Marian Wright Edelman

In this lesson, students will learn about the life and career of Marian Wright Edelman, who faced discrimination at a young age and became involved in the civil rights movement.
Grade Level


At the end of the lesson, students will be able to

  • analyze and discuss how students at school can take actions to improve the lives of others or of their community.
  • identify a problem in their community and write about ways in which they can work with others to solve the problem.
  • write the definition of words in, and answer questions about, Marian Wright Edelman’s 2014 speech.
Essential Questions
  • What is social action?
  • What are some ways people can take action to help those less fortunate in their school or community?
  • Enduring Understandings
    • Social action consists of steps that people—individuals or groups— take to solve problems or change things that are not fair in our society by introducing new ideas and processes for doing things better. Such actions move society toward social reform.
    • People can help serve those less fortunate by identifying and solving problems; by making sure others are treated fairly; and by working to ensure equal access to education.

Commencement Speech by Marian Wright Edelman



Most history textbooks include the story of Rosa Parks, an African-American woman whose act of defiance—refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man—sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a cornerstone of the mid-20th-century movement for African-American equality. But Rosa Parks is only one among many African-American women who worked for equal rights and social justice. This series profiles four other important female civil rights activists.In this fourth lesson of the “Beyond Rosa Parks” series, students will learn about the life and career of Marian Wright Edelman, who faced discrimination at a young age and became involved in the civil rights movement. After being arrested for her activism, Edelman decided to study law and eventually enrolled at Yale Law School. She went on to help Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference organize the Poor People's Campaign. In 1973, she founded the Children's Defense Fund as a voice for poor, minority and disabled children. In this lesson, students read the text of a commencement speech that Edelman gave in 2014 at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. They will be encouraged to apply lessons from the speech to their own lives and to identify and implement opportunities to help improve the lives of those in their school or community.


expediency [ik-spee-dee-en-see] a regard for what is convenient or advantageous rather than for what is right or just.

integrity [in-teg-ri-tee] (noun) dedication to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.

lexicon [lek-si-kon] (noun) wordbook or dictionary; the vocabulary of a particular language, field, social class, person

paradigm [par-uh-dime] an example serving as a model or framework containing basic assumptions or ways of thinking.

proxy [prok-see] (noun) power of a person authorized to act as a substitute for another.


Suggested Procedure

Word Work

Tell students, “Often you can figure out what an unfamiliar word or phrase means by paying attention to the language around it. Context clues are words or phrases that help you define other, unfamiliar words and phrases. In her 2014 commencement speech at Lewis & Clark College of Arts & Sciences, Marian Wright Edelman uses words and phrases you’ll find listed on this handout. Find each word in the speech. On the handout, write the sentence in which that word can be found. Then write what you believe the word means based on context clues. Note that some words or phrases are figurative (such as ‘ethically polluted’) and not meant to be understood literally. Finally, use a dictionary to find the actual meaning.”


Close and Critical Reading

Explain that Edelman uses quotes from other famous people to support several important points in her commencement speech. Several of those quotes are listed below. Ask students to choose one and then follow these directions:

  1. Read the quote.
  2. Rewrite the quote in your own words.
  3. Summarize how the quote helps illustrate or support the point Edelman is trying to make to students.
  4. Determine if you agree or disagree with the quote—and justify why.
  5. Discuss how the quote applies or can be used in your life.



“The test of the morality of a society is how it treats its children.” — Dietrich Bonhoeffer, theologian

“Many women may not get all they pay for in this world but they will certainly pay for all they get.” — Frederick Douglass, abolitionist

“Everything Hitler did in Nazi Germany was legal, but it was not moral.” — Martin Luther King Jr., civil rights leader

“Small is the number of those who see with their own eyes and feel with their own heart.” — Albert Einstein, physicist

“When you get into a tight place and you think that everything goes against you, until it seems that you can’t have another minute, never give up then, for that is just the place and the time when you will be able to see the tide turn.” — Harriet Beecher Stowe, abolitionist and author of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’


Community Inquiry

Read aloud to the class this part of Marian Wright Edelman’s speech: “I hope you’re all going to wander off the beaten career path and help redefine success in 21st Century America and our world, asking not ‘how much I can get?’ but ‘how much I can do without and share?’ And asking not, ‘how I can find myself?’ but ‘how I can lose myself in service to others?’”

Next, in the corners of the classroom, hang four signs, each with one of the following words/phrases written on it: Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree and Strongly Disagree. With that done, list the sentences below on an easel pad or other visible location in the classroom. Then ask students to read the first statement and move to the Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree or Strongly Disagree sign that most reflects their opinion of that statement.

  1. Kids at my school don’t ask how much they can get, but how much they can do without and share.
  2. Kids at my school stand up for others.
  3. It is my generation’s responsibility to stand up for those who need our voices and service.
  4. It is my responsibility to stand up for those who need my voice and service.

Give the small groups at each corner time to discuss their opinions. Then move on to the second sentence and invite students to move again. Do this with all four statements. At the end of the activity, ask each group to summarize and share their discussions with the class. (Stress that there are no right or wrong answers.)

After students have completed the exercise, have a class discussion about how Marian Wright Edelman used her voice and actions to serve those who are less fortunate, what they believe her message means for their generation, and specific ways they and their classmates could better serve others in their school or community.


Write to the Source

Point out that in three paragraphs of her speech (starting with the one that begins, “Every nine seconds of the school day, an American high school student drops out”), Edelman outlines several statistics that support her claim that we are failing our children in America. Instruct students: “Read the statistics and underline the ones that most surprise or alarm you. Share your choices with another student. What do you know about how these statistics and others like them apply in your own community? How many children live in poverty? How many teenagers have babies? How many children or teens are killed by gunfire? Do any of these statistics correspond to race or ethnic background in your community?” Let students know that a wealth of data can be found at the online research library of the Children’s Defense Fund.

With a partner or small group, identify one local statistic you would like to help change that relates to children in your community. The statistic could describe poverty, discrimination, hunger, crime, health or education. Summarize the following information about your statistic:

  • The problem
  • Why it matters
  • One thing you could do to help or make a positive impact

Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts CCSS: R.1, R.2, R.3, R.4, R.5, R.6, W.1, W.2, W.3, W.4, SL.1, SL.2, SL.3, SL.4, L.1, L.2


Extension Activity

Remind students that we all can learn many important lessons from those who have come before us. Suggest they interview an older family member or community member to learn their ‘lessons for life.’ Summarize these lessons and combine them with other classmates’ interviews to develop a compilation of lessons that can be shared.”


Do Something

Tell students that you want them to create a detailed action plan with their group to implement the ideas they generated in “Write to the Source.” Say, “Your plan should include specific steps, people responsible for completing those steps and a timeline. Include all stakeholders as you develop your plan. Then work with group members to implement your plan and celebrate successes along the way.”

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