Young people are leaders of the future. They will be running this country, our institutions, and our lives, and yet, here they are fighting for their lives and ours. I’m speaking about both the earth/climate change issues, but also gun control, racism, and other matters. Young people have and will continue to take to the streets to get their messages across. I love it.
So, this unit that I want to tell you about is how I engaged my sixth graders (11 year olds) in this conversation about national, political, and social justice issues through our ELA classroom. The title of the unit was Fighting for Our Lives. It was the first unit of the school year and my main goals were to build community, develop skills around punctuation, and write speeches.
We started by listening to this interview of Janna Jihad, the youngest press-card carrying journalist in the world. After listening to her interview, students read the printed version and attempted to punctuate her words. I had removed all punctuation and with partners, they read her words and found where they thought periods, question marks, and exclamation points should be. After discussing the answers as a whole group, and students making corrections, we watched the video of her interview. They were in awe and impressed by her conviction, honesty, and dedication. They were so moved that a girl that was young, like them, was fighting for her people and was using her voice with such power.
We did the same activity with two other speeches. One was Edna Chavez’s speech and the other was Naomi Wadler’s, both speakers at the March for Our Lives event in 2018. We listened to those speeches, punctuated them, and then watched their videos. Students continued to be in awe. They were buzzing and bubbling and wanted to get into debates and discussions about the topics all of these young women were addressing.
So, we did. I set up small discussion groups and their conversations were led by prompts projected on a powerpoint. The questions ranged from what is justice and what does it look like in practice, to what is the biggest hurdle for young people to speak their truth. I also had some questions about punctuation in there, too, and they were so into discussions that even those short conversations were passionate! The last question, and the one that took the most time, and also the one that I was strategically going to use to lead us into our unit project was: What is a social issue that matters to you, and why?
The answers included climate change, pollution, gun violence, vaping, racism, and more. What a seriously knowledgeable and thoughtful group of young people! I was so heartened to hear their concerns, which were about and for others.
Before we jumped into our projects, we had one last video to listen to, punctuate, and watch. This video featured a young man from Kenya, Richard Turere, who was passionate about something and used his talent to solve a need. He is a great example of what it means to use creativity to peacefully solve a problem. And he’s a young person, too! They were so excited about this young man’s ingenuity and dedication to finding a solution to his community’s problem.
I knew they were ready for our unit’s next step.
Time for projects! I introduced the assignment and welcomed them to dream. With partners, they talked about the topics they would take on and what they would say. Through some scaffolding, we planned out speeches and they took to writing. So many different topics and such variety of voices were present. It was an exciting project. Some wrote about using less plastic, overcoming racism, the talents and power of introverts, the problems of the meat industry, women’s rights issues, and more. What a powerful set of speeches. What a powerful group of students I get to teach.
Next? We’re reading Ghost by Jason Reynolds.