Nerdy Social Action by Sarah Mulhern Gross
I have a confession to make:
I don’t love all of the novels I am required to teach as part of the curriculum.
Phew! It feels good to get that off my chest! I understand the need for a canon and I’m lucky because I have a lot of flexibility in my district, but I just don’t feel passionately about all of the books my students and I read together. I’m making slow and steady progress in changing some of the books we read, but I also recognize that there are ways to connect with stories beyond loving or disliking a book. And that while I don’t love all of the books, I have students who do connect with and enjoy those same books.
At the same time, I know that passion is important. If I am not passionate about the book I am reading with my students, it is immediately obvious to them. So how can we connect with more books in a meaningful way?
For me, the answer is social activism. There are so many stories that students see as fiction that can be turned into real-world experiences. How can we, as students and teachers, reach beyond the four walls of our classrooms and help others?
Next marking period I will be starting a new unit and I’m giddy with anticipation. Ok, it’s not really a new unit but really a new version of what I’ve been doing for the past few years. My curriculum includes Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which is always a tough sell in my high school classroom. I adore Achebe but admit that his seminal work isn’t my favorite, either. I’ve always worked hard to get my students engaged in the text with modest results. (They tend to remember the “yams!” years later, but I’m pretty sure they could be getting more out of it). A few years ago I started working my unit around Chimamanda Adichie’s “Danger of a Single Story” TED talk, which helped my students engage with the text in a whole new way. Last year I added Adichie’s The Purple Hibiscus and half of the students read that while the others read Achebe’s book. My student teacher did an awesome job but I still felt like something was missing.
Then Eliot Schrefer, author of Endangered and Threatened, posted a message on Facebook that lit a spark for me….
I had already decided to read aloud Threatened when my students are reading Things Fall Apart and The Purple Hibiscus in book clubs. At the same time they will be studying imperialism in world history class. And I was planning to show Virunga, an Academy-Award nominated documentary about four people fighting to protect Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But I also wanted my students to be able to make a difference, beyond watching and reading about something, beyond “hashtag activism” (which can also get students thinking but doesn’t necessarily get them to act). Eliot’s post was a call to action for me (and the world!).
So in a few weeks my students will start their own mobile phone and electronics drive to benefit the Jane Goodall Institute. As an English teacher at a STEM-focused school this is the perfect social action project for my students. And that’s not the only project out there. Check out some of these other inspiring social action projects that your students can get involved in while reading great books.
Social Activism and Books:
Speak: Laurie Halse Anderson is an outspoken advocate for RAINN and there are many ways students can get involved in fundraising and raising awareness about sexual assault.
Chains and Forge: Laurie Halse Anderson must be psychic! This appeared on my Facebook newsfeed today and it’s a perfect example of a great way to get students involved in social activism while reading a novel:
For fans of John Green’s books: John and Hank Green promote social activism by their fans, collectively called Nerdfighters, through projects like Project For Awesome and Kiva. Students and teachers can easily get involved in both. LeeAnn Spillane wrote a great Nerdy post about getting students involved in P4a.
A Long Walk to Water: Holly Mueller and David Etkin shared their idea for social activism related to Linda Sue Park’s A Long Walk to Water. These amazing teachers united their middle school students in a walk to raise money for Water for South Sudan.
The One and Only Ivan: This is a project similar to the electronics collection posted by Eliot Schrefer. Zoo Atlanta, the real Ivan’s home until he passed away, works with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International and Eco-cell to to raise money for gorilla conservation. Classes that collect 100 cell phones can adopt an infant gorilla and classes that collect 200 cell phones receive a painting created by one the zoo’s gorilla artist! What a great project for any class that has read Katherine Appegate’s amazing book!
Sold: Patricia McCormick’s powerful novel-in-verse may inspire students to make a different. Loose Change to Loosen Chains collects loose change to combat modern slavery.
Tracking Trash: Loree Griffin Burns’ book about human trash that ends up in the ocean can inspire students to clean up the world around their school. You might host a beach or lake cleanup, a litter cleanup around school, or a recycling initiative in your classroom.
And these are just a few ideas! There are groups like the Harry Potter Alliance, which runs numerous literary-inspired campaigns that students and teachers can get involved in. It’s about finding a cause that you and your students feel passionate about!
Talk to your students about the themes you notice in books you read together. Is there a local organization you can partner with? Another classroom? And remember, social activism doesn’t have to include raising money. Just raising awareness can make a difference!
Together, we can use books to inspire our students to advocate for change. Have you done any social activism projects inspired by books with your students? I’d love to hear about your experiences!
Sarah Mulhern Gross is a National Board Certified English teacher who lives in New Jersey with her husband, two Australian Shepherds, and cat. She was born a member of the Nerdy Book Club. She was “that girl” at her younger siblings’ sporting events with her head in a book. You know, the antisocial one. 🙂 She has been teaching Freshman World Literature and English IV at a STEM high school in NJ since 2010. She previously taught sixth grade Language Arts in New Jersey. Sarah blogs at www.thereadingzone.wordpress.com and can be found on Twitter @thereadingzone. She promises to start blogging and tweeting more once she unpacks all the boxes from her recent move!
Thanks for this – I really like the idea of social activism and taking students’ reading beyond the classroom! I also teach TFA and PH; I have not read Threatened, but just looked it up. I agree that it can definitely be a struggle sometimes with TFA (though this year it seems I have many students who preferred TFA and its message). How do you see the connection between the mobile recycling social activism project and those novels? I definitely see the connection with Threatened, but was wondering how you make the connection to TFA and PH? I would love to find a way to take their understanding of both novels beyond the classroom walls.
My focus is on the effects of imperialism, so that’s how I make the connection. So many of the issues all over the African continent stem from imperialism, from environmental to economic to medical issues. Often the students think that imperialism came and went and the problems that Achebe and Adichie write about are no longer systemic. Threatened (I actually ended up switching to Endangered to better match up with Virunga) is the thread that brings them all together. 🙂
I think this a great way to organize the reading of several books set in Africa. Do you also help students think about social activism for the people living in the areas of the books they are reading? With Threatened, for instance, they could explore agencies helping street children like Luc and so recognize the need to help people and chimps. Books about Africa in America tend to be centered mostly about wildlife so I’m a big advocate of helping kids thinking about the people as well. I think Eliot does a great job of doing this in both of his books. And it is fabulous that you are using Chimamanda Adichie, maybe connecting that reading to some of what is happening in Nigeria today? Complicated, but worth exploring in more depth? If you didn’t see it, here’s a recent piece she did: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/01/opinion/sunday/lights-out-in-nigeria.html
Monica, I am so glad you saw this! Since writing this I actually changed our read aloud from Threatened to Endangered because I wanted to focus on conservation of both the environment and cultures. Paired up with the Virunga documentary this lets the students look at Nigeria and Congo from the time of imperialism to today. My students are looking at how imperialism still plays such a huge role in the economy in Congo especially. But as they read Things Fall Apart and The Purple Hibiscus they are looking for nonfiction pairings that could work with the books. My goal is to have them become more aware of what is going on in Nigeria today and what needs to be done to help. (But at the same time I am trying to make them understand that the answer is not and should not be Western countries swooping in to “save” anyone or anything. We need to work with groups on the ground in these areas. The conversations have been fascinating so far!).
Thank you for the link to the op-ed! I somehow missed that one so I’m glad you brought it to my attention.
Sarah, thanks for this answer. While I like both books, I was especially impressed with the sensitive consideration of the complicated conflict in DRC. Do you know the site http://africasacountry.com/?
I love this! I’m always looking for age appropriate (I work in elementary) ways to open my students’ eyes to the world around them. I’ll have to think of ways I can add some social activism into the mix.
Thank you, Maria! It really makes a huge difference when students can act on the feelings they have after reading a book!
Some recent activism titles I’d recommend for elementary-school readers include MADDI’S FRIDGE by Lois Brandt and ONE PLASTIC BAG by Miranda Paul, NEW SHOES by Susan Lynn Meyer, and, of course, I have to mention my own EMMANUEL’S DREAM. 🙂
Such inspiring ideas here. Thank you! I will sharing this post with several colleagues. Your ideas help me rethink a writing project my students are generating for themselves right now. Perfect timing for this post.
What a great post! Thanks so much for sharing these great ideas! Can’t wait to get started with my students!
Thank you, Amy! 🙂
Thanks for this post, Sarah. I loved it! I’m going to share these recommendations with my alums and the students in my lit/methods classes. We read The One and Only Ivan a couple of weeks ago, so this is really timely. Good luck with your project!
The One and Only Ivan was one of my inspirations, too. There are so many great ways to get students involved in the larger world after reading Ivan’s story!
What an amazing post. Love your book selections and the links you’re encouraging students to make. What a way to make kids feel like they have power to do things in the world. Can’t wait to share these with my own kids.
(And Virunga needs their attention now more than ever: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/mar/16/democratic-republic-of-congo-wants-to-explore-for-oil-in-virunga-national-park)
Thank you! Eliot Schrefer posted about the Virunga documentary on Facebook back in October or November and I was hooked. My students are hooked now that we have started watching it, too. One of them even asked if he could finish it on his own over break!
Sarah, I just finished Threatened, and LOVED it. It’s going to be my 6th graders’ next read aloud. Thanks for alerting us to Eliot Schrefer’s campaign. Thanks, too, for mentioning David and me, and our NBC post. Our #ReadWalkWater projects have been so rewarding! Great post – literature is powerful and can change the world!
“literature is powerful and can change the world!”
Exactly!! Thank you so much!
Reblogged this on The Reading Zone and commented:
Be sure to check out my post on The Nerdy Book Club today! I’m thrilled to share what I am doing in my classroom and how students can be inspired by literature to change the world.
This is a great post! i’m going into elementary teaching so this was nice to read!
This is great! In New Zealand I have the freedom to choose whatever texts I wish to my classes – and it is such a luxury! But linking themes to social activism is a fantastic idea, I am teaching The Hunger Games later on in the year and I know that the Harry Potter Alliance does some great stuff we could get involved in. Literature is a perfect way to make change in the world!
Brilliant ideas, Sarah! Thanks for sharing!
Sarah, I think it’s so great that you’re doing this in your classroom! I firmly believe that adding that activism element–giving students a role and responsibility tied to the reading, however small–makes literature (or any other subject, for that matter) so much more directly relevant to them. If any of your students get fired up and wonder how to take their activism to the next level, I hope you’ll point them to my teen nonfiction book, BE A CHANGEMAKER: HOW TO START SOMETHING THAT MATTERS (Simon Pulse, 2014). Keep up the good work: Who knows what kinds of changemakers you’re creating? ❤
p.s. I picked up a few new titles for my to-read pile, too! Thanks!! 🙂
Thank you, Laurie Ann! I just added your book to my TBR pile. 🙂
What a great way to create authentic assignments for the students! I need to remember this as I prep for next year over the summer.
Social activism looks like a great way to make the assignments authentic. I know not all of my students would buy in, but it would reach more of them. I need to remember this when I’m prepping for next year.
l’m absolutely and totally in love with this post! Reblogged at http://whatstheword-saywhaaat.blogspot.com/2015/04/nerdy-social-action-by-sarah-mulhern_18.html.