From School to Community: Inspiring Student Activism
  • In mid-2002, seven girls from a Petaluma California junior high school bemoaned the lack of a movie theater in town. Deciding to take action, the girls tackled the task of bringing a cinema to downtown Petaluma. Three years later, the grand opening of a 12- screen multiplex theater became the anchor business to a larger retail complex that is a focal point for the community (Chiang 2002; Doyle 2005).
  • In 2016, friends of fifteen-year-old Hadiya Pendleton of Chicago created a nationwide campaign to "wear orange" in honor of Hadiya and raise awareness and promote solutions to gun violence (Ihejirika 2016).

There are many incredible examples of young people going above and beyond to raise awareness around important issues, build community, and create change in society. Their stories highlight the persistence, perseverance, and networking needed to bring change to a community. How does this happen? How do we help more students participate in their communities in such a way that they can carry a spirit of activism with them throughout their lives?

It's one thing to talk about civics in classrooms, it's quite another to take a leap from talk to action. And yet, that is our goal as educators: to create citizens who look at the issues and work toward solutions. This is especially important in a democracy that requires engagement beyond a single vote. Taking advantage of the ability we have as citizens to create the change we want to see, to paraphrase Gandhi, is a powerful duty; one that school librarians and their classroom colleagues can encourage in students from an early age.

Librarians can collaborate with classroom colleagues and encourage opportunities for students—even students not naturally inclined to do so—to participate in classroom and school-wide change by providing the space, materials, time, incentive, and instruction in building service learning projects. We can be effective supporters of personal engagement so activism becomes a part of each student's vision for their lives. Arthur B. Shostak, professor emeritus of sociology from Drexel University, suggests we can "have youngsters experience the rewards of civic activism in their roles as students—that is, have some serve as change agents focused on gaining upgrades in the school experience" (message to author, December 2, 2017).

A key first step in this process is helping students identify issues of importance to them. Food in cafeteria not so good? Form a committee. Need new library books? Let's fundraise. Centering on what we care about is the only way to create real change. For students, things that hinder their learning and social, emotional, and physical well-being are all opportunities for developing activism. All grade levels and content areas are ripe for personal projects, in-class activities, and identifying issues of interest and importance to students.

Defining Activism

What do we mean by activism? While one might respond to the term "activism" with visions of social upheaval , Merriam Webster defines it as "a doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue" ( For this article, I'll refer to "activism" as any activity helpful towards change.

Service learning began as early as 1916, with varying periods of waxing and waning through the years as research, learning theory, and politics influenced education. In-school activities might include service learning, classroom-assigned projects, passion projects, citizen science, and school support for outside interests. Each serves a different role for students, and each can be accomplished with teacher oversight. In Building Bridges: Connecting Classroom and Community through Service-Learning in Social Studies, Rahima C. Wade emphasizes the role service learning can have in social studies, pointing out that service-learning "activities engage students in active citizenship while providing a meaningful context for learning social studies content and skills" (2000, 9). Today's standards, frameworks, and the nature of our current political arena encourage us to find ways to guide student activism. Teacher-led, in-class activities are one way, especially in the younger grades, to help students connect. These types of activities bring local issues to the surface for students, and with teachers and librarians working together to teach the skills necessary to accomplish such tasks, students can gain experience as influencers, building confidence to continue as activists.

Building Engaged Students

Assigning personal projects, whether through a genius hour or other program requires educators to develop a process to help students identify a personal goal, determine the steps needed to reach the goal, be given time to achieve that goal, and develop a way to reflect and assess their accomplishments. School librarians can help ensure the research process will be included. Students can be directly instructed throughout, learning the skills of locating sources, identifying their usefulness and accuracy, utilizing new knowledge in new ways, and expressing their results in a way that helps others.

Starting with identification of the problem or issue, school librarians can lead by incorporating the questioning process so that with each step along the way, students take a moment to reflect on their question and verify progress. Knowing how to identify the types of questions that will help them focus on what they want to know gives students the confidence and practice they need so that later, when they face decisions and problems as adults, they know how to ask the right questions and identify the answers that provide valid evidence to support decisions.

School-Wide Action

Engaging the entire school is one of the ways to create and sustain topics of discussion. Giving students a way to experience the power of leadership allows them to take a valuable experience with them as they move into jobs, college, and adult life. Promote school-wide action by trying one of these strategies:

  • Encourage students to create a club that interests them or to join an existing one. Guide clubs in working together to create more inclusion and understanding across interests and groups. Clubs can co-sponsor events throughout the year, working together on an issue.
  • Create an activism poster in the library—perhaps on an easel by the front door—for students to write on. Headline it, seed with a few suggestions of your own, and rotate after a couple of weeks. After a time, take down the display. Create a committee of students to review and prioritize the items shared. What structure already exists to fix a particular problem? Get the committee to speak to that group. Is there a need to create a new group? Solicit committee members or clubs to join in to get those changes made. Headline suggestions: "Fifty Things We Can Do to Help Our Community" or "People in Our Community Who Are Helping Others."
  • Put up a timeline in the library of local civics in action. When was the skate park built? When was the community garden made? When did the campus become an open campus? When were girls allowed to wear pants to school? Put them all on a timeline to show how things change through time and community action.
  • Conduct a forum during school for kids to talk together about concerns. Invite local leaders to join in. Host one at night for adults and youth together. Consider hosting teen panels on issues of importance to them.
  • Do you have brown bag lunches in the library? Expand beyond author visits and host groups such as the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, nonprofit organizations, local law enforcement, and others of interest to your community.

Understanding, Connection, and Discovery

Understanding how our government works will give students a path to follow when they want to make inroads. Make sure students understand our system of government from the local to global. This is not just a government class objective—it's an important lesson to be learned and taught from the earliest elementary grades. Incorporate lessons on community helpers as well as government agency websites, their missions, and how they work. These are essential to know when wading into activism of any kind. There will be roadblocks and protocols to discover. Knowing how it all works will help activism go further and be more productive.

Classroom teachers are rightfully concerned about adding "one more thing" to their already packed curriculum. However, Rahima Wade cites research showing that service learning "improved (student) attendance and school grades," and that while the jury is out in terms of how service learning increases student knowledge of content, there is much evidence that shows that students involved in such activities are more connected to school, have better grades, and "develop greater higher level thinking skills than do control students" (2000, 12-13). Anecdotal evidence shows that in an inquiry or other personal learning model, there are ways to assess learning and increase content-specific information by incorporating traditional methods. School librarians can help classroom colleagues incorporate the research process into activities and support student learning by teaching the skills desired by all frameworks and standards, which are the very skills they'll need as adults to make decisions throughout their lives.

General Benjamin, a character in Ann Patchett's novel Bel Canto, says: "It makes you wonder. All the brilliant things we might have done with our lives if only we suspected we knew how." Our students don't know what they don't know. In Bel Canto, the young gunman, uneducated and closed off from the larger world, discovers that he has a brilliant singing voice. How could he know that there are people who make their living surrounded by art and beauty? The more opportunities we give to students to explore what is available "out there," the bigger the possibility that more students will find a connection to something larger than themselves and be willing to take a stand to become involved.

Works Cited

Chiang, Harriet. "A Screen of Their Own / For 7 Enterprising Petaluma Girls, Cinema Paradiso Means a Movie Theater in Town." SF Gate (November 24, 2002). .

Doyle, Jim. "Teens' Theater Project Premieres / 12-screen Complex Returns Movies to Downtown." SF Gate (May 17, 2005).

Ihejirika, Maudlyne. "Movement Started by Hadiya Pendleton's Friends Spawns National Wear Orange Campaign." Chicago Sun Times (June 24, 2016).

Wade, Rahima C., ed. Building Bridges: Connecting Classroom and Community through Service-Learning in Social Studies. National Council for the Social Studies, 2000.

Project Design Resources

The Right Question Institute has information on how to incorporate the Question Formulation Technique into instruction:

“Science in the Wild” is a webinar on the many ways to use citizen science in the classroom with Debbie Abilock, Susan Smith, and Connie Williams:

The Mikva Challenge has a civics curriculum that includes interesting and easy-to-implement activities for different grade levels::

From games to instructional content to teacher resources, iCivics offers a wide variety of government-related information to can help students in their work for change:

The summer 2017 issue of the California School Library Association’s journal is full of articles and guidance on civic responsibility:

This May 2017 New York Times guest blog post by Steven Zemelman highlights the steps one can take with students to guide them through action projects:

Raise awareness and create conversations with the civics card game PolitiCraft. This game creates a safe way for conversations to begin. Players use the cards with terms like “conditional,” “power play,” and “end of election cycle” to work their way through the conversation about an issue:

Tips for Success:

Help students find their passion, give them time to pursue it, and help them identify the tasks needed to complete it. Issues must come from the students. There is no way students, or anyone, will persist through the layers of legislative, political, and financial requirements of political action without personal buy-in.

Be their ally. Help students find the world outside of themselves while helping them find the best of themselves. Successful students found adult allies who could help them make needed connections, objectively look at their goals, and outline their path. Parents, teachers, school librarians, religious leaders, and club leaders are all adults who can provide support throughout the process. Supporters come with connections to other supporters and help to open doors. Adults help encourage students not to give up when times get rough.

Show students how to ask questions, identify the ones important to them, prioritize them, then head out to answer them. The research process works out answers a question. Help them find the questions that mean the most to them.

About the Author

Connie Williams, MLS, is a National Board Certified Teacher Librarian. She is a member of the California State Library Services Advisory Board, and is a past president of the California School Library Association. She is currently an on-call librarian with the Sonoma County Public Library and adjunct with Santa Rosa Junior College. She is the author of Understanding Government Information: a Teaching Strategy Toolkit for Grades 7-12 (Libraries Unlimited 2016).

MLA Citation Williams, Connie. "From School to Community: Inspiring Student Activism." School Library Connection, May 2018,

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Entry ID: 2147966

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