Reading and Writing to Learn About Activism

Reading and writing about the work of activists helped this teacher and her students realize that they can make social change by starting small.

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.