Looking into the future

We’re coming up on my favorite time of the whole school year: second semester.

Second semester can be maddening, with a million hassles and distractions coming at teachers from all directions, but in my sophomore English classes, it’s an incredibly exciting time, because it’s the time when we start our semester-long activism unit.

I test-drove this unit for the first time a year ago, and it was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done in a classroom.

We started with a study of Martin Luther King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, which is basically a blueprint for effective activism. The kids get into it, because they’re familiar with King and his work, and he has a lot of credibility with them.

After we’ve gotten a lesson in activism from Dr. King, we listen to the Beatles’ “Revolution” and talk about how the lyrics echo King’s advice (e.g., don’t resort to violence, don’t use incendiary words or images that detract from your message, etc.) The kids choose social causes they want to support and design miniature protest signs to go on a bulletin board in the classroom. Then we spend a couple of weeks in the library, researching their causes and evaluating source credibility as they compile sets of notecards containing facts and figures that support their views.

Once the research is done, the kids complete a series of writing projects designed to promote their causes: a fact sheet, an action alert, a letter to the editor, and — if time allows — a press release.

In the process, ordinary teenagers turn into powerful, committed activists who are out to change the world.

For me, the most fun part of the project is in seeing how my kids think. Some of them think in pure black and white terms, but most have remarkably nuanced views. They aren’t limited by party labels or narrow platforms, and they aren’t afraid to consider multiple viewpoints, weigh each one on its own merits, or consider new information before rendering a judgment.

I’ve given the kids a cursory preview of this year’s project, and several of them are already bouncing ideas off of each other and planning independent initiatives that far exceed the scope of the class requirements.

I am dying to see what this year’s group comes up with to dazzle me.┬áNext Tuesday can’t get here fast enough.



Note to self

Never do anything yourself that you could just as easily schlep off on your students. My kids wrote a way better final than anything I would have come up with. Bonus: I don’t have to make a studyguide, ‘cos they already know what’s going to be on the final.