Teacher to Activist

by | 05.26.16

Heather Marshall currently teaches sixth grade in the John Swett Unified School District, CA. By welcoming polarizing issues into her classroom, often with an emphasis on social media, she strives for a more socially aware, articulate and thoughtful classroom.

It all started with an article that we had read. It was about the female Star Wars character and there was a lot of controversy because when the game came out, the female character was excluded. So, there was this #WheresRey? movement on Twitter and we read an article about it. We were doing some comprehension-based type of activities and I realized that they were really into it. I have my kids do sketchnotes on texts that they’re reading and a lot of them chose [to focus on] the article that we’d read that day. So, I thought, “Well, let’s take this to another level.” That’s when I began bringing in all kinds of articles about different hashtag movements and we started talking about hashtag activism.

Heather Marshall

I talk a lot about social media with the kids — you know, how you can use social media for good and for digital citizenship. We talked about the difference between activism and slacktivism, which is more about reposting something for “likes” than really doing anything to help. Social media is a just such a powerful tool and I hate to see people wasting it on selfies. I realize that they’re only in sixth grade, but I don’t think it’s ever too early to start showing them that you can make a difference.

Since I follow them on Instagram, I can see what they post. So, when they were all posting “Pray for Paris,” we had a lesson about it. We talked about refugees, read some articles. That was one of the lessons that I had taken even further — I actually made a document with links so that the kids could explore different articles about what had happened. I felt like they were just posting “Pray for Paris” without knowing much about the issue. I just really want them to be informed.

The hashtag is mightier than the sword.
A lot of the issues we discuss are global, but then I also try to help them make a connection to local issues. I’m creating a lesson right now based on one of the articles that we read — it was about Pharrell wearing the Indian headdress, a war bonnet, and how a lot of people were really unhappy about that. We recently had some controversy within our own community because our high school’s mascot is “The Indians,” and there’s been a lot of talk about changing that. It was really very polarizing. So, that’s just an example of something that’s global, but then we can look at how this is also connected to our community.

I’m making a better, more detailed lesson about the war bonnet. When we read Peter Pan, I want to use it, because the whole thing with Tiger Lily and “the redskins” — this year was the first year that I had a kid pick up on the way the way Indians were portrayed in that book. I’ve never had that before, and now that I’m creating the lesson, I’m doing more research and finding more connections. I hope it will offer a whole new level of understanding when it comes to the text, since it relates to real-life issues we’re having now.

It has been a lot of trial and error. I try and choose [topics] that the kids are going to be very interested in talking about. You know, things that have something to do with their own lives — things they can connect with. But, I don’t want the issues to be completely limited to their own experience. I want to expose them to new things. I try to seek a balance in that.

I use a lot of Newsela articles. One of the articles we read was about #IfTheyGunnedMeDown and racial profiling. So, that was a bit of a touchy issue — we have a very diverse student body. But, I think there’s something to be said for teaching kids how to have scholarly discussions about issues. I never just toss an issue out there — we have a lot of discussion about how to have discussions. How to talk about issues and how to disagree; how to be persuasive in an argument.

I try to be careful and present all sides of the issue, along with a lot of facts, so the kids can come to their own conclusions. If I’m guiding conversations with them, I try to do that through questions, rather than telling them how to think about something, because the way I think about something may not be in line with the way that they do.

They’re taking in so much information. I just want them to realize that there are multiple sides to any story, and to see that the things that you do can affect and even hurt other people — that you need to be a good citizen.

I don’t force kids to join the conversation. But, the more talking you have them do with each other, the more comfortable they get. I think that’s really important. Some students are just going to be uncomfortable no matter what the topic is — but they see other kids having the conversation and that it’s okay to to disagree. I know that they’re learning from each other, I know that they’re getting something out of it, even if they’re just listening.

I do give them discussion starters — scaffolded sentences you can either agree or disagree with in a scholarly way. There’s also table tent on each table with discussion stems they can use to phrase whatever it is they want to say — I think that helps. [Then], they’ll leave paper “Twitter feeds” on their tables using little notes. That way, other kids can come around and read what people were saying and respond.

I do feel like they’re really engaged in talking about social issues. Kids seem to be very aware in talking about justice, and very concerned about justice. A lot of times they’ll bring their parents’ views into the classroom, and I respect that. But some families may have different views than other families. So, like everybody else, I was fairly nervous about what might be said, and how that might affect other kids in the class. What really surprised me was the way that they were actually having discussions about things and being really respectful.

I definitely think that it makes them look at other students in the classroom differently because they get to know the other kids in the class on a completely different level when they’re having these discussions. They tend to open up about their own experiences and they just learn more about each other.

Below, Heather shares her tips for helping parents feel more comfortable with potentially divisive classroom discussions, along with creating a safe space in which students feel safe to share:

    1. I communicate with my parents a lot, even it’s a little a bit one-sided.Parents know what we’re doing in class and they’ve been very supportive — I think a part of that is because the kids are engaged. You have to just have to work to get to know your community and what they’re going to be okay with. I’ve worked in this district for 17 years so I do feel like I know the community pretty well.
  1. You know, the bottom line — and it’s so cliche to say this — but, it really and truly is all about relationships with the kids.I talk to them — I don’t talk at them, I talk to them. And I listen to them, and they know that I care about them. We’re sharing all the time — privately, one-on-one, in class, in groups — and that’s just a huge part of building an environment where kids feel safe to talk and to share.

Connect with Heather on Twitter @MsMarshallCMS and visit her website and blog at http://www.middleschoolmind.com.

About the Author

Heather Marshall
Heather Marshall

Heather Marshall currently teaches sixth grade in the John Swett Unified School District, CA. Connect with Heather on Twitter @MsMarshallCMS and visit her website and blog at middleschoolmind.com.

More community favorites