Every year in December and January my 4th graders learn about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement in social studies and language arts. Usually we read stories, look at time lines, watch a few videos, but last year I decided to push them even further with their learning/understanding of activism. I created a “Be the Change” activity for them to complete, which you can grab for free below.
We start by learning about the civil rights movement from our social studies textbook. Then I read them Sit-in: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down by Andrea David Pinkney. We talk about how Dr. King worked for change, and how he inspired the four young men in the story. We also take the time to discuss how people go about making change- peaceful protests, writing to leadership, standing up to others (and for others), just to name a few.
Lastly, I give students at least two class periods to read books about activists/changemakers. Typically I take out 30 books from my local library, along with books from Epic and my own classroom library, there are usually plenty of books to choose from. These are usually two VERY powerful days. Students are constantly coming up to me saying “Mrs. McGuire did you know…” or “I can’t believe they treated so-and-so that way”.
Finally it’s time for my students to brainstorm a cause they are passionate about. From helping immigrants to wanting more recess time, the range of causes is quite large. BUT, no matter the cause, students are all learning the foundations of activism. They are learning to state their case, gather evidence, figure out who can help them, and more.
Below I have outlined just a few of the books that I use in my classroom for this activity. I encourage you to check them out from your local library, buy them at a small business bookstore, or use the links to grab them from Amazon. Please note, the links for Amazon are affiliate links, BUT I will be using any commission I receive to purchase books to donate to classrooms!
All the Way to the Top: How One Girl’s Fight for Americans with Disabilities Changed Everything
By Annette Bay Pimental
In this beautifully written book, students will be introduced to Jennifer Kellan-Chaffins, a young girl who was born with cerebral palsy. Jennifer used a wheelchair from a young age, but quickly learned that many places were not accessible for her. She participated in her first protest at age 6, working with others to make the world around her more accessible for people with disabilities. The powerful ending to this true story will inspire your students! Grab this book here!
Enough!: 20 Protesters Who Changed America
By Emily Easton
In this simple, yet beautifully illustrated book, students will learn about 20 protesters who made an impact on our country. In the back of the book students can learn more about each of the activists and their causes. Grab this book here!
Girl Running: Bobbi Gibb and the Boston Marathon
By: Annette Bay Pimental
As a marathon runner myself, this book holds a special place in my heart. In Girl Running students will learn about the first woman, Bobbi Gibb, to run the Boston Marathon. Bobbi loved to run, but when she was denied entry into the race because she was a girl, she set a goal to prove everyone wrong. Bobbi secretly joined the race and finished before nearly two-thirds of the male runners.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind
By William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer
In The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, William Kamkwamba, who lives in Malawi in Africa was unable to attend school, but he did not let that hinder his love of learning. He was interested in learning how things work, so he went to the library in his community (a donation from Americans) where he read lots of old science textbooks, which eventually helped him save his village. He learned how to build a windmill and from that windmill his community was able to have electricity which eventually saved his village. This is a beautiful book about the power of education, the power of knowledge and how it can change an entire community. I highly recommend this book to show your students how their education can make a difference in the world. We don’t learn just to pass a test, but we learn so we can use our knowledge to make our world a better place.
The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage
By Selina Alko
Love is love. But in the 1950s and 1960s, that’s not what the law said. In this book students will learn about Mildred and Richard Loving. Mildred was black and Richard was white, and they were in love. But, at this time it was illegal in most states for them to get married to each other. So, they set out to change the law. This book will take students on a journey all the way to the supreme court, all in the name of love. Grab this book here!
Harlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills
By Renee Watson
Florence Mills was a young girl with a gift for singing. She started singing at a young age, and eventually performed on some big stages in New York City. However, Florence knew the pain of racism, so as she got older she used her voice to promote other black performers and to work towards racial equality. Sadly, Florence passed away when she was only 31 years old. Students will love learning about Florence and how she made an impact during her short life. Grab this book here!
Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez
By: Kathleen Krull
If your students don’t know the name Cesar Chavez, this is the perfect book to introduce him. This book takes students on a journey from Cesar’s early days on his family farm in Arizona to his victory in signing the first contract for farmworkers in American history. Grab this book here!
No Voice Too Small: Fourteen Young Americans Making History
Edited by Lindsay H. Metcalf, Keila V. Dawson, and Jeanette Bradley
I’ve certainly saved the best for last on this list. This book is AMAZINGLY powerful and unique. Students will learn about 14 young activists that worked for change. There are two big things that I love about this book: 1.) Each activist has a poem written about their cause, which were written by 14 different writers/activists. In the back of the book it even gives a definition of each type of poetry that is used. 2.) While a few of these young activists are well-known, many are simply kids in their communities working for change. Pick this book up, share it with your students, and inspire them to be the change they wish to see in the world. Grab this book here!
It was hard for me to narrow down the books I wanted to share here, so please let me know what your favorite activist book is in the comments!
If you are interested in grabbing the handout I use with my students for this activity, click here!