I call Detroit, Michigan, home. While I didn’t attend Detroit Public Schools (DPS) after Kindergarten, I am still very aware and connected to the troubles and triumphs that happen in the school system because they affect my family, friends, and people who look like me and my students. Teachers held “sickouts” and students of DPS walked out to protest crumbling ceilings, raised floors, broken heating systems, and unwanted rodents. As a teacher in the Washington, D.C., school system, social justice is a core value of my classroom. So I knew it was imperative to integrate these protests.
We started the friendly letter writing unit covering the purpose and components of a friendly letter. According to my young bright minds, we write friendly letters to “say nice things”, “to encourage” so that we can “make people feel good”.
I visited Newsela for the first time in hopes of finding an article that covered the protest and, to no surprise, the article was front page news. To an even bigger surprise and relief, it was available at each student’s reading level. The article defined new vocabulary words and explained the issue in such a way that was manageable for my second-graders.
The next day, we read “Detroit teachers stage massive sickout protest over ailing conditions of schools”. They first read the article silently and independently, underlining important facts and circling words that were foreign to them. My budding activists couldn’t help but to react aloud. Loud gasps and sighs filled the room as they underlined facts about the crumbling ceilings and the rodent problem. After this first reading, they participated in small group discussions to share their reactions. Many were outraged at the deplorable conditions. “If we don’t have to go to school like that, they shouldn’t have to either! It isn’t fair!” one student exclaimed.
We then watched a video of the teachers in Detroit protesting. Next, they reread the same article and filled out a graphic organizer with a partner. They made sure to highlight the “who”, “what”, “where”, and “why”. This eventually lead to a whole class discussion centered on the “why”. Students were discussing who should be held responsible for these conditions. Most students held Gov. Rick Snyder accountable for this. Many of them were angry and upset because it was “unfair” to the students attending DPS.
One student started to chant, “Enough is enough!”
The following day, I asked my students how they felt about writing letters to teachers in Detroit. Their faces lit up. I asked, “Why should we write them a letter anyway?” They told me that they thought it was important we tell them we support them. Over next the two days, my students wrote friendly letters to the Detroit Federation of Teachers. In the body of their letters, they introduced themselves, where they lived and went to school, what they had learned, how it made them feel, and why they supported the teachers.
I had never seen my students engaged for one of my lessons as they were in this lesson. Hands and heads were up. Most importantly, they were exercising their voices for social justice. At the end of this unit, not only did my students know how to effectively write a friendly letter, but they now understand why people protest, that people who look like them are being treated unfairly, and that they can contribute to the cause.
Since then, we have continued to use Newsela to discuss current events and brainstorm solutions to many social issues. When an article from Newsela is placed on their desks, my students know we mean business. Newsela is the bridge that connects my students to the world. And this is only the beginning.
Patrick Harris teaches second grade at Achievement Prep Academy in Washington, D.C. Find him on Twitter at @PresidentPat.