Fiction to Action: YA Literature to Inspire Social Activism by Dr. Alice Hays
Six years ago, I realized my senior composition course had become stale. I taught the assignments as isolated writing types and as a result, it had become a skill-based course in which none of us (teacher or students) were engaged. This lead me to ponder how I might shift the dynamics of the classroom.
I attended a symposium where I heard about someone who focused their writing course on following the journey of a students' t-shirts. While the book they used wasn’t YA (Where Am I Wearing, by Kelsey Timmerman), it was accessible for students and encouraged them to think about the global impact of their choices. I thought it was a brilliant idea. I wasn’t sure that all my students would be as interested in the same thing, though, and I wanted to provide as much choice as I possibly could. When I thought about what I really wanted my students to learn, I realized that beyond becoming better writers and researchers, I wanted them to be prepared to make a difference in the world. As a result, I decided to center my course around activism. I tied all of our learning goals to this idea of preparing my students to become active citizens within our society. We wrote narratives on our involvement with a social issue, we researched social issues, we gave speeches about our social issues to our class, to the school and to the community. The final project was for each student to develop an action plan addressing the issue they learned about throughout the year. Students then carried out their plan to the best of their abilities.
I am fortunate to work with several teachers in both middle school and high school who allowed me to come into their classroom and share my love of activist oriented curriculum with their students. These teachers have used this approach as full semester projects, as well as short-term projects. They all gave their students the opportunity to choose their research topics, time to read relevant novels in small groups, and a chance to develop (and sometimes implement) action plans to address the social justice issue they researched. The addition of young adult literature allowed students with little experience with the issue to develop a stronger sense of identification and empathy for the problem, while allowing students with experience in the issue to see that they were not alone.
Some of the issues that the students focused on included immigration, refugees, racism, religious discrimination, environmentalism, poverty, mental illness and abuse. The books that we used follow.
High School Books
Middle School Books
Things to Consider
As I reflect on my own quest to create a more active and student-centered classroom, I am grateful that I gave myself and my students permission to break out of our traditional approach. Seeing my students come alive when they presented their findings, and get involved in the community was more of a reward than any set of A papers had ever been. It is my hope that you, too, have a positive experience with curriculum like this.
Whatever you choose to do, I hope you have a fabulous school year!