Letters for Justice: Empowering Young Voices on Topics that Matter

There’s a lot going on in the world right now and it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the many current issues being debated and decided on in our country and around the world.  As a teacher librarian, it’s challenging because I want to support all students and families knowing that I might not personally agree with their perspectives.  I make sure that I step back and listen to the students, support their research and perspectives, and check my own beliefs.

Recently, Ms. Olin, 5th grade social studies teacher, came to me with an idea. She wanted to get students thinking about current US & World issues and considering what their own perspectives were based on the facts of the issues. She also wanted them to know that their voices mattered in the world and that they could get their thoughts out to local, state, and national representatives as well as the general public to have an influence on decisions being made.

Ms. Olin started this project in her classroom by sharing the book I Have  a Right to Be a Child by Alain Serres. This sparked discussion about basic human rights and current issues in the world. She also shared news sites with them so that they could start reading current articles about various trending topics, especially if they weren’t familiar with the current topics being debated. Through these sites, students began to choose a topic that they were interested in, curious about, or passionate for. Sites included Newsela, CNN Student News, PBS News Hour, and Time for Kids.

After two days of exploring, students selected their topic.

In the library, we focused on the importance of raising our voices when we have concerns. I read excerpts from Be A Changemaker by Laurie Ann Thompson.

“Don’t wait. Don’t wait to be powerful, to change the lives and communities around you significantly.”

I also read excerpts from It’s Your World by Chelsea Clinton.

“We can–and should–respectfully disagree with others who have reached different answers from ours” and “Even if we disagree with one another, it’s important to recognize what the facts are”.

Ms. Olin and I both encouraged students to look at issues from all sides and to gather as many facts as possible. With those facts, they could form their own opinions on the issues and brainstorm some possible actions they hope are taken.

We took some time to look at the Letters to the Next President project to see letters that were written by students from many location about a variety of topics. Students could sort the letters by their own topic and see what other students were saying.

As students looked at example opinions and continued to gather facts, they started filling out organizers to get their own thoughts together.  In class, they began writing letters, protest signs, and editorial cartoons to express the facts and their own views.

5th grader's editorial cartoon #editorialcartoon #cartoon #politicalcartoon #studentvoice

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5th grader's editorial cartoon. #studentvoice #politicalcartoon #cartoon #editorialcartoon

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Finally, students came to the library to begin sharing their voice.  We spent some time talking about how we can make our voice visible. We could of course mail the letters and artwork to their intended recipients, but how else could we share our voice? I was able to talk to the students about my recent recognition as an AASL Social Media Superstar for Sensational Student Voice and how social media and collaborative tools like Flipgrid allow us to spread our voices to an even larger audience.

We hope our voices are heard by our local, state, and national representatives, but even if they aren’t, we can share our voices with others and offer perspectives and actions that might encourage them to support our cause or make the world a better place.  As students finished their work, they recorded their voices in a Flipgrid so that others can consider their perspectives and possibly join their collective voice.

We hope you will take time to listen to each student. If one of the voices speaks to you, give them a response.  Better yet, if they inspire you, consider writing your own letter and adding your voice to our grid.  We invite your students to join our voices as well.

As we were closing our time in the library, some of the students spoke up and said, “I bet Mr. Trump won’t even read our letters.” This was a great opportunity for Ms Olin and I to repeatedly say to the students, “Your voice matters”. We talked about collective voice, and how sometimes a single voice isn’t heard by someone like the president. However, that single voice can inspire other voices who come together collectively around a common cause. This was a great closing because even as an adult I sometimes wonder why I should even take time to call or write my representatives. However, I was reminded that our individual voices do matter and collectively they make impact.

 

Discovering Interests, Igniting Passions, and Amplifying Student Voice

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I’ve been doing a lot of work with teachers and students over the past couple of weeks focused on the IPICK strategy.  One of the big pieces of this strategy is “interest”.  The idea is that if we read things we are interested in then we are more likely to enjoy the books we read.  But…what if you don’t know your interests?

In each class I’ve taught, there has been a handful of students that no matter what you ask, what you suggest, or what stories you try to pull out they cannot name a single thing that they like.  This is frustrating, but rather than throw my hands up, it has made me very curious.  Why are these kids just shrugging their shoulders when you ask them what they like?  What can I do (we do as a school) to support all students in exploring their interests?

Ms. Spurgeon, a 4th/5th grade teacher, came to me with this exact same noticing. She had asked students to do an “All About Me” assignment, but when it came to interests, several students came up empty handed.  She wants us to do a project together this year using student interests, but we can’t start because we don’t know their interests.  We decided to try another route.

We were trying to decide what kind of text would immerse students in a variety of topics while still being very accessible to a range of reading levels.  I’m not really sure how we decided it, but we decided to try magazines.  I don’t really subscribe to magazines any more in the library, but we have all of the Ranger Rick, Zoobooks, Sports Illustrated, etc that we’ve subscribed to through the years.  I pulled out the boxes and put them all over the tables.  We did a very quick overview of how we really want to think about our interests and one way we do that is by trying as many things as we can.  Ms. Spurgeon talked about some foods she had tried like zebra and how she would never have known how much she liked the taste if she hadn’t tried it.  We modeled what “trying” a magazine looked like.  We were very specific to not read every page and were honest how we as adults often just flip through a magazine and pick out the pieces we want to read.  I loved this because I saw students perk up.  Knowing that they didn’t have to read the entire magazine was an invitation.  They dove in and started exploring.  They oohed and ahhed over so many pictures they saw, and Ms. Spurgeon and I had casual conversation with them about what they saw.

One moment stood out to me. Carlos and Carlena were looking at Kiki magazine together.  This magazine features a lot of fashion and crafts.  They discovered a page with a great 80’s style craft involving beads and safety pins.  The safety pins were put together on elastic string to create a bracelet.  They were glowing with excitement, so I told them I would take a picture of the page and send it to Gretchen Thomas at UGA to see if we could incorporate it into makerspace.

They looked a little shocked at first like, “You mean we could actually make this?”  Then, right after school I got an email from Carlos asking if I could email him the picture of the instructions.

It was that moment that told me I couldn’t let this momentum go.  This was a chance to empower individual students to explore a genuine interest.  Who cares if it was “just a craft”?  It was something they were suddenly passionate about when they had moments before been shrugging their shoulders.  That weekend, I went out and bought supplies, and I emailed them both first thing Monday morning.

I wasn’t surprised at all when I saw both of them walk in during their recess to get started on their project.

They came in for 3 days in a row during recess and didn’t even want to stop for lunch.

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As they’ve worked, I ‘ve shared their process via Twitter.  They have watched me documenting the process along the way, and I’ve told them that they are trying something out that they might teach to others or inspire other makerspace projects.

One day while we were working, Gretchen Thomas at UGA tweeted a picture of pins that her students had made.  When I showed it to Carlos and Carlena, they both smiled and said, “They’re doing that because of us?”

Another opportunity started to emerge because I saw how seeing the impact that they could have outside of our school walls was a motivator for them.  Next week for Dot Day, we are connecting with Sherry Gick and her 2nd grade class.  I asked Carlena and Carlos if they would share with this class how they are making their mark by being the first to try a craft in our makerspace and how they hope to pass on what they’ve learned along the way.  Without even blinking, they said yes.

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I have no idea where this is going to go, but I feel like I’ve tapped into something that I can’t let go.  I have to keep asking myself, my students, and our teachers how we can continue to explore interests, seek out individual passions, and amplify student voices beyond the walls of our school.  All of our students deserve to explore so many things to figure out what they are truly interested in.