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Becoming Best-Selling Authors: How Three Classrooms Used Their Voices for Social Justice Causes

By Katie Schrodt, Erin FitzPatrick, and Suze Gilbert
 | Jun 27, 2018

These days, it seems we can’t look at our phone or computer without being bombarded with others’ opinions. Perhaps, for this reason, it has never been more important to encourage our children to express themselves in ways that rise above the din (and involve more than 140 characters!). What follows are author signing experiences in three very different Tennessee classrooms with three very different teachers. Yet, they all share a common theme: students learning that their voices are important and can powerfully impact their communities beyond the classroom. In fact, their voices can even change the world.

Reclaiming community  

schrodt2The classroom I shared with 16 fourth graders was on the east side of Nashville. Not the swanky East Nashville where million-dollar townhomes are popping up, but the one referenced by the “Over the river and through the hood, 37206” bumper stickers on the new cars rolling through. Gentrification had arrived, and along with benefits, it brought tension. Inspired by my experience with Middle Tennessee Writing Project, I sought ways my students could use writing to explore their world, free of encroaching social boundaries. I asked myself, What do “real” authors do to showcase their work? The answer: they host author signings.

Each student was asked to complete a writing project, which was then formatted for publication. We invited the community to a “Meet the Authors” event and asked attendees to bring a $10 roll of quarters. My team teacher and I held author training sessions to prep students on how to engage with an audience, and provided students 25 copies of their work. But would people come? My heart nearly burst as professors from local universities, art gallery owners, data scientists, a parole hearing officer, fellow teachers, and a renowned local composer—more than 50 people in total—came to support my students and to hear the reading of their work, the offering of their intellectual property.

Throughout the day, students read their works, collected quarters for each signed copy, shook hands, and generally enchanted new “fans” they would never have otherwise encountered. After the signing, we sent letters of appreciation to each attendee and nearly half wrote us back to tell us how profoundly they had been impacted. Through their writing, these fourth graders realized that they had powerful, relevant stories to tell and unimagined audiences eager to listen.

“Gotcha days”

schrodt1Four of the 14 kindergarten students in my Franklin, Tennessee, classroom were adoptees. At the suggestion of their parents, the class embarked on a month-long project to celebrate their “gotcha days” (the anniversary of the day the child joined his or her adoptive family) to gain a better understanding of what it means to be adopted. Each week we read a new book about adoption and the students brought a book home to share with their families. Their responses, recorded in a journal, were then discussed in class, with incredible results. After reading Grace Lin’s The Red Thread: An Adoption Fairytale (Albert Whitman & Company), a student named Carly revealed that her aunt and uncle were hoping to adopt a baby named Eli. She explained that they were still trying to raise enough money to complete the long and expensive process.

Immediately the students began talking about how they could help, offering to sell their toys and even their writing. We advertised our best work to the community for 25 cents a copy and, in the end, raised over $100 toward the adoption of Carly’s new cousin.

Writing for social justice

schrodt3My eighth-grade students were reading Livia Bitton-Jackson’s I Have Lived a Thousand Years: Growing up in the Holocaust (Simon Pulse), but couldn’t seem to connect to the narrative. Realizing that it was difficult to grasp that moment in history from the comfort of our Murfreesboro classroom, I asked myself, How can I move them so that they will move? When I expanded the discussion to current day oppression and slavery, my students were shocked to learn that such atrocities still exist. As they began to ask questions, I sensed an opportunity. We decided to use our writing to raise awareness and support for Exile International, a nonprofit dedicated to helping former child soldiers in Uganda. The students broke up into teams and wrote proposals outlining their plans, including seeking support from the school principal, the student body, and local leaders. The community responded, and we raised $1,500 to help Exile International fight oppression and slavery.

These three projects empowered students to use their voice and the power of the written word to impact a family, an East Nashville community, and another continent. After the Meet the Author event, one student for whom teachers had once collected grocery money, joyfully announced that she was able to help support her family using proceeds from her writing. Our hearts broke a little, but we were also overjoyed that she had the opportunity to write her truth, contribute to the world and earn money to help the people she loved most. We don’t know if it changed her life, but it certainly changed ours.

Katie Schrodt is an assistant professor for the College of education at Middle Tennessee State University. She teaches courses related to literacy and the elementary classroom. 

Erin FitzPatrick is an assistant professor in the Department of Special Education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She teaches courses related to reading and assessment for students with special needs.

Suze Gilbert is an assistant professor for the College of Education at Middle Tennessee State University. She teaches graduate and undergraduate courses focusing on language and literacy. 

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