Raising Student Voice Through Activism

How I’m Incorporating Activist Projects in my Classroom

I first heard about activist projects from Bridget, who mentioned them when rehashing all she had learned at NCTE this past November. My interest was immediately piqued–I had been trying to figure out what my second semester was going to look like. And, I was desperately trying to come up with a plan that would engage my group of seniors, all of whom have come down with severe senioritis.

I already had a few ideas of what I wanted:

  • Something with high engagement.
  • Something that would celebrate student voice and choice.
  • Something that wouldn’t be hampered by the near constant absences of second semester high school seniors.
  • Something that would include a creative element.
  • Something with a real world application.

An Activist Project seemed like the way to go. It checked all of the boxes, with the added bonus of bringing social consciousness into a classroom often plagued with apathy.

I’m not going to lie to you. I did not do a whole lot of research before diving in. And here’s why–at this point in the year, I feel like I know my students pretty well. As listed above, I already knew what I wanted to accomplish. And, since this is our research unit, I knew it would involve them digging in. Other than that, I didn’t want to hamper them too much…I wanted them to surprise me. So, I gathered basic ideas and guidelines, but I left a lot of it open to adaptation, so that I can incorporate what my students need, when they need it.

So far, we are only two weeks in to the project, and with it all being so new, I thought I would detail my journey here. You will find outlines for each week, commentary, and perhaps some belly-aching or over-the-top celebration (based on what happened that week). But, my goal is to provide a week-by-week look at this project so that you can see what we’re doing and adapt it for your own classroom.

Week 1:

So the first week was our basic introduction to the project (obviously).

On Day 1, I started out with a Google Slides presentation on activism. In it, we talked about what activism is. I then went over the five steps to taking civil action based on a TED talk by Elizabeth Robbins (I found this info here). I wanted those students who would struggle identifying what they wanted to do by giving them a step-by-step process toward taking action. One important distinction I did make while going through this intro was that we were focusing on how to peacefully advocate for change. Extremism was not going to have a place in this project.

Day 2 began with this Natalie Warne TED talk (which is Ah-Mazing! by the way). I decided early on that each week, I would feature one visual clip of some type of activism. This may be a TED talk, it may be a music video, it may be a clip from a movie. But I wanted visuals that would be interesting and showcase different forms of activism.

After the TED talk, I had my students take out their devices and begin exploratory research on the topic they were considering. If they were having trouble coming up with ideas, this was a time for them to do some digging and see if there was something that stood out to them. I was also available to help, which I would do by asking what they were interested in, what they were passionate about, if they had heard something in the news or in the hallways that made them excited or angry, etc.

Days 3-4 (this was a short week for us) focused on drafting a project proposal. Since this was a research unit with a real-world focus, I wanted students to do something more academic than merely saying, “Mrs. Brown, I’m doing (insert issue here).” So, I had them draft a project proposal, where they would pitch me their ideas. Since we had never done anything like this before, I kept it simple:

  • 200-300 words
  • thesis statement
  • summary of project
  • objectives and goals
  • list of organizations/movements already advocating for your cause

They had two in-class days to work on this. These days were also given to more exploratory research, if it was needed. Even though we may not have all of the details worked out, I still wanted them to have a general idea of where this project was going for them. After all, we only have six weeks to accomplish some rather lofty goals!

On Day 4, I also gave them a handout outlining the guidelines for the five different options they would have for the final product they would be turning in at the end of the six weeks. They could choose from:

  • a Presentation,
  • Create a website,
  • Create an original video,
  • Curate an original artistic portfolio, with a minimum of three art pieces and one informational piece, or
  • A research essay.

I wanted to make sure I had plenty of options that would play to individual student strengths, and I felt like this list had something for everyone.

On Day 4, I also did something I think is incredibly important. I had students give me feedback. We do journaling at the beginning of class pretty regularly, and on this day, I had students write down what was working, what wasn’t, if they had been confused about anything so far, and if doing exploratory research had helped them in guiding their project. After giving them a few minutes to write, I had them share out. Since this is just as new for me as it is for them, I thinks it’s incredibly important to keep them involved in the process. They know I don’t have everything figured out. They know I plan a week, sometimes a day, at a time, and that I’m constantly learning right along with them. And, (I think I’ve managed to achieve this with most of my students) they know that I care what they have to say. I can’t highlight the importance of this last step enough…giving students voice and choice is, after all, central to the success of this project.

It’s funny… no matter how long you spend with your students, they can still manage to surprise you. And what I loved was the surprise of finding a vast array of things my kids actually cared about. I have Nadia, Krystyn, and Zion who are planning to attack rape culture with ferocity. Joy, who is advocating for women’s reproductive rights. Ivette, who is shedding light on domestic violence. Zack, who cares so much about the quality of his and other’s school lunches that he’s trying to find a way to change the system. Carlos and Rex, who are passionately advocating for Pro Life. And Chris, who is bringing attention to Skills USA, a school program that has changed his life.

The beautiful thing is that all of these students came up with their topics with no prompting from me. And when they’ve spoken to me, they’ve had that spark that shows me this is something they are passionate about. I feel it’s my job to provide the space for that spark to ignite a fire–and if I manage to do that, I will have considered this year a success.

And, that’s it–the outline for week 1 of our activist project. I can say that even from the first couple days, I saw some of my students really amping up about this assignment. They were talking it out with me. They were talking it out with each other. They were passionate. They were digging in. I won’t say this happened with 100% of my students–if you’ve ever managed to get 100% of your students engaged in a lesson, please share your secret!–but I will say that it happened often enough that I feel very optimistic going in to this.

And, that’s a wrap! I’ll be posting week 2 next week. Until then, if you have any suggestions, comments, or questions, please leave them below!

Thank you for reading 🙂


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