Opinion or persuasive writing can be an excellent opportunity to teach about activism and real-world social justice issues in the classroom. This blog will provide you with ideas for how to modify your opinion-writing unit to include a social justice component, while meeting academic standards.
Have Students Write About a Social Justice Issue
Often, opinion-writing units begin by giving students a familiar topic that interests them, such as whether they liked a certain book or their favorite season. This could, however, be the perfect opportunity to teach students about a meaningful, contemporary social justice issue, one that students might not otherwise learn about or may require additional support locating unbiased, accurate sources that allow students to better process information.
For example, in HEART’s “Taking Action” unit, students learn about oppressive child labor on farms in the United States and then write an opinion piece explaining what should be done about this problem. From my experience, the topic of oppressive child labor resonates with students because the children who work under oppressive conditions are their age, which makes them more relatable. This topic can also connect to books that students might already be reading in the classroom, such as Circuit and Esperanza Rising; often, students are surprised to learn that many children are migrant laborers who still work in these situations.
Using an engaging social justice topic, such as oppressive child labor, for an opinion-writing assignment will help create buy-in for the unit and allows students to meaningfully connect their learning to the real world.
Explain the Connection Between Opinion-Writing and Activism
After students have the background knowledge necessary to write intelligently about a social justice topic of your choosing, they will need to learn the components of opinion or persuasive writing and how to structure their argument. This will depend on their grade level and the educational standards for your state. Luckily, there are a lot of resources for teaching these skills (here and here are two of my favorites).
Once students have a topic and know how to write an opinion piece, another way you can include a social justice component in your unit is by showing how persuasive writing can be used for activism. The ability to write a well-thought-out opinion, supported by reason and examples, is a skill that has been utilized by activists throughout history.
To help students draw the connection between opinion-writing and activism, you can teach them about contemporary or historical activists whose opinion-writing has raised awareness about an issue or resulted in social change. For example, Rachel Carson believed that the use of DDT and other pesticides needed to be stopped, and her book Silent Spring made this point with supporting reasons and evidence. So many people were influenced by her opinion that it resulted in the modern environmental movement. There are plenty of resources for teaching her story, such as this children’s book.
Another way to draw a connection is to explain how opinion-writing facilitates certain forms of activism. For example, in the “Taking Action” unit, students learn that lobbying is when someone works to influence the actions of politicians, and normal people (just like them) can write persuasive letters to people in the government as a form of advocacy. Then, students write letters to government officials, persuading them to take action and help children who are working under oppressive conditions on farms.
I have found that teaching students about how opinion-writing connects to activism is another way to create buy-in for the unit because students see how they can apply these skills outside of the classroom. It also helps to empower students because it gives them a tool for effecting change.
As one student in HEART’s program wrote, “The most surprising thing I learned was lobbying because I thought important people do not listen to their people. I thought important people only talk to high-class people. I never thought you could meet up with a person and tell them what they should do.”