Help my young students be activists
January 20, 2017 6:04 PM   Subscribe

I am an elementary school teacher. My students have studied several heroes, rights activists, and world changers lately. I want them to feel the power they have as people.

I teach a middle elementary grade. My students are almost all minority. They have extensively studied MLK, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Thurgood Marshall, George Washington Carver, Malala, and Iqbal Masih lately. They have also seen Hidden Figures. As much as 8-10 year olds can, they GET IT.

I am having trouble thinking of a really meaningful thing we can do as a class to show them the power they have as young citizens. Looking for something beyond picking up trash, etc. I don't want to get too political if possible, both so as to not overstep family boundaries, and so as to keep my job. But I'll stretch that boundary if you have a great idea. How can my kids change the world now?
posted by raspberrE to Education (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Writing letters to newspapers or politicians? They can identify something they feel strongly about, research the most appropriate target, and practice argumentative writing.
posted by Liesl at 6:17 PM on January 20, 2017

Learn about local politics. Identify who's on the school board in your town/district, who is the mayor, who's on the town council. Find out what issues they are responsible for and what is going on in town that needs to be decided on. They can be very hands-on activists on that scale. Maybe even the local representatives for the state legislature. If there are issues that are relevant, they can write letters and advocate for those.

In my town right now, for example, a class might write letters encouraging the mayor to approve the plans for the new library building, or send letters to the school board about certain repairs that really should be happening at the school (though that might border on getting you in trouble). Or, if it was my son's class, I might talk to our city's environmental officer, find out what her priorities and goals are, and pick one and then come up with ways to speak up for it--a bake sale to raise money if that's what's needed, or letters to the city council or local paper, an awareness campaign, whatever would advance the cause they're interested in.
posted by gideonfrog at 6:47 PM on January 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

gideonfrog letters about repairs needed at our school (shoot, in our classroom) is actually what I really want to do, but I can't figure out how that wouldn't get us in trouble.
posted by raspberrE at 6:54 PM on January 20, 2017

With improvements in the school as a goal, I wonder if you couldn't frame the assignment as "how I would make our school even better" and hey, if the students think of physical repairs it was their own idea?
posted by augustimagination at 7:46 PM on January 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

When I was in high school, we did a unit on Korean poetry, and some of the students pointed out that there was basically no Korean literature at the local library (while we had a growing Korean population in the town), so our English teacher agreed and told us we were now responsible for ensuring they got some. We first researched the town's demographics, then divided up into five groups and researched things like classical Korean literature (in Korean and in translation), popular Korean-language US periodicals, modern Korean books, etc., and came up with recommendations for what books a well-appointed library should have that was serving both Korean-speaking Koreans in diaspora, and their English-speaking children and friends. When we'd put it all together, our teacher invited the library board to our class, and we all dressed up all fancy, and presented our recommendations to the library board, including data about how many Koreans were in our community, how many used the library, what various purchases would cost, and where to get them.

The library purchased close to 3/4 of our suggestions (and put together reading lists and a Korean reading month festival based on our work) and began an outreach to Korean-speaking community members and I HAVE NEVER FELT MORE AWESOME about my civic power in my entire life. It is in the top three experiences I had in high school, it was fantastic.

Maybe your kids could go through the children's books at the school or local library, and see if they're adequately diverse, and make purchase recommendations if they're not -- which they're probably not, and there are more and more great books out there from major childrens' book publishers that honor the diversity of the US. I bet they can find a bunch of picture books for kindergarten classrooms that better reflect the diversity of your district!

As a school board member I would have been 200% absolutely on board with going to hear a junior high class on what they thought were the major issues in our district, and talking to them about school governance and funding and so on. 200%! My favorite thing! Like, kids learning about civics and importuning their elected representatives was clearly the #1 best sign I was doing my job well, even if their ideas were insane. :) I know it can be tricky for teachers with the politics of school boards and principals and so on, but you may be surprised if you call a school board member directly and ask them to come talk to your class. I seriously loved that shit. I knew principals sometimes tried to prevent it, but kids talking to me about bathroom renovations and library purchasing and extracurricular funding gave me life and I was always like "MRS. RASPBERRE IS THE BEST," after.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:02 PM on January 20, 2017 [15 favorites]

They can help prevent future deaths.
Often it takes 2 deaths at an intersection before a traffic light is installed. Or there could be places where stop signs, crosswalks, speed bumps, longer red/yellow lights, etc are needed.

Identify a specific place to concentrate your efforts, ie "there have been one death and 8 accidents at the intersection of oak and pine street. It's obvious a traffic light is needed to prevent accidents"

Tie it into STEM with a lesson about reaction times and distance needed to stop a car.
Ideally you could rig up an experiment with toy cars crashing into dolls. This would make a good video to send out to politicians and press. (yeh, there's regulations to be considered with showing students on video/pictures)

Have the students write letters to the mayor/city council either for or against the light. And letters to the editor of the local paper.

If it's successful they will have a physical example of what they can accomplish. If not, then that's some other lessons learned.

In 4th grade a classmate was the 2nd person killed at an intersection. A light was put in shortly after. In that county this pattern of 2 deaths and several accidents was repeated 3 more times that I know of.
posted by Sophont at 8:51 AM on January 21, 2017

I used to volunteer / student teach with this group, Peace Games, and the final unit was for the class to work together on a civic project initiated by the students themselves (I worked with first graders so it was pretty cute brainstorming problems, we ended up advocating for better recycling in the school). So I think your impulse to repair your classroom is right on! And that the step of brainstorming problems and solutions together is a powerful one not to skip. Here is what I can find of the curriculum online. You might call and ask if they have a more formal teachers guide. Thank you for u for doing this!
posted by athirstforsalt at 9:41 AM on January 21, 2017

Another example: not my fourth grade section but the classroom next door learned that there was a state hero but no state heroine in history, then their awesome teacher was like, we can fix that! And they researched famous state women, voted as a class who to propose, went to local town hall meetings to get it out in front of the state assembly, took a field trip to the capitol, argued in front of the state legislature and the bill passed. We were sooo jealous at the time and I have no idea how the teacher pulled all this off resource wise (New England! Small town!) but in retrospect it's damn amazing.

Also apparently the Edinburgh Women's March was organized by two 16 year olds. Dream big!
posted by athirstforsalt at 9:49 AM on January 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

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