“We’re not social activists yet.” (Or are they?)

December 3, 2009 at 12:02 am Leave a comment

posted by Alisa Algava ‘08, leader of a small Hudson Valley progressive school

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” ~ Margaret Mead

The fifth and sixth graders were working on a project together outside on the driveway earlier today. They were painting a banner with pink paint – “Kids for the Cure, Sunday 12-3pm” – and, as soon as it is dry, they are going to hang it on our front fence for everyone driving by to see. These seven kids, along with their teacher Anita, have been brainstorming, debating, compromising, and envisioning this Sunday’s event for some time now. But the amazing thing is how much more there is to this project than this weekend’s Celebration of Life, even with all of the activities they have planned. Yes, they are so excited about the music, face painting, chair massage, information table, bake sale, “StoryCorps” type recording center, and pink bracelets they designed and ordered and will be selling. And, yes, they are thrilled that they are raising money for the American Cancer Society. But why are they doing this? Really?

This morning, a good family friend of two of our students spent an hour talking with all of our 2nd-12th grade kids. Drawing on his long history as an activist, he shared with us his experiences and his vision of social activism and civil rights. He told stories (including the time he met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and some of what he saw and did during the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War). And he talked about prejudice (how in our society we are brought up to judge other people based on appearance), communication (that how we talk to and look at each other matters), and social change (we can change ourselves, that’s the first step). I then got the chance to sit and talk with our 5th and 6th graders about this Sunday’s event…

  • You’ll walk up to the porch and be greeted by me and Andrea. You’ll get a program and get sent to the information table.
  • You’ll see the chair massage by Oscar’s mom.
  • I printed 50 copies of a sheet on breast cancer information.
  • 100% of the money is going to the American Cancer Society.
  • The story table is where people can record their story about why they’re donating, a personal story of breast cancer in their life, their reasons for being at this event.
  • There’s going to be music. It’s a celebration of life. So it’s going to be a party.

And then we had a conversation about social activism. I had asked how our speaker’s experiences might relate to their project. And Anita asked them if they are social activists…

  • We’re not social activists yet.
  • Yes, we are. We’ve already started by getting people aware. By emails and talking to people. And in two days…
  • No. It’s a really small thing. We’ll only get $500 at the most, and people raise like a million.
  • We are social activists because we’re socially active. We’re telling people our interests and what’s important to us.
  • We want to help.
  • We’re raising money.
  • Social activism is the way that one person or a group of people helps the community or the world to make a difference.
  • If no one even buys a bracelet, people are still coming and getting educated.

We talked for a moment about the Constitution and freedom of speech, which they also have been studying and discussing. Anita said that social action can happen because of our Constitution and the right to speak up. Our speaker had referred to this concept, too, when he described how exercising that right gives courage to other people to speak up, that it has done this throughout U.S. history.

I noticed a new project appear recently in the middle school, a timeline hanging from one of the beams. It starts in the year 1400 and reaches all the way to today. Our fifth and sixth graders are just beginning to work with it, to investigate American history through a new lens. But ever since they began this social action project, they have been grappling with ideas that extend far back beyond the “founding” of the United States. They have been trying to understand freedom and citizenship and power and, most importantly, respect for other human beings. Throughout this experience, the 5th and 6th graders have tied together social studies, writing, graphic design, research, and even math. By doing integrated projects like this, our kids learn to make connections and solve problems. They are the thinkers, the do-ers, the active constructors of their own knowledge. And they make things happen. You can see for yourself this Sunday!

An afterword…

The event was held almost two weeks ago.  Our 5th/6th graders raised $590 for the American Cancer Society.

The next day Anita sent an email to all the teachers and families: “Our children are so lucky to be part of a community that embraces their vision and helps them to achieve it. Sunday, and the days leading up to our event, reminded me that at our school, I am never alone. The work that we have done, since the beginning of September, helped us to create Kids for the Cure. To recap, here are some of the ways we prepared for this event:

  • Lists of personal interests
  • Lists of the way our family fits into our extended community: church, politics, sports, etc.
  • Writing about our beliefs and things that we are passionate about
  • Learning about young social activists such as Ruby Bridges, Lincoln, Ben Franklin….
  • Learning about the Constitution and the structure of government
  • Learning about local social activists
  • Visit from a parent who is a lawyer (discussion of constitutional law)
  • Visit from a parent who shared her personal reasons for being active in raising funds for breast cancer (discussion of our interests and passions)
  • Visit from a musician/activist (what does it mean to be socially active? getting up in the morning and stretching beyond your comfort zone)
  • Visit from a political activist (civil rights activism and prejudice, what does that mean about our daily interactions)
  • Current Events
  • Elections
  • Graphing the cancer death rates from 1999-2005

We are not finished. We are constructing a time-line of American history, focusing on important events and their relationship to social action and civic responsibility. Who are we in the world? Our work this year revolves around this question.”

Alisa Algava graduated from Bank Street’s Leadership for Educational Change program last December. For the past 14 years, she has taught and learned in public, private, and charter schools in NY, NJ, and RI. She has written a handful of postings on the Alumni Blog about her experiences leading and learning in a small progressive school. Alisa loves learning. She loves moderating The Alumni Blog. And she really loves her nephew.

Entry filed under: classrooms, community, curriculum, democratic education, dialogue, diversity, integrated curricula, social-emotional learning, teaching tolerance.

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