Exploring Socially Conscious Themes

A structured activity that engages students in critical thinking through meaningful conversation

When considering exploring socially conscious themes with middle school students, including such topics as racial and social inequality, poverty, environmental protection, and LGBTQ rights amongst many others, there is a gap in the research and in the practical methodology of creating inclusive environments rich in dialogue specifically for the young adolescent learner (grades 4 – 8). This article outlines a method that encourages student exploration of the relevant socially conscious theme of integrity. As they engage in lively and authentic dialogue, ultimately reaching new levels of critical thinking, students apply understandings in ways that can help them make a difference in themselves, their peers, their community, and the world.

The theme of integrity was selected because it aligns with the pillars of social-emotional learning (SEL); with the Peace Literacy initiative goal to, “make good decisions, take effective actions…” (https:// www.peaceliteracy.org/); and with AMLE’s core value of integrity in practicing inclusive and courageous behaviors. While powerful for teaching the theme, this lesson is transferable for use with other socially conscious and equally important themes. This transferability allows teachers flexible and diverse opportunities for implementation.

Socially Conscious Theme of Integrity

Young adolescents may “begin to exhibit the ‘I don’t care’ attitude right around the glorious middle school years” (Werner-Burke et al, 2012, p. 45), thus providing an opportunity to integrate learning experiences in which learners can develop the tools to begin looking beyond themselves. Acting with integrity is one such way to do so. Integrity requires alignment between one’s behavior and moral/social values over time and across social contexts (Dunn, 2009). A person acts with integrity by making decisions and taking action in ways that uphold the interests and well-being of the community. Social consciousness embodies integrity.

Authentic Dialogue

Student motivation to fully engage in an inclusive environment is heightened when, through dialogue, learners realize that all voices are accepted and expected. “Students need to experience and learn to appreciate how conversation can spiral, leading them to higher quality ideas and actions when they truly listen to each other and reflect upon what others are saying” (Shanklin, 2010, p. 64).

Structured discussion strategies like Snowballing (Brookfield and Preskill, 2016), guide learners as they build on initial ideas, thoughts, and perceptions through scaffolded collaboration and reflection. Beginning with independent reflection, learners respond to prompts, then share their initial thinking in pairs, then move into progressively larger groups. At each stage, theme understanding “become[s] expanded, deepened, and reconfigured as the group size increases” (p. 49).

Critical Thinking

Strategies like Snowballing foster student teamwork and collaboration, heightening learners’ critical thinking. Because learning is a social and cultural process in which knowledge is co-constructed (Vygotsky, 1978), collaboration and dialogue are key to deepened understanding. Together, learners move beyond their surface understanding of a theme. By intensifying their critical thinking, learners reflect on their own actions and those of others, ultimately exemplifying the theme through meaningful action.

Integrity: The Lesson

In this modified version of Snowballing, students explore integrity by identifying a character or historical figure’s implicit and explicit traits. They develop metaphors that describe the character or historical figure’s integrity and use metaphors as a rich discussion tool. Students simultaneously make connections, engage in higher level thinking, use dialogue to explain thinking, and are afforded the opportunity to deflect their own experiences onto that of the character or historical figure.

Step 1

Explain that all individuals explicitly and implicitly reveal their integrity through their thoughts, speech, decisions, and actions. Several reflective and analytical questions can be asked to identify traits that illustrate integrity. To assist learners in identifying these as they read independently, in small groups, or as a whole class, provide guiding prompts, such as:

What do you notice about the character/historical figure?

  • Explicit What does the character say? Note the character’s actions. Document the decisions made. Describe how integrity is or is not demonstrated.
  • Implicit Chronicle the character’s decision-making process. Identify how the character changes over time. What doesn’t the character say? How does the character reflect on his or her actions?
Step 2

Structure the next steps by starting with student pairs. Remind students of the theme: integrity. Independently, learners answer the prompts and provide evidence from the text.

Step 3

Move students into pairs to share their individual prompt responses and work collaboratively to generate a list of traits both explicit (speech and actions) and implicit (thoughts and decisions). For example, the pair could describe a character or historical figure as being confident (explicit), fair (explicit), egocentric (implicit), and having a sense of justice (implicit).

Step 4

Grow the snowball once the pairs have had ample time to collaboratively generate a list of explicit and implicit character traits by reconvening the whole class. While pairs share out, document their ideas for all to see, including their rationale for each trait, and textual evidence.

Step 5

With the list of traits generated, melt the snowball by directing the original pairs of students to join another pair, making a group of four. Ask each group of four to choose a trait either from the whole-class list or one of their own choosing and to brainstorm and select a metaphor that can be used to fully explore the theme. Using large chart paper, the group then creates a visual representation of that trait using their selected metaphor. They clarify and provide reasoning for how the metaphor represents integrity. For example, to illustrate a character or historical figure that rises above ego-centrism a group could use the metaphor of eyeglasses. The initial use of eyeglasses could then be extended by explaining that a person visits an optometrist to obtain an accurate prescription just as a person who acts with integrity may consult with a trusted individual to ensure they are seeing a person or situation clearly and are therefore responding in a way that shows integrity.

Step 6

After displaying their visual representation, each small group shares their metaphor and rationale with the whole class. Group members collaborate to make the explicit connection between their selected metaphor and the theme of integrity. While students actively listen, they hear the varying metaphors presented by other groups and subsequently build upon their understanding of the theme. These discussions can help students extend their own metaphor, clarifying, and broadening their perception of what integrity is. This, in turn, will influence and hone their skills in connecting the theme to real life experiences and decisions.

Step 7

Melt the snowball again by having students engage in individual reflection to internalize what it means to have integrity in future real-life situations as they become change-agents in their own and other’s lives. To clarify and teach deep reflection, model it by conducting a think aloud linking one of the metaphors to a situation in your own life in which you experienced or acted with integrity.

Once the process reflecting is modeled, provide quiet uninterrupted think time for the students to process and informally journal about their personal connection to any one of the metaphors displayed in the room. This time affords students the opportunity to sort through meaningful situations in their own lives where they have been faced with a choice that required or compromised their integrity.

Step 8 (optional)

As desired, ask students to share their connection to the theme with a small group. If incorporating this step, it is important to inform students that they may be sharing before they journal. It is also important that inclusive classroom practices are in place where all listen without judgement and do not interrupt as others share. While sharing, students may choose a safe word such as “pass” if they prefer not to reveal the situation they journaled about.

The powerful layering of theme and metaphor using visuals, high-order thinking, listening, speaking, reading, writing, and reflection creates a lesson that guides students to a deepened understanding of the theme. This understanding enhances one’s ability to self-assess, reflect, and respond to situations with integrity.


When teachers empower students by teaching socially conscious themes through structured activities like Snowball and the development of metaphors, they provide an opportunity to explore, question, and connect to the ideas of others through purposeful dialogue. Actively participating in authentic dialogue about what integrity is and how characters and historical figures do or do not exhibit integrity extends critical thinking skills, engages learners in meaningful conversation, creates an avenue for students to reflect on their own integrity, and bolster’s a young adolescent’s desire to positively impact the world.


Brookfield, S., & Preskill, S. (2016). Discussion as a way of teaching: Tools and techniques for democratic classrooms. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Dunn, C. (January, 2009). Integrity matters. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/ publication/267699187_Integrity_matters

Shanklin, N. (2010) Inventing your way into highquality student discussions. Voices in the Middle. 18(2), 63-65.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Werner-Burke, et al (2012). Bridging the disconnect: A layered approach to jump-starting engagement. Voices from the Middle, 19(4), 45.