Middle School Students Learn From the History of D.C. Activism


As part of their community engagement program, every year at Sidwell Friends School, PK-12 students and faculty collaborate with nonprofit organizations that focus on a range of social justice issuesOn November 2, 2017, prior to visiting their community partners, Sidwell School faculty provided seventh and eighth grade students with a day to learn more about the organizations they would be placed with for service learning. One of the key tenets for the day was establishing a partnership that works with rather than for the community.

With that in mind, faculty at Sidwell structured the day so that students heard from representatives from their partner organizations, alumni, and community members involved in social justice work. Middle school teacher Lesley Younge, who is active with the D.C. Area Educators for Social Justice, invited Teaching for Change to participate in the event and develop a lesson for the advisories.

The day began with a panel discussion in the Quaker Meeting House and Arts Center with:

  • Serenella Linares, Audubon Naturalist Society
  • Jake Ifshin, Everybody Grows
  • Katie Brown and Lauren Pagett, teachers from St. Coletta of Greater Washington
  • Lauren Brownlee, Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart
  • Andreas Hoffmann, Greenlight New Orleans
  • Fayette Colon, Teaching for Change
  • Nqobile Mthethwa, Zinn Education project

Following the dialogue with panelists, students participated in an interactive lesson on D.C.’s activist history in their advisories. Developed by Teaching for Change, the goals of the lesson were threefold; (1) students would learn about people in D.C. history who have challenged injustice through activism rather than charity, (2) students would learn about some of the strategies used to promote equity, and (3) students would be able to identify some of the key social justice issues that continue to affect D.C.

The lesson began with students brainstorming what they knew about past and present issues of inequality affecting D.C. Then students were given a figure from D.C. history who challenged injustice. Some teachers strategically gave their students roles that connected with their community partner. Students were required to impersonate these figures and go around the room interviewing other students about their character. One student shared,

I really liked having one person to go into depth on/with and I connected with that one person.

The lesson ended with a debrief which provided students an opportunity to reflect on what they learned. One teacher noted that by the end of the lesson, students were able to name many more specific issues of inequality in D.C. than they had at the opening brainstorm.

In another classroom a teacher asked students, “Did you notice any patterns or themes?” Several students identified civil rights as a common theme that continues to be an issue in D.C. One student in particular pointed out that in the past D.C. had a large African American population and in recent history, because of gentrification, the demographics have changed.

Following this activity students identified a research question related to their community partner and were given time to research and prepare for their visit.

FeaturedMykella Palmer