The Place for Activism in English Class

Using activist memoirs can help students understand how people effected change in the past—and how young people can effect change now.

Editor’s note: This is the first blog in a series about an English unit using activist memoirs to teach about social justice. Read the second blog here.


Abigail Adams observed, “We have too many high-sounding words, and too few actions that correspond with them.” As an English teacher, I deal in high-sounding words, but I also want my students to learn how to take action against injustice.

My first idea for fitting activism into my English class was to look for fiction on this topic. Contemporary young-adult (YA) novels address social justice issues that, until recently, went undiscussed in schools (e.g., anti-LGBT violence and child homelessness) or that have escalated as problems (e.g., cyberbullying and the effects of climate change). But the trouble with some “issue novels” is that many are written as such—not as great literature. Others rely on tropes that reinforce stereotypes and ignore larger patterns: Children of color get rescued by kindly white adults, plucky heroines use their wits to escape hardship and perpetrators get their comeuppance or suddenly repent.

Of course there are well-crafted works of YA fiction that address social justice issues, but I found a different solution to my activist-literature problem: nonfiction. In Stirring Up Justice, educator Jessica Singer Early describes her unit in which students read biographies, autobiographies and memoirs about activists. I decided to design a unit around memoirs so students could read activists’ own stories of responding to injustice with action. The unit aligns to Teaching Tolerance’s Anti-Bias Framework, particularly to Justice standard 15: knowing social justice history.

In Early’s unit, the students chose any book they wanted. Since I planned my unit to be more about the concept of activism than any one text, there was room for each student to choose a book of genuine interest. Still, I wanted my students to read well-crafted prose that matched their reading and experience levels, and that meant vetting the books.

Finding appropriate memoirs proved to be a challenge. It’s not like everyone who acts against injustice writes a memoir, and individuals who might be great activists might not be great writers. Some memoirs, like environmentalist Wangari Maathai’s Unbowed, were beautifully written but inaccessible to my seventh-graders without the level support I give when the whole class reads the same text. Other memoirs focused on childhood memories rather than the author's work.

I wanted to keep the book list fairly short to increase the chances that several students in a class would choose the same memoir and could help each other with comprehension and analysis—and to make it possible for me to read all the books they’d be reading. Within the list, I wanted diversity in terms of the authors’ identities and the types of injustices they stood against.

Ultimately, I settled on five activist memoirs: The Good Food Revolution by urban farmer Will Allen, Warriors Don’t Cry by Little Rock Nine member Melba Pattillo Beals, Glory Road by college basketball coach Don Haskins, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by Malawian inventor William Kamkwamba and In My Hands by Holocaust rescuer Irene Gut Opdyke.

It’s not a perfect list. As important as the civil rights movement is, two of the five memoirs are about desegregation during that historical period. In several classes, half or more of the girls picked In My Hands, and half or more of the boys picked Glory Road.

Students selected their memoirs a month before the unit began so they could pace their reading and know their activists’ stories when our inquiry started. During the unit, I paired students who did not read the same text so they could think about how the concepts they learned—what an injustice is, what kinds of action people can take against it and the strengths and supports activists need—came up in both books. Students thus had an authentic context to describe their activists’ work, and they often commented on the surprising similarities and differences between their activists’ experiences.

One student noticed that Irene Gut Opdyke and Will Allen each helped strangers by giving them access to food, albeit under vastly different circumstances. Another pointed out that William Kamkwamba and Melba Pattillo Beals risked physical and emotional harm in order to get better educations, and a third saw that Don Haskins and Opdyke used their positions of relative privilege to act as allies to targeted groups. In all of my classes, it came up that Opdyke, Kamkwamba, and Beals all worked against injustice as teenagers. That was particularly inspiring to students who’d said they were “too young to do anything.”

I want my students to read not only critically but hopefully, to see reflections of their past experiences and indications of their future ones and to consider what’s possible for them to do—even at their age.

I’d also like to find more well-written activist memoirs on the students’ level that would become popular choices and further diversify the list. Any suggestions?

Porosoff is a seventh-grade English teacher, curriculum design consultant and author of Curriculum at Your Core: Meaningful Teaching in the Age of Standards.

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