“Engaging youth in writing for social change is necessary because it helps youth locate their own power, participate in democracy, and write for authentic audiences (Bender-Slack, 2010).” 5
I teach seventh and eighth graders at an urban magnet school of about 500 students. Despite being a magnet school, most of my students don’t choose to be there or don’t choose to stay because they are interested in the school’s theme. Often, my students are starting off from a place of no power; they have no say in how they have entered my classroom. Most of my students have spent the majority of their lives in my school starting in Pre-K 3 and now preparing to enter their final year as eighth graders. Some are there because the school district found an opening for them. Some of them have been given limited opportunities to experience life outside of New Haven. A large number struggle to see reading as a way of exploring alternate worlds or writing as a way of expressing themselves. And why should they? When they try to express themselves, they are often told they are talking back. In trying to voice their concerns, they are rewarded with a write up or a phone call home. Why should they speak up? All of them want to be heard.
Middle school is critical year in young people’s education. It is the point where many decide if they enjoy education and proceed forward with this positive mindset regarding schooling. As a result, many children in different cohorts fall behind particularly students of color.6 In order to prevent this, I think it is important for students to experience a plethora of writers who will give the students not only role models but situations to build their social emotional well-being.
In this unit, I want my students to learn why it is important to express an opinion and why it is important to be able to express that opinion in various forms. As has been demonstrated by current events, people need to be able to hear a message through multiple forms and people need to be able to share their messages in a variety of mediums.
As of this writing, people throughout the United States have been on lockdown for weeks getting their own view of the world through the media. As nonstop reporting of the worldwide pandemic continues, the news cycle has only seen a shift with the coverage of the murders of three African Americans: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. There are people who are outraged feeling a band-aid has again been pulled off a wound that never seems to heal. There are others that refuse to even consider the fact that there is even any wound other than one that is self-inflicted. In this search for understanding, people look to communicate with each other in order to bridge the gap of confusion. As my students witness all of this, I want them to be able to firmly communicate their thoughts and feelings in a way that that is both important to them and clear to their audience.
The healing process is a struggle for many. People are witnessing all sides of the conflict: they see the peaceful protests, they see the violence, they see they attempts for both sides to come together, they see people ruthlessly trying to keep both sides fighting. They can see that there is a world that is trying to keep people in a constant state of conflict and a world that hasn’t valued their words. When left without options, what are they going to do? It is my hope this unit will continue to instill in my students the power of words.
In her TED Talk, Roxane Gay spoke of the power of those words and political theory. In her youth, Gay had her voice taken during a traumatizing experience and was only able to regain her inner strength through reading the work of powerful women and developing her own writing.7 Many of my students understand trauma. They live with it or the residual effects of it on a day to day basis. I don’t want my students to feel stuck in this emotional state. I want my students to experience what Roxane Gay described above.