The Taking Action Project
9th grade (but suitable for all high school grades and middle school grades with adaptations)
Social Studies (but suitable for many humanities classes)
Jessica Tyson, Oakland Technical High School
Students want to talk about the world around them, and they often want to change the world around them. I think most teachers know this, and most
teachers want to find a way to bring contemporary issues into the classroom; however, the perennial problem is where to fit them in. I wanted to leverage my students’ interest in current issues to help them make connections between my history curriculum and their understanding of what is happening in their communities right now, but I wanted to do this in a meaningful, sustained way. I had tried structures like “Current Events Day” in the past, and the result wasn’t satisfying – these lessons seemed disconnected and random.
What’s more, I wanted to help students understand the role that they might play, today and in the future, in effecting social change. After all, this is part of the reason that I want them to understand the history in the first place: I want them to be able to put their historical knowledge to work in choosing the best way to take action in our contemporary world.
To initiate analysis of historical and contemporary issues, I introduced a simple “problems and solutions” framework – I asked students to identify the problem and explain its connection to a solution or solutions. As the year progressed, I asked them to take action on an issue, and then to reflect on the efficacy of their actions.
The following series of three units is designed to take place over the course of a school year. In the first unit, students will begin to consider the “problems and solutions” framework by reading and discussing a few contemporary issues and designing a mini-poster to raise awareness on those issues. In the second unit, students will give a brief speech on one issue. In the third unit, students will choose a contemporary issue and take action on it, presenting their results to their peers.
This plan is highly adaptable for different time frames and classroom considerations. While I found the year-long study to be effective, each of the units, with modification, could stand on its own.
I recommend that you plan and implement these units with another teacher, if possible. Because of the focus on contemporary issues, I spend a significant amount of time researching various topics and finding materials appropriate for my students. I share this effort with a partner teacher, and that collaboration makes the project much more feasible.
Unit 1: Students will develop skills in Issue Analysis and Taking Action by identifying and describing a contemporary problem and its potential solution, and then articulating the best way to raise awareness of that problem and solution in a visual poster.
Unit 2: Students will develop skills in Issue Analysis and Taking Action by synthesizing research on a contemporary problem and its potential solution(s), and then explaining that problem and solution to their peers in a speech.
Unit 3: Students will develop skills in Issue Analysis, Taking Action, and Reflection by identifying a contemporary problem that is important to them, undertaking research in the community and on the internet to learn about that problem, taking action to solve that problem, and then reflecting on the efficacy of their actions.
Note that these units are highly adaptable – these time frames are recommended, but not all three units are required. I teach Unit 1 in the third week of the school year, Unit 2 in November, and Unit 3 in May.
- Unit 1: Raising Awareness Mini-Poster: 2-3 days
- Unit 2: Problem & Solution Speech: 2 weeks
- Unit 3: Taking Action Project: 3-4 weeks
Here I will specify the skills and preparation that students will need before each unit. Mastery of these skills is not necessary; in fact, in many cases the units themselves will act to develop the skills further.
- Unit 1: Students will need preparation in annotating and summarizing readings, group work, and visual design.
- Unit 2: Students will need preparation in public speaking and internet research.
- Unit 3: Students will need preparation in group work, public speaking, communication with adults/authorities outside the school, and the history of social movements/social change. Note that I teach Unit 3 after a long unit on the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s in California, during which students analyze the kinds of actions that can be taken to effect social change and the results of those actions. This allows my students to use their analysis of historical issues to directly inform their study of contemporary issues.
- Articles, videos, and/or websites about contemporary issues (for the students and for your own background understanding)
- Raising Awareness Mini-Poster Assignment
- Problem & Solution Speech Assignment
- Taking Action Project Assignment
- Unit 1: Raising Awareness Mini-Poster (2-3 days)
- Unit 2: Problem & Solution Speech (2 weeks)
- Unit 3: Taking Action Project (3-4 weeks)
Assessment and Extension Ideas
After each unit described in the series above, I administer a survey to my students. This is to collect information on how/what they are learning as the year progresses, and also to help my students understand the progress of their own thinking. The survey is very simple and consists of these three questions:
- What can be done to try and solve society’s problems?
- How can you, personally, take action to solve society’s problems?
- What is the most pressing problem in our society today?
In addition to helping me understand what my students know, administering surveys rather than giving quizzes allows me to maintain a spirit of inquiry in my approach to this work. I am refining and revising my curriculum every time I teach these units, and these surveys aid that development.
End Notes: Learning Standards
Civic Engagement (OUSD)
- Issue Analysis: Analyze a contemporary issue, identifying cause and effect relationships
- Taking Action: Take action on a contemporary issue by creating and justifying a theory of action
- Reflection: Reflect on action taken, assessing efficacy
Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.
Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.
Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.
Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
About the Author
Jessica Tyson teaches history and English to 9th graders at Oakland Technical High School. She works closely with six other 9th grade teachers at Tech to plan, implement, and revise their California Studies curriculum, which focuses on the literature, history, and culture of California. She received her credential and MA in Education at UC Berkeley in the Multicultural Urban Secondary English program, and she is National Board certified in History-Social Science. She notes that thanks to her connection to the EDDA project, her curriculum now includes a strong civic engagement component, which works well in her untracked classroom — a place that includes students from every neighborhood in Oakland.