades 1-12)

Human Scavenger Hunt: Students get to know each other while searching for their partners. (Grades PreK-5)

Fact or Fiction?: Students must guess whether statements about their group members are true or false. (Grades 6-12)

Use these mixers before the “official” Mix It Up at Lunch Day on Oct. 28 to deepen the impact of your event.

Catch up on more Mix 2014 info here!

Mix It Up Any Way You Can

Yes, it’s called Mix It Up at Lunch Day, but lunch means different things to different schools.

Some schools may have multiple lunch times starting as early as 10:30 a.m. Students in sunny states might eat outside and spread out across campus. Does your school even use the cafeteria? Or is your lunch break so short there’s barely time to eat, much less socialize?

Your school’s schedule may have you feeling like a lunchtime activity is too complicated. But with a little creativity from students, teachers and staff, you can make Mix It Up happen.

Last year, some schools began the day with Mix It Up advisory periods or pep rallies. Other schools kept the “Mix spirit” going throughout the day by exchanging teachers or students. Some even mixed up their P.E. and art classes!

Keep your plan flexible. Can’t do lunch? Do breakfast or an after-school meal. Can’t do Oct. 28? Pick another date that works. If you can’t turn Mix It Up at Lunch into one school-wide event, host multiple events throughout the school day or over a week. 

Remember: Flexibility and creativity are your friends. Don’t let “lunch” get in the way of your Mix It Up event. If you’ve found a solution to your “lunchtime” problem, share it with us on Facebook or Twitter so others can learn about innovative options for Mix It Up at Lunch!

Catch up on more Mix 2014 info here!

The Fall Issue Has Arrived!

Fall is upon us, and a new issue of Teaching Tolerance magazine is hot off the press and making its way into schools across the country.

Equity issues take center stage throughout our Fall issue. The cover story, “Lunch Lines,” explores how some school cafeteria policies can single out and stigmatize students from low-income families. “BYOD? [Bring Your Own Device]” examines how relying on students to provide their own digital learning devices can have unintended emotional and financial consequences. “404 Error: Teacher Not Found” delves into the world of online education—a field that provides options for some students but shortchanges others.

This issue also features a one-on-one interview with The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander, who discusses mass incarceration and why it’s important to teach about it.  

And—in case you haven’t heard—Teaching Tolerance just released a new anti-bias curriculum. The Fall issue includes a fun and colorful user guide that will walk you through Perspectives for a Diverse America. (It’s one of our favorite infographics ever!)

These feature stories just scratch the surface of this new issue. Our departments, including What We’re Reading, What We’re Watching and Ed Café, also provide resources and strategies you can use immediately.

Teaching Tolerance is published three times a year and distributed free of charge to educators nationwide. Subscribe today, and you can immediately download it on your iPad or read it online!

Avoid Disaster: Assign Seating in Middle School

First impressions mean a lot. As adults, we know it’s true. The same is true for students. That’s why I believe in assigned seats on the first day of school. 

Middle school students are fickle. They develop through various emotional and physical stages during early adolescence. The “freedom” to choose their own seats may seem like a privilege or a nice perk, but for some, it can be stressful and damaging. 

More popular students will rush to their seats with relative ease. They will then gather friends around them. This makes the seat-finding process look like it is going very well. 

“Sit by me! Sit by me!” you might hear. 

But for a handful, they are stuck. Do they dare sit next to a more outgoing student who is amassing a posse? Do they dare invade that space? Do they risk sitting in a less populated section—what if no one sits by them once they are seated? Timing is huge. Status is on the line. One wrong move and they could hear the dreaded, “This seat is saved” or “Not here!” Or even worse, they sit down and students move away to other available seats. 

Imagine this is your experience on the first day of school. To us adults, it may seem relatively harmless. To a 12-year-old, it’s devastating. It sets the tone: I’m an invader, an outsider, an unwanted tagalong. I don’t really have a place here. I don’t belong.  

Simple solution: Assign each seat a number before the school year starts. Tape the number on the corner of the desk. Hold a stack of the same numbers in your hand as kids arrive for class. Give each student a number and assure them they have a place, they belong, they matter. 

“It’s nice to meet you. You have seat #12. It has been waiting all summer for you.” (And if you didn’t assign seats when school started, it’s not too late to consider a new system.)

At the seat, if possible, have a few handouts in various colors: some procedures, a syllabus, a half sheet for reflecting or writing to the teacher, etc. A new pencil is a nice touch, too (just in case some students didn’t bring one). Regardless, it’s a kind gesture. 

Alleviate some of the stress of starting the school year by ensuring all students have a place of their own. If you’re noticing patterns of cliquing, unkind or distracting behavior, assigning seats is also a great way to hit the “reset button” any time during the year.

Donohue is a middle school English and social studies teacher in Monroe, Washington. He also teaches college courses in English, public speaking and education.

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