How Newsela Inspired Janet Jeffries’ 5th-Graders to Become Activists


The day before winter break started for Freedom Elementary School in Freedom, Calif., students in Janet Jeffries’ fifth grade class opened a Newsela article.

The article, titled “These students have to go to a new school after just a few months”, described the families of migrant workers who are forced to move at least twice a year. The workers’ children repeatedly leave behind everything they know and often fall behind in school. The article was set in Watsonville, Calif., only one town away.

The Freedom Elementary School students live in a low-income area of southern Santa Cruz County, a historically agricultural area. Like the children in the article, their backgrounds are predominantly Hispanic. The students all knew at least one migrant worker, and knew how hard they worked.

Ms. Jeffries’ class was so intrigued that they asked to skip their holiday party in order to read and discuss the article.

The article mentions a California law that requires migrant workers to move at least 50 miles away after the growing season ends and the temporary housing camps close for the winter. The students were upset because they felt the law forced families to uproot unnecessarily.

About three weeks later, the students returned from winter break but didn’t forget what they had read. They wanted to do something about the migrant workers’ families and decided to write a letter to the Office of Migrant Affairs in Sacramento.

Students explained the potential long-term effects of frequent moving, including feeling lonely, being bullied or bullying, and even joining a gang. They cited outside research, such as a statistic from a 2009 New York Times article “Study Finds High Rate of Imprisonment Among Dropouts”: “Kids who don’t graduate have a 1/10 chance of ending up in jail, as compared to 1/35 for kids who do graduate.” They called the law “cruel and harsh.”

César Chávez lived and worked just 50 miles away from Freedom, and the grandparents of some Ms. Jeffries’ students worked with him. As they write letters to lawmakers in support of migrant workers’ rights, Ms. Jeffries’ students are carrying on a legacy. Even in fifth grade, they are activists.

Janet Jeffries’ fifth grade class ended up getting a response from Sacramento about the migrant workers law. We’ll update you with what they said next week.

Are your students ever inspired to get political? Do you have class debates? Let us know on Twitter.