America has a rich history of student-led activism and youth-centered movements. Whether it be at the higher education level, such as the CUNY Student Strike of 1969 where Black and Puerto Rican students at City College fought for and won an unprecedented opening of admissions at the City University of New York, or at the high and middle school level, such as South Portland, Oregon’s student-led walk-outs in protest of gun violence after the elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas in 2022. American youth are ingrained with the patriotic impulse to exercise their right to freedom of speech and use their voices to rectify the injustices within their communities.
Many of my middle school students were introduced to what current social justice activism looked like through the Black Lives Matter Movement happening at the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic in the summer of 2020. While most students spent that time inside, they watched the movement unfold from behind their phone screens or through the perspectives of friends and family members. For some students, marches and protests were led outside of their very windows or through the streets of their neighborhoods. Upon returning and acclimating themselves back to the classroom environment, there was a need for students to explore their thoughts, ideas and feelings following the events of the previous years (1).
While teaching narrative writing, it was apparent many of my students were struggling and discouraged throughout the writing process. Many students shared they were insecure that they had “nothing good to write.” A few shared stories about past teachers that destroyed their writing confidence or used writing as a form of behavioral punishment.
However, through their freewriting entries and classroom discussions it was clear that many students had strong opinions and personal experiences to share surrounding issues of race and social justice, but felt uncomfortable or reluctant using their perspectives to inform their graded, assigned writing.
Ethnic Studies programs around the country specifically work “to disrupt negative images that students of color have internalized about themselves” (2). I was inspired by these programs and my students’ voices to adapt the narrative writing unit to utilize an anti-racist model of the writing workshop and empower students to publicly use their voices for change by sharing their writing beyond the classroom. “Strong Ethnic Studies teachers are responsive to their students and what they bring with them to the classroom whether that be their histories, experiences, or the cultures of their families and communities. It is the responsibility of the teacher to learn how to develop a pedagogy that speaks to the students’ lived realities” (3). The following unit is in response to the needs of my student and classroom, which may echo many classrooms across the country, however, can also easily be adapted and adjusted to meet the individual pedagogical needs of any secondary classroom.
I am a social justice oriented middle school English Language Arts (ELA) teacher at a Title I school in New Haven, Connecticut, serving a population of majority Hispanic and Black students. This unit is intended for any educator with the desire to adapt their writing workshop model into an approach that puts students’ learned experiences and writing confidence at the forefront of their objectives.