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Thinking Critically About Social Action Projects

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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The Kony 2012 video went viral, but did it really make a difference?

Teachers making the shift to more student-centered classrooms sometimes feel like explorers, navigating uncharted territory. Just ask Shelley Wright @wrightsroom, a veteran educator from Saskatchewan, Canada. On her "Wrights room" blog, she shares the questions that she and her students wrestle with as they engage in project-based learning. Those questions are particularly challenging when students explore issues of social justice.

When investigating issues like human trafficking or the rights of children, Wright's students want to do more than learn in the abstract. "They want to do something that makes a difference now," she says. For their teacher, that means helping students think more critically about what it takes to create real change.

"We talk about what it might look like to make a difference. They do research to figure out, what are our best options? Students have to learn to evaluate the role they're taking if they're trying to help others," Wright says, including whether they want to support the work of nonprofit organizations.

A Teachable Moment

Last year, the nonprofit organization Invisible Children provided what Wrights calls "a teachable moment" to explore the complexities of social change efforts.

Invisible Children aims to bring a permanent end to atrocities committed in northern Uganda by the Lord's Resistance Army. LRA has since moved out of Uganda, and its ranks have dwindled dramatically from the years when it forcibly enlisted thousands of child soldiers. LRA warlord Joseph Kony remains at large.

Invisible Children created a sensation with the release of its film Kony 2012, which calls for the arrest of the LRA leader. The film went viral almost as soon as it was released (YouTube hits are now at nearly 100 million). So did criticism of the organization. Critics charged that Invisible Children, based in the United States, was over-simplifying complex issues playing out on the other side of the world. Here's a lengthy post about the issue from Ethan Zuckerman of MIT's Media Lab.

Wright blogged about her misgivings over the #Kony2012 campaign in a post called "Slacktivism". "I'm not sure that making Kony famous is really going to change anything," she says. Especially in the age of social media, she adds, "it's easy to think you're an advocate of social justice when you're not really doing anything to create change. Pushing 'like' on Facebook isn't real advocacy."

Yet in the same post, Wright acknowledged her support for the school-rebuilding work that Invisible Children has done in northern Uganda. One of her students' most profound learning experiences, in fact, was their successful campaign to raise more than $22,000 for Invisible Children's Schools for Schools program. A student who took part in that campaign later traveled to Uganda to see the school restoration work in action. "That was deeply life-changing for her," Wright says.

Watch Wright's TEDx talk about her students' successful campaign for Invisible Children:

Starting with Trust

Zach Barrows, a former teacher who now works for Invisible Children, acknowledges that the Kony 2012 campaign "got confusing," especially for the education community. With all the other pressures on teachers, it can take courage to incorporate social justice themes into the curriculum. "Are they going to put their neck on the line," Barrows asks, for an organization whose strategies they can't explain?

Invisible Children has responded to the criticism, in part, by being more transparent with its financial information. "We've built 11 schools, awarded scholarships, and protected communities on the frontlines," Barrows says. "Nobody's getting rich off this."

If teachers are going to involve their students in Invisible Children campaigns, Barrows acknowledges, they have to trust the organization. "Trust is our product," he says.

Trust appears to be on the upswing. This week, some 1,400 young people from nearly 30 countries are gathering for the Fourth Estate Leadership Summit hosted by Invisible Children. A special track of the conference is reserved for educators.

One of the conference sessions will highlight research showing that youth who take part in social action projects like Invisible Children report increased leadership skills, feel better prepared for college, pay more attention to world affairs, and report an increased ability to solve real-life problems. Such findings can help bolster the decision to bring topical issues into the classroom.

In the months ahead, Barrows promises, the educator community can expect more resources from Invisible Children. An online community is in the planning, for example, to help teachers connect with each on other about social action projects.

Take-Away Lessons

Wright used the recent Invisible Children controversy to push her students' thinking -- and her own -- about the complexities of global action.

"If you did research, you started hearing the voices of Ugandan writers blogging about this. That's an interesting place to take kids," she says. "What do the people who live there really think? What do they say that they need? It became a teachable moment," she says. She pushed her students to consider hard questions, such as, "What's the difference between actually digging in, providing relief, and doing advocacy? And why is advocacy also essential to social justice?"

Here are some additional takeaways for teachers interested in bringing social justice issues into the classroom:

Make media literacy part of your curriculum. As Wright explains, "We need to critically evaluate what is being said, and not just hope that the social media we've been handed is correct." Critically evaluating media -- even from trusted sources -- involves asking questions such as: Who made this? What's the creator's message and motivation? How does watching this affect me as a viewer?

Do your homework. Research nonprofit organizations before connecting your students with their programs or campaigns. Find out how their funds are allocated and what percentage of their budget actually goes to the programs your students want to support. Before her students did their first Invisible Children campaign, for example, Wright examined the group's financial statements and was satisfied that "the money would go where we wanted it to go." She also looks for organizations that encourage self-sufficiency and engage local stakeholders in coming up with their own solutions.

Make it personal. Wright's students became determined to do something to help children in Uganda after they met young people from that country. Their personal connection was the spark for their first service project. Action projects are more meaningful if they start with students' interests, Wright says. But, she acknowledges, that raises another question for teachers: "How do we transition to a classroom that allows students to discover what they're passionate about?"

For Wright, the long-term goal of teaching about social justice "is to work myself out of a job." By the time her students finish high school, she wants them to be able to think critically on their own. To prepare for that day, they read widely, learning about social issues from books like The Bite of the Mango, Diary of Anne Frank, Night, and Sold.

They watch and evaluate films, identifying issues that they want to investigate further. They ask hard questions and evaluate what they learn through research. "When you do all that for a project," Wright says, "it may take two or three months, but you're going to meet three-fourths of your learning outcomes. On top of that, there's the whole thinking piece. To me, that's the crucial skill."

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gillian rosenberg's picture

A word of warning: Service activities in classrooms have mostly been justified by anecdotal assumptions about student learning, and political rhetoric related to popular causes. Empirical evidence supporting actual learning outcomes, both short and long-term, although starting to emerge, is still scant. In addition, there is potential for promoting political ideology in the classroom, forcing students to be activists, committing students to causes that are of personal interest to teachers, and generally risking indoctrination and coercion. Teachers engaging in service activities should be aware of these issues.

Anna's picture

@Gillian: Yes, it's certainly true that teachers risk impartiality and betraying bias in their teaching, but this is true of any political curriculum, not just when engaging in service activities. So as a general warning to all teachers, yes, I agree, please do not indoctrinate your students with your own political ideologies.

But the purpose of the kind of learning described above is to go beyond simply studying the world we live in and to teach students how to engage with it. And precisely BECAUSE the purpose is to encourage initiative and personal accountability for the world we live in, active citizenship and democratic engagement are most effective when they focus on issues the students care about and choose for themselves, not those selected by the teacher.

Regardless of whether it improves academic achievement in other disciplines, civic engagement is arguably a more valuable skill than factoring polynomials. Rather than warn teachers of the potential dangers of teaching students to engage with the world and with democracy, we would do better to warn of the dangers of the potential for indoctrination and coercion into an apolitical ideology or complacent in-activism that results from teaching about politics and social issues without teaching students how to do something about them.

Chris Henry's picture

I would echo Howard Zinn by arguing that it is the responsibility of social studies teachers to not only teach students about injustice, but to show them how to change it. Social studies teachers have the modest task of building global citizens who help to form a more just society. By its very nature, the school system indoctrinates students and functions as part of the larger social hegemony. By not teaching students about social action, you are indoctrinating them into apathy and helplessness.

I found this blog very helpful when considering the types of things that I need to consider when implementing social action projects in class.

Tim's picture

Chris, I agree wholeheartedly and also believe that all teachers have the same responsibility.

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