During middle school, students begin to strengthen their ideas and beliefs about themselves and the world around them. To become socially responsible citizens, students need the skills to explore controversial issues through various lenses, respect the ideas of others, better understand themselves, and determine how they can impact change. These skills can be developed across content areas by providing students opportunities to make connections between the curriculum and today's world. As students make these connections they begin to understand the relevance of the content and the value of their own ideas, and they feel empowered to use their knowledge to work towards making a positive change.
By asking questions like the ones below, teachers encourage students to make meaningful connections between the content and its impact on the world. Posing these questions as part of a small or large group discussion, helps students hear the ideas of others. When students are first introduced to these questions it can seem laborious because it is a new way of thinking. As they practice, it starts to become automatic. As they approach academic content, they consider how what they are learning can lead to a better understanding of the challenges faced in our society and how to work towards positive change.
How do I know this information is credible?
What could our society learn from _______?
How does _______ relate to our current world?
How can this knowledge be best used to improve our community?
How can you apply this lesson to your own life?
How could these facts help inform others?
Including reflection as part of students' learning routine helps students make connections between the content, themselves, and the world. A short writing prompt can guide students to think through their own ideas. Through this process students begin to better understand who they are and what they believe. I have found that when students begin these reflections, it is helpful to ask specific questions that guide them to making the connections. As the process becomes more familiar, general prompts allow them room to explore their ideas, with the final step being that students can reflect on any topic and make connections to themselves, other content areas, and society. I offer students a choice to post their reflections online and digitally interact with their peers, or to share their reflection with me privately.
Students have access to unlimited information on the Internet. Taking time to examine these sources for credibility and bias helps students develop an essential skill needed to be an informed citizen. Examining sources for credibility leads to an open dialogue about what makes a credible source and why that is important. Examining statistics can demonstrate to students how numbers can be manipulated in favor of one cause and oppose another. By providing examples of multiple sources that provide different viewpoints on the same topic, students begin to see that it is essential to consider multiple sources when conducting formal or informal research and how even credible sources may provide conflicting information about the same topic. Asking questions such as the ones below can help students begin to discover how much misinformation is available and how checking sources is essential to being an informed citizen today.
Who is the author? Is there a reason to think they may present on one side of the situation?
When was this published?
Is the site or author trying to sell you something?
Can you find this same information on another site?
Are there other places that cite opposite facts?
What is the mission of the site you found the information? Is there any reason to think they are biased?
A follow up to this conversation is asking students how inaccurate information has the power to negatively impact society. This can be done in science by looking at information that has no basis in science though it's portrayed as "a scientific fact"; in history class by examining propaganda; in math when looking at misrepresented statistics; and in English students can use nonfiction reading strategies to examine various types of information.
Students are often told that what they are learning will help them in the future and that their generation will be our future leaders. Integrating social justice throughout the curriculum allows students to discover that their voice matters, their ideas are important, and they can impact positive change in their community as a middle school student. Provide outlets for students to voice their thoughts and ideas with their peers and in their local and global communities. Build in support for students who are moved to take action and call others to join them in action.
Open Dialogue–Students practice communicating with each other about current events they feel passionate about. Demonstrate to them how the events taking place in our world are connected to content across the curriculum and how these connections can help them better understand and work towards improving the world around them.
Elevator Pitch–Students write and practice a 1- to 2-minute "speech" about something they feel passionate about changing in their community. Encourage them to share their pitch with peers, parents, other teachers, and community members.
Write a Letter or Email to an Authentic Audience–Students research a topic that impacts their community and then research who in the community could help them impact change based on how they think changes need to be made. Students then write a letter to the community member that explains their research and calls the community member to action.
Speeches–Students practice research and public speaking skills by sharing ideas with their peers and calling them to action. We do this assignment as a school-wide grades 5-8 contest called The Spotlight Challenge. This provides students the opportunity to spotlight something they are passionate about and to encourage others to take action. See the February 2019 AMLE Magazine article "The Spotlight Challenge" at https://tinyurl.com/y58xhqjq for details.
Real World Examples–Show students real world examples of diverse children who are making a difference in the world. Let them explore what inspired these individuals and how they went about impacting positive change. Students will see the power of using social media for good; adults can learn a lot from kids and the value of research, writing, and speaking skills when being an advocate.
The Power of Teaching Social Responsibility
Teaching social responsibility is a mindset that guides how I approach curriculum and students. Each day I consider how the content I am teaching can help students find their voice. I ask questions and assign writing that encourages students to confront their own bias, consider various perspectives, and discover that as humans we are all more alike than different. I work towards empowering students to see themselves as someone who can use their knowledge and passion to be an advocate for positive change.
Kasey Short teaches English and social studies at Charlotte Country Day School, where she also serves as English Department chair and Spotlight Challenge coordinator.
All photos provided by author.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, October 2019.