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Student Voice

After-School Clubs Encourage Problem-Solving by Letting Students Lead

Using their interests as a guide, elementary students can simultaneously acquire knowledge and serve the school community.

September 23, 2021
Middle school students work together in a group.
Allison Shelley / American Education

If you’re worried about the world we’re living in, talk to a child and your perspective will be renewed. As educators, we know that our students are the future, but how can this be true if we don’t include them in our present?

Children are innately curious about the world. Our world. I’ve noticed that children begin to become aware of problems around 9 years old and develop a sense of agency in which they yearn to be part of the solution. Look around any elementary school and you’ll likely see posters for recycling, advertising fundraisers, or encouraging reusable straws to save the turtles. In the 2020–21 school year, it became abundantly clear that students craved an outlet that gave them the opportunity to create more than posters. Many students entered classrooms exploding with questions:

  • “What are civil rights?”
  • “What is the Black Lives Matter movement?”
  • “Why are people angry on the news?”
  • “How can we help?”

With a jam-packed curriculum calendar and plates filled with more than ever before, I wondered how teachers could explore answers to these questions with the justice that the topics demanded. That was when a colleague recruited me to lead a current events club of third- and fourth-grade students. This was the opportunity I didn’t realize I was waiting for.

How to Get Started

To form this club in a pandemic, a hybrid model was the best option. Students who stayed after school with extended care joined me in my classroom as students at home connected with us through Google Meet. Our 13 club members first met in March 2021 with two questions in mind:

  1. What do we want to accomplish?
  2. How do we want to feel when we meet as a club?

Unanimously, the students decided that they wanted to learn more about social justice and how they could take action to make their community a better place. Using the Yale-designed, evidence-based approach called RULER, we developed our club charter.

A charter is a set of cocreated norms that communicate how participants want to feel and the behaviors necessary in order to achieve said feelings. Our club members agreed that in order to dive into their mission, they wanted to feel respected, included, empowered, open-minded, and compassionate. Some of the agreed-upon behaviors included the following:

  • Thinking about multiple perspectives
  • Being flexible when listening to new ideas
  • Creating a space for all voices

After finalizing the charter, students felt that they were in a safe environment where they could learn new things, ask questions, and become risk-takers.

Encourage Students to Cocreate Club Content

Inspired by Ron Berger’s work at EL Education, the faculty and staff at my school are passionate in developing students who are leaders of their own learning. Students can take on this leadership role in their learning by cocreating curriculum. When learners are actively involved in the construction of their own knowledge, their autonomy and engagement increase. I worked to keep this philosophy alive in our club. (Learn more about Ron Berger here.)

In the second meeting, students set about to create their vision of how they could take action. They brainstormed ideas such as making posters to promote equity and equality, implementing a social justice spirit week, or organizing a collection of poems from various cultures. Ultimately, students decided that they wanted to educate their peers on how kids can understand social justice and take action. To do this, they created a weekly segment on the morning announcements titled, “Think About It Thursday.”

In the following weeks, students compiled a list of social justice topics for discussion:

  • What is social justice?
  • How to use your voice
  • How to be an upstander
  • The importance of listening with an open mind
  • What is identity?

Students worked with partners to choose a topic, read student-friendly texts on Epic (such as Dictionary for a Better World, An ABC of Equality, and Get Involved Social Justice Activist), researched, and took notes on their topic. Then they wrote and edited a 2-minute-long script, which they memorized and recorded for our weekly Think About It Thursday segment on the morning announcements video. Club members made a video to kick off summer vacation to remind students of the importance of keeping these lessons in mind, even when not in school. Club members also made Bingo charts and summer logs to encourage their peers to continue these practices.

Through the weekly videos, students made connections, expanded their vocabulary, shared anecdotes, and provided simple action steps for their peers and teachers to try. These weekly videos were accepted and celebrated throughout our school community. Students around the school gave air high-fives to club members who appeared in the videos. Teachers commended club members for teaching everyone something new. Parents were proud of their children for taking action in something they were passionate about. 

Our school development plan for the 2020–21 school year included cultivating a culture and climate of equity, inclusion, and belonging, as well as creating empowered learners. Our club’s work was aligned with this vision. Additionally, open communication with parents is integral—they were informed of our club’s objective from the beginning, which increased support.

One of my favorite moments was when a partner pair pointed out that we recite the Pledge of Allegiance each morning with a line that states, “with liberty and justice for all.” They urged that students should understand what this actually means, which led them to create their video on the topic, “What Is Social Justice?” Another favorite moment occurred when a student shared an anecdote of how a friend acted as an upstander, which inspired a video. Students and teachers learned from these videos and can take action in their own lives.

As we continue to navigate how to answer students’ inquiries about current events and the world around us, let’s remember to allow them to act as our copilots and not merely passengers along for the ride. When given the opportunity to have choice, students are able to develop their voice. Who’s ready to listen?

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  • Interest-Based Learning
  • Student Engagement
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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