Engaging Students in Social Justice With ‘Zines

As a graduate student, this teacher tapped into her middle schoolers’ energy and creativity while having them think deeply about community needs.

Adolescents—particularly those in middle school—get a bad rap for being “immature,” “overly emotional” or “lazy.” Yet, they are only a few years away from participating in our democracy through voting. Though young adolescents may juggle a lot of energy and emotions, there are productive, creative and fun ways to channel those feelings into positive action. 

During my first semester of graduate school, my classmates and I were assigned K–12 classrooms. We were instructed to create service-learning projects that engaged students and served a community need. I came up with an idea that was affordable and easily replicable by the students: ‘zine making.

‘Zines are independently made mini magazines that can cover a broad range of topics. They can be created from scrap paper and sharpies, and they are often photocopied for mass production. ‘Zines have historically been a big part of social justice activism and present an avenue for voices to be heard that are often not showcased in mass media. Think of them as PSAs on paper. ‘Zines can be designed in a variety of ways, including book, brochure and flier-style projects. There is no wrong way to make a ‘zine, and the process and content can be refined to best meet curricular needs at any grade level. Most of the students I worked with were enrolled in pre-IB courses and were involved with a wide range of activities, so once a week for an hour after school worked the best. 

You may be reluctant to allow students to approach politically charged topics, just as I was. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that middle school students want to talk about topics like police brutality, racism and stereotypes. In the age of “fake news,” the ‘zines are a chance to evaluate students’ understanding of proper research and valid sources. I told them that any facts or claims they mentioned had to be cited from a reliable source, preferably a (dot)org, (dot)edu or (dot)gov domain when using websites. Additionally, allowing students to create ‘zines on social, political or environmental issues encourages critical thinking. 

I sometimes questioned if the students were learning anything from the project, but I overheard a statement that made all the difference. “I mean, all lives matter, but there’s a really big problem. I mean, I’m worried my brother or uncle will get killed,” I heard one student mention as she designed her ‘zine about police brutality. Her friends murmured in agreement, designing their own ‘zines about teen bullying and stress. To them, the problems were just that: problems. They had not been conditioned to avoid controversial issues, but instead were ready to confront topics such as gender inequality, racism and climate change through thoughtful discussion. 

The project was also a chance to help students think about their assumptions. As I made my way around the classroom, I noticed one student carefully designing his ‘zine on racism. I asked to see his progress and glanced at his work. The ‘zine discussed how racism was bad, but that was about it. For this student, it was quite obvious that racism was bad and still very much alive. I asked him to explain his reasoning for making the ‘zine.

“I mean, people should know racism is bad,” he responded.

“True,” I replied. “But how can you prove racism exists to those who don’t believe it is real?”

He stared back at me skeptically. “You’re kidding, right? People think racism doesn’t exist?”

I nodded.

He whistled in disbelief. I encouraged him to find examples of why and how racism is still prevalent, as opposed to how it is obviously bad. Therefore, the finished product was much more fleshed out and powerful.

‘Zines do not have to be limited to just informational PSAs with bullet-point facts. Several students made comic strips and illustrated stories to express their concerns. One student created a storybook ‘zine about a young boy nervous to start his first day of school. In the story, the school the boy was about to attend had very similar racial demographics—majority black students—to our school. The main character in the ‘zine was white, fearing he would be made fun of for his skin color. When the student in the story confesses his insecurities, the other students laugh, but not in a mocking manner. Unfolding the ‘zine leads to an encouraging message inside that says, “We are all equal!” The student made the ‘zine in response to teen-bullying issues all around the country, hoping to encourage more kindness.

Every student who participated in the project had their own passions and concerns. No matter how you implement it, hosting a ‘zine-making project can help turn your students’ frustrations and concerns into productive action in a simple way. Students have a lot going on in their minds, so why not give them a chance to show it?

This blog was produced in partnership with the anti-hate news project 500 Pens.

Gales is currently a freelance writer and managing editor of Quail Bell Magazine. 

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