It is a great misconception to assume that social change can only be implemented by those who have already reached adulthood. In fact, many young people are transforming their world in ways that put adults to shame. As an educator, you can be the catalyst to help our youth continue to change the world for the better.
A recent Edutopia blog post highlights kids who are challenging social convention, raising money for people whom they have never encountered, and speaking out about atrocities that they may never experience.
The Edutopia post offers several inspiring examples, one of which is that of Rhode Island high school student Grace Miner, who formed Real Girls Matter to discuss how the media negatively portrays girls. Another is STAND, a student-led group that speaks out against genocide and has hundreds of chapters in high schools and colleges around the world. What began as a few comments on the #edchat hashtag by high school student Zak Malamed and his friends turned into a social movement providing a voice to students and later a full-fledged non-profit organization.
It’s not just older students who are making a difference. Florida teen Joshua Williams formed Joshua’s Heart to feed the hungry in the Miami area; he first gave to the hungry at age six. Seven-year-old Ryan Hreljac bought a well in Uganda and continues to raise money to build wells in Africa many years later.
Clearly, students are capable of social change. The key is to help them turn the negativity in their lives or someone else’s into a positive, teach them that the world is much bigger than their environment, and help them find their voice. Often this can be done through technology, real-world experiences, and offering them opportunities for choice and accountability.
It is true that young people need rules and structure to guide them. But if we make their lives only about the rules, how can we expect them to emerge into adulthood fully capable of making their own decisions? This approach seems counterintuitive. When teaching driver’s education, do we sit kids in the backseat, drive around town, and expect them to be able to drive safely? No. We put them in the driver’s seat. Doing so from the get-go will empower students not only to take charge of their education, but also to advocate for greater social change.
There are many ways to encourage students to make decisions about their own education, whether that means developing a service learning project with a local organization, choosing a region of the world to focus on for their history unit, or writing a biography after interviewing a change maker in their local community. Offer them choices about what will be learned, how it will be taught, and how success will be measured. Ask them to reflect on their learning experiences and to discover what to do with the learned information. Have them self-assess their work to determine how it meets the learning objectives. Let them teach a lesson, particularly if it’s on something that they’re passionate about. Actively seek their opinions on topics, demonstrating to them that they have something valuable to say.
The bottom line is that students need to be placed into situations requiring a decision. Offering them small decisions so that they gain a better understanding of the decision-making process will build their confidence, which in turn will help them better prepare to take on larger decisions – and, ultimately, to feel confident in making real impact in the larger world around them.
Showing students that they have a voice that deserves to be heard empowers young people to do more and offers a fresh perspective on many social issues – and technology can and should be an important part of this. For instance, participation in live-streaming events and online chats will model what it looks like when disempowered groups speak up and take the narrative back. It will also provide a safe testing grounds for your students to articulate their deepest held views on a public platform, while also listening to other voices that may be far outside of their perspectives.
One key lesson that students can learn about technology is its effectiveness in making social change a widespread phenomenon. No doubt students are familiar with popular socially-minded hashtags and viral sensations such as the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, which raised more than $100 million to fight a single disease. That challenge alone was the creation of one individual and a testament to how one person can single-handedly spur successful social change.
In this way, today’s technology can be effectively used to widen your students’ conceptions of what is and isn’t possible in terms of social change. That in itself is a powerful lesson in its own, but you can take this further by encouraging students to use these experiences as a launching off point for their own initiatives. Why not, for example, have the class choose a nonprofit they’re passionate about and then come up with a viral video idea to rival that of the Ice Bucket Challenge? The possibilities are endless when you pair a good cause with a little creative brainstorming.
Classes should not be taught in a bubble. Bring in real-world events to demonstrate connections between what is going on in students’ lives to the learning material. Ask students to offer their opinions on these current situations and brainstorm solutions to the social problems that affect them personally, as well as the society at large. Exposing them to social issues raises awareness of what is going on past the school doors and prompts action. Students become more engaged with the world and more apt to generate ideas on how to implement change.
For instance, you might take a natural disaster, like the earthquake in Haiti, and discuss the event itself, why it has had a particular big effect on the people of Haiti and the cultural history that has lead to Haiti’s current situation. You then could ask students if they have any personal connections to the story, or have had connections to previous disasters. Then you could brainstorm concrete ways for students to get involved and provide aid, thereby turning a pressing global issue into a socio-political and historical lesson, and then into a matter of social justice.
When students come up with new ideas, it’s best not to direct their thoughts, but rather to collaborate with them. Let them take the lead when it comes to planning their ideas. This fosters creativity and creates a sense of ownership among students. If they believe in it, they will own it, making the idea, or even project, more meaningful to them.
It’s one thing to dream big about making a global impact, and another thing entirely to take responsibility, have follow-up and follow-through, and actually do it. Accountability reinforces to students that someone else is watching them and that what they do does matter. Documentaries have been made about companies, governments, and organizations, holding them accountable for their behavior. The organization AccountabilityLab set up a film school in Liberia in which students filmed the atrocities and abuses being handed down by the Liberian government. Not only do students there learn about filmmaking, but they also learn about how filming someone can hold groups responsible for what they do. By either creating or viewing an accountability film, students can see the power of change once a problem is brought to the public’s visual attention.
To further engender a culture of accountability in your classroom, encourage your students to provide feedback on your lessons, and show students that you take their thoughts seriously by implementing changes to your teaching style where appropriate. Ask them to find an accountability partner to keep each other on track when it comes to studying, preparation, and overall class achievement. Be clear to your students about what you will hold them accountable for, connecting the importance of accountability beyond the classroom to their future careers and the issues about which they’re most passionate.
Kids can effect social change, perhaps even more effectively than adults can. As educators, we can create a training ground for social change by reconsidering some of the ways that we structure our classroom. Through choice, technology, real-world scenarios, and accountability, we can empower our students to continually grow and improve themselves and the world around them.