Inspiring Social Change In Students
Using Literacy to Make a Difference.
So what exactly is is social change?
Social change refers to the alteration of typical behaviors and attitudes to create a positive impact on society and within one's own community. Any person, regardless of age, race, ethnicity, gender, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, or state of mind is capable of creating social change, and teachers play a key role in eliminating the plague of complacency and igniting the necessary passion within their students to change the world around them.
Okay... Well how is this related to Literacy?
Students from all walks of life are filed through the same public education program year after year. The one thing that has the ability to unite these students above everything that is said to set them apart, is their passion. Passion is a bit harder to come by these days, which comes with the territory of the internet. The world is no longer connected through their hearts, they are connected through screens that people can hide behind. People can detach themselves from the heartbreak on their Facebook by just closing out of a browser; they can retweet a message about having compassion for an oppressed group of people, without ever actually having to help those people in any way, making it easy to forget about them moments later in lieu of another cat video.
Literature is timeless. Books, poems, and plays are raw representations of emotions. They document the changes that we have already made throughout the history of human existence. They document the heart ache that people have already gone through, fighting for what they deserve, invoking feelings of empathy in compassion in readers for years. Literature is an essential tool for teachers to be able to show students that making their voice heard is a real possibility, even in a world of people detached from reality. People have to be taught how to channel their passion into real change, and since this has already been done and documented for so long, literature really is the key.
The video below is a great visual depiction of the powerful ways that literature can inspire social change in students from Lord Byron all the way to Harry Potter.
Light the Class on Fire!
Go ahead and put your fire extinguishers down; I simply mean that you should light a fire-y passion in your students. Amber M. Simmons wrote an article entitled Class on Fire: Using The Hunger Games Trilogy to Encourage Social Action, which ultimately was the inspiration for this project. It is the perfect catalyst for sparking interest in students because even though the Hunger Games is actually a really deep societal message, it is also very relatable to teenagers. Author Suzanne Collins wrote a poignant series with an over-arching love story, familial arguments, and the basic struggles of being a teenager struggling with a larger-than-average chip on their shoulder due to some sort of societal disadvantage. Katniss Everdeen, although fictitious by definition, provides students with the idea that they can change something about the world around them if they just stand up for themselves, even though they are young.
"By incorporating the Hunger Games trilogy into my classroom, teachers can encourage students to look at current issues of violence and domination in our world, relating them to the injustices faced by the 12 districts of Panel while using students' out-of-school literacy practices." -Amber M. Simmons
"Addressing issues of violence through popular literature is important, for as Downey (2005) pointed out, students are desensitized to violence, and one goal of educators is to resensitize them so that they understand the reality of brutality and injustice." -Downey and Simmons
The Hunger Games is a great tool, but without the rest of the toolkit, can be rendered nearly useless in actually invoking social change within the classroom. This series is still fictional, and the students can wish cast some of their passionate feelings out for that reason. A lesson involving a book like the Hunger Games should be paired with a similar, but nonfiction story. Pairing this story to those of real-world violence makes everything that Collins wrote that much more substantial. For example, a teacher could use a more modern reference to connect the intentional segregation of poor people in the Hunger Games to the victims of the Flint, Michigan water crisis. A teacher could draw a connection between the brutal extermination of rebels in Panem who just wanted their voices to be heard over that of their government to the Holocaust. The peace-keepers are very similar to the Nazis when cross-examined. You could also use this same peace-keeper analogy to teach about police brutality. Of course, this would have to be done carefully because the police is still there to help our students, but there is an undeniable power struggle there that everyone should be made aware of.
This article is the article that inspired this page & is all about using the Hunger Games trilogy to inspire social action. Note: this link may only work with a subscription, but you can look up Amber M. Simmons- Class on Fire.
I've Inspired My Students...but now what?
Once you light that fire in your students, it is your job as the teacher to guide them on their quest to create the changes that they would like to see in their community, and in the larger world around them.
Written below are some ways that you can get your students involved in their community and show them that they can make a difference.
Have them write a strongly worded letter!
After using literature to inspire your students, give them a writing assignment that actually has a purpose behind it. Let them write their target audience to voice their grievances and ask for change. Let them write a proposal to plant a community garden to feed the homeless. Show them that they can play a direct hand in the changes without having to ask an adult to do everything for them, while also improving key writing skills.
Work your way out from Home Base
How can you expect your students to care about making positive impacts on the world around them when they aren't even expected to take care of their own school? Have the students work with the janitors once a week to clean up the school. Have them pick up any litter around the playground or drop off area. Have them help clean off buses. With 20+ kids, these things will be done relatively quickly, but have a huge benefit in the long run. Then as a writing assignment, have them write thank you letters to the people who do these jobs on a regular basis.
Involve them in your lessons.
In fact, let them completely run the lesson. Be there as their guide to keep them on track. Introduce them to a piece of literature that is historically accurate and depicts some sort of cultural injustice, but that also has relevance today. Have them read it and then let them take the reigns. Let them decide how the text made them feel, and what they think it has to do with current society. Provide them with reasonable options about what they can do about it, and let them plan their own course of action. Let their passion drive their own lesson. They will gain more from it and feel more accomplished because of it.