“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.
Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.”
-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Teaching with a social justice lens means you look for every opportunity to let your curriculum be the springboard to know what it means to be a person of character in this world. How will you act when no one is looking? What will you say and do to improve your home, your neighborhood, your country, your world? How will you use what you are learning in school to think more deeply and critically about all you encounter and envision ways to make things better? How can you use writing to stand up for what is important?
In the early days of the new school year, I am given my curriculum calendar, which details all the units of study I will be teaching in each subject area. Glancing at my curriculum calendar, I notice that my third graders are scheduled to learn about persuasive speech writing in the spring. Persuasive speech writing is a powerful way to show students their voices matter, to use the mandated curriculum as that springboard for thinking critically. But before my students begin to write speeches, there is work to be done.
Celebrating Individual Students
Students need to feel valued, accepted and respected in order to be comfortable sharing their feelings, worries, and hopes. In the book Being the Change, by Sara K. Ahmed, she states, “We have an obligation to make kids feel visible. When we recognize and value students identities, we make time and space for them in the daily classroom routines, curriculum, and dialogue. We can help students shine a light on who they are: their hopes and dreams, talents, family histories, how they identify culturally, the languages they speak, how they learn best, the story of their names, what they can teach us (2).”
In my classroom, we begin the year with students sharing an “autobiography bag” of objects that describe their culture, interests, and family life. As students take turns sharing, I jot notes about each child. I use these notes to help me build relationships with my students. Students see that I care about them and I’m invested in helping them learn.
Another way to help students feel accepted and part of the community is through the “Thoughtful Third Grader” activities. Each week, one student is selected to be the Thoughtful Third Grader. He/she is interviewed and the class writes “warm fuzzy” compliments for the student. These are put together into a book the student brings home. The student selects a book of his/her choosing for me to read to the class as well. These activities emphasize our classroom as a community of readers and writers and the student in the spotlight is able to pick a book that reflects his/her interests, passions, and identity.
Intentional Read Alouds
One of the most powerful ways to prepare students to write persuasive speeches is to read aloud texts that expand their world view, touch their heart and make them see how regular people have helped to change the world. Books and poems can be shared throughout the year and the teacher can help facilitate discussion about equity, courage and hope. Some of my favorite books that can spark rich discussions can be found in the slideshow below.
Social Issues Book Clubs
It’s fortunate social issue book clubs is a unit I teach in reading that comes right before persuasive speech writing. Students study social issues like bullying and being a bystander, poverty, inequality, and family issues. Many of the books, songs, and poems students read open their eyes to social issues they weren’t aware of before. Other students who have faced poverty, family issues, or feeling different find the texts from the book clubs to be mirrors and can spark honest conversations about these weighty topics.
Angled Heart Map
Georgia Heard’s brilliant book, Heart Maps, offers many types of heart maps students could create for different purposes. One of her maps is a “Be the Change You Wish To See in the World Heart Map.” As the persuasive speech unit draws closer, students can use this map to sketch out the things that worry them at home, school or in the community. They can think about what seems unfair or what might be done to help people in some way.
Kids Who Inspire
Kid President and “LivBits” (Olivia Van Ledtje) create videos that are inspiring and sometimes tackle issues like equity and poverty. Sharing these videos with students can help them see that kids can take a stand when something bothers them or is upsetting. The videos also show that a speech is your writing brought to life and can model for students how to bring enthusiasm and passion in your delivery.
Honoring Students Ideas
After all year of facilitating discussions and reading texts that focus on equality and justice, it can be disappointing when students select topics like “We should play Fortnite at school” for their persuasive speech.However, students need to write about what they care about. Sometimes what they care about does not match what we wish they would write about. However, making students select a topic we think is worthy but is not their choice will not serve them well as writers. I’ve had students write speeches to their families requesting a new pet or to take a family vacation. These were the issues that mattered most to them at the time. Students have written speeches about wanting more freedom at lunch to sit with different children from other classes and to have longer recess. As much as possible, help students find an issue they connect with deeply.
When students begin to craft their persuasive speeches, make sure they know someone will listen to them! When you teach writing with a social justice lens, writing should not live on a page inside a notebook or folder. A speech, especially, needs to be read aloud and shared with the people who are trying to be persuaded! If possible, record students’ speeches and have them share them with family members, school administrators, or a relevant person to the topic of the speech. Make sure the speech gets out into the world and the student believes the writing can make a difference.
Intelligence + Character
As a third-grade teacher, I understand how overwhelming teaching can be at times. There are times I’ve felt I’ve lost my way. My North Star, what brings me back to why I became a teacher, is what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said: “Intelligence plus character- that is the goal of true education.” I became a teacher to do my part to make the world a better place. This means I can help each student see his/her value and worth, while also helping them to affirm and understand the value and worth of others.
When you know you matter and you believe others do too, you cannot accept a world where people are discriminated against, for any reason. You challenge the unfair and unjust policies and laws in your community and beyond. You know your voice matters and you use writing to inspire and see change.
How do you find ways to teach writing with a social justice lens?
- This giveaway is for a copy of Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension. Thanks to Heinemann for donating a copy for one reader. (You must have a U.S. mailing address to win a print copy of this book.)
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