Peeking at Twitter last Wednesday during the school day as teachers and reporters posted pictures of students during the National Walk Out, I couldn’t help but cry. Isn’t that always the way you feel when you are so, so sad and also when you see people you love do something extraordinary?
But when I saw slideshow after slideshow of students’ picket signs, I knew we had the makings of a very powerful micro unit of study on our hands.
Because yes, all language is political. Studying the very concise, highly-specific language of picket signs beautifully illustrates just how important our words are and how much power they have to affect change.
Now, I’m all for a through-the-lesson-plans-to-the-wind burst of instructional inspiration, but I was extra lucky that this time I didn’t have to. My 7th graders are in the midst of a cross-curricular study of World War II. In English, we’re working through The Diary of Anne Frank and Night in literature circles. I knew that “Never Again” — a phrase used both in remembrance of the Holocaust and by the Parkland shooting survivors — would be our way in to thinking about the power of language in protest.
In one 55-minute class period, we moved through the same rhythms we move through in any writing unit: read mentor text, made noticings about, bathed them in talk, and then used them to plan, draft, revise, publish, and share.
Here’s a tiny unit for you and your students — take it, share it, adapt it, enjoy it.
Mentor Text Immersion (30 minutes)
I pulled together a brief 15-image slideshow of student protest signs from Wednesday’s walkout. I scrolled through the slideshow, reading each sign without commentary. Then, I passed out color copies of the slide handouts so that students could refer to them again later.
(When I originally put it together, it was much longer and included images of other signs from recent protests as well as signs from the 1960s. Were I still teaching high school, I might have kept some of the other recent signs (many of them contain very strong language — which makes them very effective but also a bit too much for my middle schoolers). If I wanted to extend this past a one-day workshop, I might have kept historic picket signs and asked students to also consider how signs have changed in the last 50 years. Ultimately, due to my teaching context and due to time, I kept it at a handful of signs that showed a variety of techniques from Wednesday. They were clear and clean and immediately relatable to my students who had just participated in the walk out themselves. But you should feel free to amend the slideshow to fit your students and their needs! )
After our once-through, I set students to look at the handout to make noticings with their tables and select the sign they felt was most effective. After about 10 minutes of discussion, here were their observations about effective picket signs:
Drafting, Writing, Revising, Publishing, & Sharing (25 minutes)
“What’s next, kiddos?” I asked. “We’ve studied some mentor texts — what do you think we should do now?”
“Try it!” they replied. My teacher heart sang.
Since not all of my students had participated in Wednesday’s walk out and because I
teach in a particularly conservative school, I wanted to make sure there were different entry points to meet students’ varying levels of comfort. So, I allowed students to work in partners or alone. Since we are in the middle of our Holocaust literature study, I also gave them two different picket sign options:
Option 1: Pretend you are living in Europe in 1943. You are protesting the Nazi treatment of Jews. What would your picket sign say?
Option 2: You are you living in America today. What do you feel so strongly about that you would want to protest? What issue would you want to draw attention to in this way? Craft a picket sign that represents your position.
I emphasized drafting multiple options in notebooks because getting just the right combination of words is tricky. We were also upping the ante by writing our signs on large (5X8) index cards — intentionally narrowing the space so we would have to condense our words.
After students drafted, they designed their 5X8 picket signs and used masking tape to attach them to wooden shims. (Thanks, Jay, for the idea!)
When everyone was finished, students shared what they were protesting and the sign they created. The class responded by telling them which mentor text elements they noticed at work making their sign powerful.
The kids were excited — proud of their work, ready to talk about the issues that matter to them. In fact, one class was so ready to hit the picket line that they begged me for a peaceful demonstration march down the hall. We marched through the front office, stopping to let the middle school director, director of curriculum, and secretary read our signs.
I’m excited for the end of the year when students will move into the 1960s and Civil Rights in history class — their brains will be primed to think about the ways in which students have protested throughout history.
Most importantly, students had another opportunity last week to exercise their voices — to make the personal political, to use language to incisively provoke change in their landscape. A handful of students are planning to go to D.C. on the 24th for the March for Our Lives. They are going to create big versions of their in-class signs to take on the road with them.
And this is what we teach for. Not just for picket lines but for the moments when our students will be able to leverage the skills we’ve taught them to change their lives.
I’d love to see your students’ picket signs and share them with my 7th graders! Is there a way to connect this lesson to the unit you’re already immersed in? Are you ready to stop the presses and picket anyway? Let me know what you’re thinking in the comments below, on Twitter @rebekahodell1, or on Facebook.