“Having power is not nearly as important as what you choose to do with it,” says the wise-beyond-her-years Matilda. The theme of power plays an important role in most of Roald Dahl’s work, particularly youth standing up against powerful adults who don’t respect them–Matilda against Ms. Trunchbull, George against his crotchety grandmother, a seven-year-old boy against all the witches in England. Roald Dahl never underestimated the power of children and used his stories to encourage them to stand up against injustice. I aim to do the same in my role as a teacher librarian.
Which is why I was so honored to be awarded the 2020 AASL Roald Dahl’s Miss Honey Social Justice Award in recognition of a collaboratively designed course of study on social justice using school library resources (thank you AASL and Penguin Random House!). About five years ago, seeing how young people across the nation were stepping up to make change, fellow teachers and I decided to encourage and empower our students to consider the mark they themselves could leave on history and how they could stand up for what matters to them. If students are skillful researchers, writers, and thinkers but don’t use these powers for good…what, really, is the point?
The Power Project is a month-long capstone experience for 8th-graders at the Chinese American International School I designed in collaboration with the social studies and language arts teachers. Students learn how social justice movements have worked for change in the past, then research a social justice issue they are passionate about and discover the current organizations and people using their power to make positive change on that issue. Their research culminates with participation in and promotion of a compelling call to action. In years past, this included canvassing in a public place to engage passersby, but last spring due to COVID-19 our 8th-graders engaged in activism and advocacy through social media platforms instead.
Tips for developing a successful collaborative social justice project:
- Ground it in inquiry-driven design. I introduced Leslie Maniotes’s Guided Inquiry Design process to guide the development of this project to be student inquiry-driven. Our students tend to immediately start working on the product of a project before fully engaging in the process of inquiry. GID helped us plan a scaffolded approach to the research that kept the students engaged and focused on the learning rather than the final product.
- Give it time to grow. The results of this project were honestly just “meh” the first year we did it, but we recognized its potential. We revisited what worked, what didn’t, what could be improved upon, and tweaked and grew it into what it is now, and will keep adapting as necessary.
- Let your skills shine. The best thing about collaboration is you don’t have to do it all. Each collaborator can play to their strengths. Our social studies teacher focuses on the history of social movements and is also an organizational whiz, keeping us on track with timelines and rubrics. Our language arts teacher helps the students develop compelling persuasive stories to get people to care about these issues and is masterful at classroom management. As the librarian, I embed information and media literacy lessons throughout the project such as evaluating sources and introducing online tools to create logos, infographics, and websites to convey their message in a visually impactful way.
- Connect it to the real world. We all use our networks to bring in outside guest speakers to help students see that people dedicate their lives to pursuing social justice and to learn from them. This also helps them see that activism can look very different based on your interests, talents, and skills. For example, this year we Zoomed in Danielle Coke (@ohhappydani), who creates informative, beautifully designed Instagram posts to teach others about antiracism, so students could see that art can be a form of activism.
- Raise the stakes with an authentic audience. Students present their websites-in-progress to a panel of guest judges we bring in from various industries, who offer actionable, formative feedback. Accustomed to giving and receiving high-stakes pitches themselves, the panelists share practical tips on how to honor and connect with audiences as well as concrete ways for students to better organize, target, and deliver their messages. These outside connections and input help enliven and raise the stakes for student work.
The Power Project plants the seeds for our students to recognize they can make change on issues that matter to them. I hope it encourages more teachers and school librarians to work together to empower their students to actively engage in creating the world they wish to see. You have so much power. How will you use it?
Author: Cassy Lee
Cassy Lee is a middle school Teacher Librarian focused on education equity, empathy, and empowerment. She is the recipient of the 2020 AASL Roald Dahl’s Miss Honey Social Justice Award and the 2018 SLJ Champion of Student Voice. She lives in San Francisco with her husband, son, and a steady stream of foster dogs. You can find her on Twitter at @MrsLibrarianLee and at CSLA in February!