Students as Changemakers: A Letter From Fifth Grade

Dear NEWSELA,

I want to thank you for another opportunity to enrich our classrooms with your online news source. Last year the robotic hand offered a unique experience! This year, it was a celebration of “GAGA!”

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Soon after we read this article, the fifth-graders at Western Salisbury Elementary School got started with their plan, a plan to get a Gaga Pit! The students began by writing letters to decision- makers within the school district and the community. While one group of students crafted their invitations, the others planned and developed keynote presentations to be shown at the event.

On Jan. 26, our fifth-grade class unveiled their plan to purchase and build a Gaga Pit. Approval was almost immediate from the individuals attending the event. Each attendee received an edible Gaga Pit!

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Fundraising was our next challenge. Several students applied for a grant from the Salisbury Education Foundation, an organization that helps fund school projects. We were granted half of the money necessary to build the pit. Our Building and Grounds team designed and built the game. The students were charged with raising the other funds to cover the cost of the building materials.

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We designated a week to collect donations to cover the rest of the money for the pit. The students made commercials to be shown after the morning announcements. Two videos were selected from each classroom and played during the collection week. We successfully raised the extra funds.

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This is just another example of NEWSELA and the wonderful extension opportunities it brings to students!

– Chris Adams and Kathy DeBona and the fifth-graders at Western Salisbury Elementary in Allentown, Pennsylvania

 

 

“Enough is Enough”: D.C. Students Take Action for Detroit Public Schools

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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.

An Update From Watsonville

Our staff loved hearing about Janet Jeffries’ class of young student activists so much that we decided to send three of our staff members to visit their classroom in Freedom, Calif., on April 17.

We were eager to ask the students about the letter they wrote to the California Department of Housing and Community Development. They were still awaiting a response from the government at the time, but we soon received some fantastic news: just four days after our visit, the class received a letter from Evan Gerberding, the department’s Deputy Director of External Affairs. (click to enlarge)

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Gerberding assured the students that his department takes the migrant student issue very seriously, and that the regulations are under review. Our favorite part is the P.S.: “It’s good to challenge rules you don’t believe in! Keep it up!”

We’re thrilled to hear that these students got their voices heard and were able to learn something more about why the 50-mile rule was in place. Their civic campaign was also covered in the Register-Pajaronian and the Modesto Bee.

While we were catching up with Ms. Jeffries and her activist students, we also witnessed a creative new way to use Newsela in the classroom. Be sure to check in next week for more on that.

Have your students had strong reactions to stories they’ve read on Newsela? If so, which articles spurred them to action? Let us know on Twitter.

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

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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.

Letter to the Editors from Students in Waterford, CT

A few months ago, Newsela received the following letter from a religious school in Waterford, Connecticut.

Dear Newsela Staff,

We are in 8th grade at a religious school. We use your website to learn about world news.

It has come to our attention that there is a strong bias toward covering the terrorist attacks in France as opposed to covering the Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria. We noticed that the only articles on Nigeria did not apply to the current Nigerian situation (i.e. Ebola and Malala). We feel that the Boko Haram attacks are equally as newsworthy as the attacks in France.

Even though Nigeria is not as relatable to your readers as France, it is still important to educate. Furthermore, more than 100 times the amount of people killed in France have been killed in Nigeria by Boko Haram. We feel that the amount of coverage about the killings in France are contributing to the American view of Islam that everyone is an extremist who is anti West. In fact, the killings in Nigeria were politically fueled and many of the victims were Muslim. Why do you mainly portray Muslims as extremists and attackers?

In conclusion, we believe that the Nigerian massacre should be covered as well as the French attacks.

We hope to hear from you.

Sincerely,

8th Grade Religious School Class; Waterford, CT

We were surprised to hear of a class asking us to cover violent stories about war and bloodshed (which many of our students deem scary), but intrigued by the letter and the students’ desire for equality in our coverage of world issues. We decided to craft the following response to the class, which reveals a lot about how editorial decision-making works at Newsela.

Dear 8th Grade Religious School Class,

Thanks so much for writing Newsela with your thoughts. I cannot tell you how much we love to hear from the students who read articles on our site. In particular, I was really interested in your perspective on our decision to run more stories on the terrorist attacks in France than the attacks in Nigeria.

We take tremendous care at Newsela to select articles that broaden our students’ world view while they improve their reading. Because of this, we’ll often run stories that are not usually seen as stories that are “for kids.” We’ve done stories on Syria, on child soldiers in Africa and on many other challenging, but important, issues.

While reading both the stories about the attacks in France and the Boko Haram attacks, I was personally heartbroken by all of the killings. However, while the terrorist attack in Paris was terrifying, the stories we found on Charlie Hebdo were much less gruesome than the ones about the killings in Nigeria. Many students your age would be haunted by hearing of thousands being killed. Many teachers who aren’t Ms. Levinsky would be writing to Newsela and complaining that these stories are too scary for their students and that their students shouldn’t have to see these things.

With the Charlie Hebdo attacks, we were able to find stories that asked questions about freedom of speech. With the Nigeria attacks, all the stories seemed to be about the senseless slaughter of thousands of people.

I was surprised but happy to hear that your class was compassionate and well-informed enough to care about this editorial decision. We are often faced with difficult choices when deciding which articles will make our students more worldly and which ones will just be too depressing or scary. This is particularly challenging when you realize we have students as young as 8 and as old as 18 looking at our website.

I hope this letter helps you understand better why we didn’t run stories about the Boko Haram attacks. Your letter will certainly affect the way I choose stories in the future.

Thanks again for taking the time to write to us.

Newsela Editorial Team