Reading and Writing to Learn About Activism

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

I’m a middle school English teacher, but I’m also a social justice educator, and I’ve spent some time contemplating how to merge the two. This goal has led me to seek out pieces of writing not just about activists but by activists. After a thorough selection process, I chose five activist memoirs to set the stage for exploration and discussions about motives, sacrifices and rewards of taking social action.

Equipped with the five memoirs, I needed to figure out how to show my students that “activists” aren’t only people born with the charisma and passion to effect large-scale change. Anyone who takes committed action for justice can be an activist. To help my students internalize these ideas—and ensure I was teaching a unit that legitimately belonged in an English class—I had my students use textual analysis and writing to explore what it means to be an activist.

Since an activist is someone who takes action against injustice, we started with a working definition of injustice: a situation where everyone should have the opportunity to do something, but some people don’t. The students reviewed their books for passages describing specific injustices their activists faced and, in the margins, noted (1) opportunities that should have been available to everyone and (2) which individuals didn’t have those opportunities. My students saw the relationships between injustice, human rights and unearned privileges (although people with societally granted privileges certainly experience injustice too) and read about how lack of access to opportunity often relates to social identifiers such as race, class, gender, sexual orientation and religion. As the students argued about whether access to health care, marriage and organic food were rights or privileges, I kept pointing out that the disagreements in our classroom reflected national debates and diverse values.

Next, we examined various types of nonviolent actions against injustice (adapted from Sharp 2012): formal statements to people in power, communications to raise awareness, demonstrations, boycotts, strikes, noncooperation with unjust policies and intervention with unjust systems. Again, the students found passages in the memoirs describing specific actions against injustice. From there, they came up with more examples of activism, using their personal experiences, their knowledge of historical and current events and their imaginations. Most students were vaguely aware of famous civil rights movement actions such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott and more recent events such as Occupy Wall Street, but the activity became an opportunity for them (and me) to share knowledge about local actions and imagine new ones.

From there, my students took a version of the Values in Action Inventory of Strengths questionnaire, which catalogs 24 character strengths that have been valued across cultures and through time, and used it to identify their activists’ biggest strengths—such as creativity, humility and prudence—and again found moments in their texts when the activists used these strengths.

Throughout the unit, we explored our own willingness to act against injustice. We wrote “One Time I …” stories about personal encounters with injustice. We read Ursula K. LeGuin’s story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” about an imaginary city whose happiness is connected to the misery of a child, to discuss how we rationalize injustice when it benefits us. We explored our power to act right now using an adapted version of the School Reform Initiative’s “Realms of Concern and Influence” protocol: We listed injustices we cared about, imagined solutions that would address multiple injustices and wrote about what we could do right now to be part of that solution. We retook the Strengths questionnaire—using ourselves as the subjects this time—to identify our own character strengths and discussed how we could use these strengths to serve justice. I say “we” because I did this work too, hoping my honesty would encourage theirs. Some kids wrote what they thought I wanted to hear, but many expressed their thoughts earnestly.

A year after taking my class, my former student Samantha referenced the activism unit in her speech at eighth-grade graduation. “Now that we are moving into high school,” she told her classmates, “we are old enough to apply what we learn in the classroom to the real world. We can use all of the knowledge we have gathered to help us create a better future for others. We have the chance to be just like the activists we read about last year, but being an activist does not mean that you have to change the lives of many at once. You can start small.”

I wish I could say Samantha’s response was typical. Some students were inspired to stand against everyday injustices like bullying. Others treated the unit as just another thing an adult at school was telling them to do. As I struggle to create a unit that goes beyond a purely intellectual understanding of injustice, I strive to take Samantha’s advice. I can start small.

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 Zero Effect

“Despite evidence that grading as punishment does not work and the mathematical flaw in the use of the zero on a 100-point scale, many teachers routinely maintain this policy in the mistaken belief that it will lead to improved student performance.” ~Douglas B. Reeves*

With all of the emphasis on change in education, it makes sense to look at our grading practices for some possible answers. The use of zeroes for missing work is a good place to start. 

The average of 0 and 100 is 50. On most grading scales, 50 percent is still an F. The average of 50 and 100 is 75. On most grading scales, 75 percent is a C. In both cases, the student has an F and an A, yet the final outcome of each case is strikingly different. Why?

Most teachers give zeroes for missing work. The hole created by the zero grade is larger than the hole created by any other grade designation on the most commonly used scales across the country. If a student receives multiple zeroes in any given term, he or she is likely going to want to give up. And who can blame her?

In many cases, a student who’s accumulating all those zeroes might be one of many middle schoolers who struggle with organization, and it’s not necessarily for a lack of trying. In a Psychology Today piece, Professor Nancy Darling of Oberlin College explains how the organizational demands of middle school can “outstrip” the cognitive gains of early adolescents. Having five or six teachers in five or six classes—each with books, schedules, notes and assignments that need to make it from school to “home” and back to school—is overwhelming and, for some middle schoolers, nearly impossible.

Students who have less adult support or supervision at home may have even more difficulty completing homework in a timely manner or on a consistent basis—increasing the risk of being adversely disadvantaged by the zero grade. Students living in poverty may be responsible for caring for younger siblings. In high school, they may need to work in order to help with expenses. 

While hosting a Saturday homework session at my school just a few months ago, I tried brainstorming with a student’s mother about how the student might get some of her work done at home. The mother immediately cut me off with, “There are six of us in an 800-square-foot apartment. It isn’t going to happen.” 

Now, imagine that my student has five recorded scores: three missing assignments, one B and one A. In many classes, her grades look as follows: 0, 0, 0, 17/20, 19/20, bringing her total grade to 36/100, a daunting F.

Now, imagine there is a way for her to prove partial completion for her three missing assignments despite not turning in the hard copies.

Remember the old spy movies where the secret agent breaks into a dark office in the middle of the night, pulls folders from a file cabinet, yanks out classified documents and hurriedly starts snapping pictures with a miniature camera? Time is ticking and the agent rushes to finish the photos, get the documents back into their proper folders and escape before he is discovered. The documents are the key. The agent knows he cannot take the originals, so he settles for pictures. Pictures offer proof.

The same is true for our students. Most cell phones now have digital cameras installed. To clarify, this is not a substitute for turning in work. As long as the evidence is captured and saved, it is a backup plan for avoiding the damaging impact of zeroes on a student’s grade. Parents can be educated and encouraged to join in, too. A cultural shift might occur. Students can begin to see their phones as tools for success rather than toys for social media and games.

As a teacher, I am willing to give up to 60 percent for digital proof of completion, not an automatic 60 percent. I can think of no good argument against this. Such grading practices advocate for students rather than working as adversaries against them.

Another solution is to make homework represent a smaller percentage of the overall grade for the class. If homework fell into a 10 to 20 percent category, for example, the impact on the course grade is less severe. Couple this with awarding partial credit based on observational assessment, and students actually stand a chance of coming back from multiple failures. 

As teachers, it is our job to set kids up to succeed, not to fail. Changing some of our grading practices and homework policies is a good place to start, and our guiding question must be: “Am I grading in a way that makes sense?” There are multiple ways for students to demonstrate understanding, show proof of effort and earn partial credit; handing in a hard copy should not be the only thing that counts.

*Reeves, Douglas B. "Leading to Change / Effective Grading Practices," Educational Leadership (February 2008), 85-87.

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

Talking Circles: For Restorative Justice and Beyond

As more schools consider restorative practice in areas of discipline, Talking Circles, a core component of the restorative justice process, enter the conversation. A Talking Circle, sometimes called a Peacemaking Circle, uses a structural framework to build relationships and to address conflict within a community. But Talking Circles serve other purposes as well: They create safe spaces, build connections and offer teachers a unique means of formative assessment.

The Talking Circle Process

Begin by gathering in a circle and creating norms that will help build trust in the space. In my class, we write our norms on a poster board placed in the center of our Circle. A talking piece, an object of significance chosen by Circle members, is passed around inviting equal participation. Whoever holds the talking piece is invited to speak, while all others listen to and support the speaker. To familiarize students with this process, you might ask them, “What does it look and sound like to listen respectfully?”

The Circle Keeper facilitates the Talking Circle by selecting the time and place, inviting members and preparing introductory remarks. Once the group reviews its established norms, the Circle Keeper can read a short piece of text to set the tone or just dive into the first question or reflection. Although the Circle Keeper is the facilitator, she participates as an equal member of the group. Once students learn the process, they can be invited to be Circle Keepers—an empowering process.

Restorative Justice in Schools

Restorative justice is a philosophy that recognizes that alternative approaches are needed in our criminal justice and school disciplinary systems. As research shows, suspensions and expulsions are often linked to higher rates of future involvement with the criminal justice system. This impact, often called the school-to-prison pipeline, disproportionately impacts students of color and students with disabilities.

A Talking Circle can be part of restorative justice when used as an alternative to traditional suspensions and expulsions. To begin, invite students who have been involved in a conflict at school to participate in the Circle. In this confidential process, students can invite an ally to attend. As the Circle progresses, the students are welcomed to speak openly about their experiences, as well as to seek support and plan action steps to repair the harm done. All in all, the Circle space is about accountability to one’s community.

Building Connections in a Safe Space

My middle school made a clear decision that we wanted all students to have a close connection with at least one adult in our building. Thus, we began using Talking Circles in each of our advisory periods once a week. Students and advisors select questions that are meaningful to them or that connect to a relevant current event or community need. Often students raise concerns about inequities, bullying and conflicts within their classes. When appropriate, and with students’ permission, we create action plans to help alleviate the stressors in their lives and intercept systemic injustices.

I have been amazed at the strong relationships that develop. One student expressed, “I began to realize that you all [teachers] are real people too and that you have gone through some of the same stuff we have.” Another student reflected, “You know, I didn’t really know some of you before the year began. Now I feel like each of you has become a part of my family.” The Circle allows students to feel vulnerable, to take risks and to speak their truth. Thus, I believe Talking Circles, used in partnership with appropriate actions, have the potential to help restore justice to our youth.

Formative Assessment Tool

In my reading class, I often use Talking Circles to gauge my students’ background knowledge of a topic or to assess their understanding of key concepts or text. For example, I might say, “Let’s think a little more about the poems we read during our close reading yesterday. What is the author’s message about injustice? How do the characters convey this message?” As the Talking Piece moves around the Circle, I mentally monitor students’ progress, asking myself, “Did they get this? What surprises me? Where do we need to look more closely? What do we need to reread later?” Because each student is able to voice his or her thoughts, I’m able to differentiate and plan next steps accordingly.

As you can tell, Talking Circles are a cornerstone of my classroom practice. They allow children to see their community as a place of significance, a place of positive change and a place where their voices are heard. How might you use them in your practice?

Bintliff is a reading teacher at Oregon Middle School in Oregon, Wis. She is also a recipient of the 2014 Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching.

A Humanitarian Crisis: Unaccompanied Children

“I am here [in the United States] because the gang threatened me. One of them ‘liked’ me. Another gang member told my uncle that he should get me out of there because the guy who liked me was going to do me harm.”


Maritza, a teenager from El Salvador, is one of tens of thousands of children—primarily from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico—who have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, unaccompanied by a parent or guardian. Since last October, the U.S. Border Patrol has detained some 57,000 unaccompanied children, over double the number of the previous year. A pressing humanitarian crisis now confronts communities across the country: Who will care for these children? How will schools respond to the newcomers arriving at their doorsteps? Will communities welcome them or meet them with distrust?

This crisis has already been swept up into the national debate over immigration reform. Earlier this month, protesters blocked and threatened busloads of unaccompanied children, seeking to halt their transportation to immigration processing facilities and temporary housing. Just this past weekend, hundreds of protests were staged against undocumented immigrants, energized by the continued influx of unaccompanied children. Protesters held signs calling these children “threats” and an “invasion,” urging officials to “Return [them] to Sender.” The true threat is actually to the children who make an unthinkable journey to the United States alone—because the alternative is even more unthinkable.

Why are children crossing the U.S. border?

Some unaccompanied children cross the U.S. border to be reunited with family members or to escape entrenched poverty. Many of these unaccompanied children, however, seek refuge in the United States from physical threats including, but not limited to, harm from gangs, drug cartels and other forms of organized crime, or abuse in the home by a family member or another caregiver. A UN report, “Children on the Run,” reveals that as many as 58 percent of the unaccompanied migrants arriving in the United States have “international protection needs.” Sufficient grounds have been found to show that deportation back to their home countries could lead to grave abuse, if not death. 

What happens once they enter the United States?

If detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents, these children are held in detention centers for up to 72 hours. Then one of two things happens, depending on their country of citizenship. A 2008 law (aimed at combating human trafficking) requires that all unaccompanied children from countries that do not share a border with the United States be granted “removal proceedings” in immigration courts, rather than a brief screening process. Therefore, the children from Central America are transferred to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement and enter what can be a long legal process. Meanwhile, their counterparts from Mexico are not automatically granted proceedings, and if they do not sufficiently demonstrate fear of persecution or trafficking, they are often repatriated within a day or two after being detained and screened.

The immigration court system in the United States is tremendously backlogged. A single case can take several years to appear before a judge, which means that tens of thousands of children are in a legal limbo. In the meantime, the unaccompanied children move from shelters—where they stay for an average of 35 days after being detained—and are sent to live with relatives or sponsors.

What does this mean for schools?

Upon being released from federal custody, the children will enroll in school. According to EdWeek, educators across the country are seeing increased numbers of immigrant students and are often the primary responders to their diverse range of needs. These include counseling and other mental health services (trauma and post-traumatic stress are common), ESL programs and guidance on obtaining legal representation and on navigating a new school culture.

Meeting the multifaceted needs of unaccompanied children requires focused efforts. Come the start of the school year, if not before, consider taking these steps:

  • Remind your school administration that federal law provides all children with the right to enroll in school, regardless of their immigration status. 
  • Discuss with school counselors if appropriate resources are in place to extend bilingual mental health services.
  • Conduct home visits with the children’s relatives or sponsors.
  • Speak out against bias, however it appears.
  • Learn more. “Children at the Border” and “Children in Danger” are two starting points.
  • Connect with advocacy organizations in your community that are working to provide pro-bono legal counsel specifically to unaccompanied children.

How is your school responding to these children? What advice can you offer other educators? 

Lindberg is a writer and associate editor for Teaching Tolerance. 

The Place for Activism in English Class

Abigail Adams observed, “We have too many high-sounding words, and too few actions that correspond with them.” As an English teacher, I deal in high-sounding words, but I also want my students to learn how to take action against injustice.

My first idea for fitting activism into my English class was to look for fiction on this topic. Contemporary young-adult (YA) novels address social justice issues that, until recently, went undiscussed in schools (e.g., anti-LGBT violence and child homelessness) or that have escalated as problems (e.g., cyberbullying and the effects of climate change). But the trouble with some “issue novels” is that many are written as such—not as great literature. Others rely on tropes that reinforce stereotypes and ignore larger patterns: Children of color get rescued by kindly white adults, plucky heroines use their wits to escape hardship and perpetrators get their comeuppance or suddenly repent.

Of course there are well-crafted works of YA fiction that address social justice issues, but I found a different solution to my activist-literature problem: nonfiction. In Stirring Up Justice, educator Jessica Singer Early describes her unit in which students read biographies, autobiographies and memoirs about activists. I decided to design a unit around memoirs so students could read activists’ own stories of responding to injustice with action. The unit aligns to Teaching Tolerance’s Anti-Bias Framework, particularly to Justice standard 15: knowing social justice history.

In Early’s unit, the students chose any book they wanted. Since I planned my unit to be more about the concept of activism than any one text, there was room for each student to choose a book of genuine interest. Still, I wanted my students to read well-crafted prose that matched their reading and experience levels, and that meant vetting the books.

Finding appropriate memoirs proved to be a challenge. It’s not like everyone who acts against injustice writes a memoir, and individuals who might be great activists might not be great writers. Some memoirs, like environmentalist Wangari Maathai’s Unbowed, were beautifully written but inaccessible to my seventh-graders without the level support I give when the whole class reads the same text. Other memoirs focused on childhood memories rather than the author's work.

I wanted to keep the book list fairly short to increase the chances that several students in a class would choose the same memoir and could help each other with comprehension and analysis—and to make it possible for me to read all the books they’d be reading. Within the list, I wanted diversity in terms of the authors’ identities and the types of injustices they stood against.

Ultimately, I settled on five activist memoirs: The Good Food Revolution by urban farmer Will Allen, Warriors Don’t Cry by Little Rock Nine member Melba Pattillo Beals, Glory Road by college basketball coach Don Haskins, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by Malawian inventor William Kamkwamba and In My Hands by Holocaust rescuer Irene Gut Opdyke.

It’s not a perfect list. As important as the civil rights movement is, two of the five memoirs are about desegregation during that historical period. In several classes, half or more of the girls picked In My Hands, and half or more of the boys picked Glory Road.

Students selected their memoirs a month before the unit began so they could pace their reading and know their activists’ stories when our inquiry started. During the unit, I paired students who did not read the same text so they could think about how the concepts they learned—what an injustice is, what kinds of action people can take against it and the strengths and supports activists need—came up in both books. Students thus had an authentic context to describe their activists’ work, and they often commented on the surprising similarities and differences between their activists’ experiences.

One student noticed that Irene Gut Opdyke and Will Allen each helped strangers by giving them access to food, albeit under vastly different circumstances. Another pointed out that William Kamkwamba and Melba Pattillo Beals risked physical and emotional harm in order to get better educations, and a third saw that Don Haskins and Opdyke used their positions of relative privilege to act as allies to targeted groups. In all of my classes, it came up that Opdyke, Kamkwamba, and Beals all worked against injustice as teenagers. That was particularly inspiring to students who’d said they were “too young to do anything.”

I want my students to read not only critically but hopefully, to see reflections of their past experiences and indications of their future ones and to consider what’s possible for them to do—even at their age.

I’d also like to find more well-written activist memoirs on the students’ level that would become popular choices and further diversify the list. Any suggestions?

Porosoff is a seventh-grade English teacher, curriculum design consultant and author of Curriculum at Your Core: Meaningful Teaching in the Age of Standards.

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