Writing to Change the World: Teaching Social Justice through Writer's Workshop

By Diamond, Lily | Language Arts, November 2017 | Go to article overview

Writing to Change the World: Teaching Social Justice through Writer's Workshop


Diamond, Lily, Language Arts


I have taught sixth grade in a charter school in East Palo Alto, California, and fifth grade at an independent school in New York City. Despite the differences in contexts across these two cities, I have found that my upper elementary students find issues of social justice to be particularly compelling. By integrating themes of social justice throughout our narrative and persuasive writing, I am able to support students' passion for activism and belief in the impact of their voices.

I began my journey as a teacher in California. I taught sixth grade armed with my passion for social justice. I hoped that by providing my students with a deeper understanding of the issues in our world, they would feel empowered to resolve them. Writer's workshop was at the heart of our classroom community. My students wrote stories about surviving cancer and watching loved ones get arrested. They made websites about teen activists while simultaneously learning about child labor and girls' right to an education. We published a collection of short stories together. Writing transformed our classroom into a learning community where students felt that their voices were truly important.

After teaching in California for four years, I moved to New York to teach fifth grade. I started the year with personal narratives to build community and reflect on the most meaningful moments in our lives. When I teach students that their work is meaningful and purposeful, our learning community becomes more invested and engaged. To foster this burgeoning sense of purpose, I integrate themes of social justice across both fiction and nonfiction writing. I emphasize the power of writing as a way to make one's voice heard and, ultimately, as a means to change the world. For middle schoolers, who are naturally aware of fairness, this work is a way to understand why certain inequities exist. They notice, for example, the discrimination that exists around them. When we openly explore, discuss, and write about this issue, it inspires them to make change.

Telling a story that conveys deeper meaning takes courage and a sense of trust. I model such risk taking in my own writing by sharing small moments about issues I've faced, such as a third-grade bully, family relationships, and a fight with a close friend. As I reveal myself to students, comparing my own small personal tragedies and triumphs to those in beloved mentor texts like Cisneros's "Eleven" (1992) and Jiménez's "Inside Out" (1997), they begin to see the universality of certain social justice themes.

To encourage the crafting of meaningful stories from the start of the writing process, we begin by brainstorming social issues we have encountered in our lives, such as bullying and friendship. Then students generate small moments connected to the issues most pertinent to them (Calkins, 1994). For example, one of my students immediately began drafting a small-moment story about a soccer game. Through writing conferences where we talked about what his story was really about, he was able to uncover the heart of his story. …

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