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….

eliot schrefer call to action

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:

lha revolutionary war washington post

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 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!