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Speak Truth to Power: Encouraging Activism in our Students

Subject:English Language Arts, Social Studies, Civics, Advanced ESL

Grade Level: 9-12

Description: In this unit, students explore what it means to be an upstander or activist for social change. They learn about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and about remarkable individuals who are fighting to ensure these rights for citizens all over the world. They then create brochures on how to become an activist, incorporating their research on the human rights activists we studied.

How it Works: Students examine what activism means to them and define the key term “upstander”. They learn about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They visit the Speak Truth to Power website to learn about human rights defenders around the world. In groups they research one defender in depth, gathering quotes, inspiration, images, and other useful information, and create activism brochures. They present their brochures, take quizzes on each others’ work, and have a ”gallery walk” of the brochures. They then reflect on how the defenders’ stories have impacted them and how they can begin to take action to make change.

Final Project/Product: Students create brochures on “becoming an activist” and hold a celebratory presentation of these brochures. The brochures are then copied and distributed in the school to encourage activism and community service among students.

Overall Value: This program can be connected with any unit focused on injustice, oppression, or rising above the odds, such as the Holocaust or Apartheid. It allows students to be creative, tap into their own cultural knowledge, and work together to inspire others. It is enhanced by Internet access, but if there are technical problems in your school, the Internet isn’t essential. The program makes use of reading, writing, speaking, and listening, helping to develop students’ English skills without them realizing they are learning English. It also helps prepare them for the English Regents exam.

English Language Learners: Students are given a great deal of vocabulary instruction during all four days of the unit. In addition, I incorporate journal writing, icebreakers, drama activities, and visual aids to help students understand, relate to, and synthesize the sophisticated and sensitive subject matter. Further, since the topic is about making a change, once students see the simple ways in which they can make a difference, they are motivated to do the work. This is another way to teach English without letting them know they are learning English.

Tips for the Teacher: If you have Internet access, make sure the recommended sites work before you implement the lesson. If they do not, you can print out the information in advance and either create overhead images or photocopies for your students. If you have a computer lab in which to design brochures in MS Publisher, make sure your printers are working. If not, have art supplies such as markers, magazines, glue, and nice paper for students to create their brochures.


 Standards Addressed
Students listen, speak, read, and write for information and understanding. They collect data, facts, and ideas; discover relationships, concepts, and generalizations; and use knowledge generated from oral, written, and electronically produced texts. They use oral and written language that follows the accepted conventions of the English language to acquire, interpret, apply, and transmit information.
  Grade: 9-12 Subject: English Language Arts
Students read and listen to oral, written, and electronically produced texts and performances from American and world literature; relate texts and performances to their own lives; and develop an understanding of the diverse social, historical, and cultural dimensions the texts and performances represent. They use oral and written language that follows the accepted conventions of the English language for self-expression and artistic creation.
  Grade: 9-12 Subject: English Language Arts
Students listen, speak, read, and write for critical analysis and evaluation. They analyze experiences, ideas, information, and issues presented by others using a variety of established criteria, and use oral and written language that follows the accepted conventions of the English language to present, from a variety of perspectives, their opinions and judgments on experiences, ideas, information, and issues.
  Grade: 9-12 Subject: English Language Arts, ESL
Students listen, speak, read, and write for social interaction, and use oral and written language that follows the accepted conventions of the English language for effective social communication with a wide variety of people. They use the social communications of others to enrich their understanding of people and their views.
  Grade: 9-12 Subject: English Language Arts, ESL

Day 1: What Is An Activist?
Students will be able to define the term activist or upstander.
Students will understand the key tenets of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
Students will make a personal connection with the UDHR and activists from their countries.
Computers with Internet access, or one computer and an LCD projector, or copies of the information on the websites below
chart paper
markers, tape
copies of the UDHR (available at website listed below)
activist, activism, upstander, bystander, social justice, human rights, oppression, injustice, intolerance, bias, persecution
Procedure 1
Word Wall: I recommend you repeat this activity daily for each list of vocabulary related to the days lesson. I will not repeat it in the procedure, as you can put it wherever it works best for you.
a. Have students copy the word wall upon entering the room. Tell them to put it in their class glossary. (I have my students keep a glossary for my class in the back of their notebook section for my class.) A word wall is simply a list of vocabulary words you use for the lesson. On this list, include activist, activism, upstander, bystander, social justice, human rights, oppression, injustice, intolerance, bias, persecution, and any other words you feel relevant to your students’ comprehension.
b. Review the list with your class. Read the words aloud and have the students repeat them to get the pronunciation. Then tell the definition of the word and have them copy it into their glossaries. This is great listening practice. You can also include parts of speech, other word forms, etc. depending on your available time.
c. If there is time, you can have students create stories, in groups, using the words. You can even have a contest to see which group uses the most words correctly.
d. Post the word wall in a prominent area in the room so that students see the words all the time.
Procedure 2
Icebreaker: People to People
a. Tell students that they will be doing an activity called People to People. Tell them to “mingle” and walk around the room until you call “People to People,” where they will find a partner who does not speak their native language.
b. Once you call “People to People,” have the students introduce themselves (name, age, grade, country).
c. Ask: What does it take to be a human rights activist? Give them some time to answer.
d. Repeat steps 2A and 2B. Then: What issues do I care about and why? Repeat steps 2A and 2B again. Then ask: Do you see yourself as an activist or upstander? Repeat as many times as you’d like, adding other questions you deem relevant.
Procedure 3
Drawing activists
a. Put students into groups of 3-4.
b. Give students chart paper and markers and have them draw the outline of a body.
c. Tell students to fill in the body with symbols and images that represent the qualities of an activist.
d. Have each group present, and hang the activist posters around the room.
Procedure 4
Analyzing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
a. Give out copies of the children’s version of the UDHR.
b. Have your class sit in a circle with their copies of the rights.
c. Go around the circle and have each student read one right aloud, while the others read along silently, circling vocabulary they don’t know.
d. Go over vocabulary.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights (children’s version)
Procedure 5
View PSAs about the UDHR.
a. Have students screen the youth-created PSAs on the UDHR or show them with the LCD.
b. Have them write a reflection, stating which one was most effective and why.
c. Share their answers, listing what qualities made the media effective. Keep this poster, as it will be useful for the brochures they produce.
Youth for Human Rights http://youthforhumanrights.org/watchads/index.html
Review the UDHR and the website of UDHR PSAs. Answer these questions:

1. Which three rights are most important to you and why?

2. Which three rights are most frequently violated in your native country?

3. Who in your native country is fighting for the human rights of others?

4. How is he or she treated due to this work and why?

During day two, students create tableau or frozen statues of select rights in the UDHR. This is a wonderful, fun assessment tool to see how students can creatively show their understanding of the rights. In addition, the answers in their homework, depending on the depth and details in their responses, provide good assessment measures as well.

Day 2: Researching a Human Rights Defender
Students will review the UDHR through drama.
Students will do written reflections on human rights.
Students will explore the Speak Truth to Power website to learn about remarkable human rights defenders around the world.
Students will work in groups to focus on one such defender and teach the class about him/her.
Computers with Internet access
LCD projector
defender, amnesty
Procedure 1
Journal Entry
a. Post the following quote on the board/screen:

“Human rights are what make us human. They are the principles by which we create the sacred home for human dignity…Human rights are what reason requires and conscience commands. They are us and we are them. Human rights are rights that any person has as a human being. We are all human beings; we are all deserving of human rights. One cannot be true without the other.” Kofi Annan, December 10, 1997.

b. Tell students to copy the quote onto a blank piece of paper. Read it aloud, as students read silently and circle vocabulary. Go over needed vocabulary.
c. Ask students to write a journal reflection in which they:

a. Agree or disagree with the quote and say why.

b. Explain how the quote makes them feel and why.

d. Have students pair/share their journals.
United Nations, All Human Rights for All http://un.org/rights/50/dpi1937.htm
Procedure 2
Creating Tableau or Frozen Statues from the UDHR
a. Put students into groups of four and instruct them to bring their homework with them. Have them share their homework and see if they have at least one right in common for their answer to question number one: Which three rights are most important to you and why?
b. Instruct students to create a tableau or frozen statue, using all group members, to represent the ideas expressed in this particular right. Explain that they will be using their bodies to create a frozen image of the idea represented in this human right. Let them know to think about how to communicate without moving or using our voices (facial expressions, body language, eyes, positions, levels of our bodies, etc.). As they work, walk around the room and help them “construct” their statues. Check in with the groups to make sure everyone has an equal role and that the statue they create takes into account all of the above qualities (facial expression, etc.). Give them time to practice.
c. Have each group present. Instruct the rest of the class to walk around the statue, as one does in a museum, to get a true sense of the entire three-dimensional work. Ask students to comment on emotions, images, and ideas they see. Ask the class to guess which right is being represented. Then let the group say if the class was right or wrong.
d. Repeat for all groups.
Procedure 3
Learning about human rights defenders.
a. Explain to students that they will be learning about human rights defenders honored on a website called Speak Truth to Power. Ask the class to brainstorm what that phrase means and write their responses on a poster to hang in the room. Explain to the class that Amnesty International is working with these defenders. Have a discussion about the words defenders and amnesty.
b. Put students in pairs and give each student a computer. If you have no computers, print out information about the defenders from the Speak Truth to Power website. Put defenders names on slips of paper and have each pair pick a defender from an envelope with the slips you created.
c. Tell pairs to search the website to answer the following questions about the defender:

a. Who is she/he?

b. What country is she/he from?

c. What human rights issue is he/she fighting for and why?

d. How is he/she treated as a result of this work and why?

e. What risks is she/he taking for doing this work?

f. How is he/she an activist?

g. What surprises you about this person and why?

d. Using the LCD projector to project an image of the defender from the website, have each pair present their defender.
Speak Truth to Power web site http://speaktruth.org/
Revisit the Speak Truth to Power site. Learn more about your defender from today. Visit other related websites and find key quotes, inspirational ideas, images, good statistics, as well as actions people can take to help about this person and his/her work.
Students present after they learn about the defenders, so we can immediately assess their comprehension. In addition, the homework will be a good gauge of the depth of their understanding, as it will show how well they are able to understand the work of the defender and how others can help.

Day 3: Creating brochures for becoming an activist.
Students will synthesize all they have learned into a creative and informative brochure.
Students will work together in groups.
Students will create peer assessment tools.
Students will inspire each other to be activists for change.
Students will prepare for celebratory presentation.
Rubric for brochure and quizzes
Music (either iPod or CD player), not too jarring, but not too sleepy
Juice, cups, chocolate kisses or some other easy to serve snack
Good quality stiff paper, magazines, scissors, glue, markers, index cards. Or, If you choose to create brochures in MS Publisher, you will need a computer lab and working printer
brochure, media, persuasion, advertisement, tangible, intangible
Procedure 1
Icebreaker: cocktail party
a. Post the following questions on the board, and have students answer them on an index card.

1. Describe a time you fought for the rights of others.

2. What tools does one need to be a true activist (tangible and intangible)?

3. Describe a time you knew something bad was happening and you did nothing.

4. Which human rights defender’s story from the Speak Truth to Power website was most inspirational for you and why?

b. Read the questions aloud and go over any vocabulary the students don’t know.
c. Discuss the notion of a cocktail party (people have drinks and little bites of food, they have short conversations with many people as they move around) as opposed to a dinner party (people sit at a table for a long time, talking to the one to two people nearest them). Explain that we will have a cocktail party.
d. Tell students that when the music is playing, they should walk around and have a drink/snack. When the music stops, they should find a partner who doesn’t speak their language and listen for instructions.

Play the music and let students drink/eat.

Each time you stop the music, call out a question number. Remind students to introduce themselves (name, age, grade, country), then respond to the question.

Repeat 3 or more times for each question (I like to sometimes repeat each question twice, so students speak to even more people).

Procedure 2
Creating Brochures
a. Put students back into their groups from the day before. Put out paper, markers, glue, magazines, etc. for the brochures (I did not use MS Publisher, but that is another option if you are able). Have students share the results of their homework (quotes, images, etc.).
b. Tell students to create a brochure on becoming an activist. Remind them of what they felt was needed for media to be effective (review your list from Day 1, generated after watching the PSAs). Each brochure should have the following:

a. Advice (five things you need to do/have to be an activist, both tangible and intangible)

b. Inspirational quotes (at least two, with the name of the person who said it)

c. Images, symbols

d. Links to websites with information on activism, human rights,etc.

c. In addition to creating the brochure, groups should prepare to present their work and must create a 5-question quiz about the information in their brochure. They will be responsible for distributing, collecting and grading the quizzes. Explain to the class that the quizzes plus their presentation grade will be added together to form one test grade. Show them the grade sheet and explain their role in recording their grades.
d. Allow students to work on their brochures, presentations, quizzes as you circulate to help them.
Procedure 3
Preparing for Celebration
a. Students create signs and banners for the event, saying things such as “Speak Truth to Power”, “Be an Activist for Change”, and “You Can Make a Difference”.
b. Students create an invitation for the teachers and administration of the school to attend their presentation.
c. Students sign up to bring in food, drinks, paper goods, balloons, music, flowers for the celebratory presentation.
Finish your pamphlet, get ready for presentation, have quiz on overhead or photocopied, bring in your promised items for our celebration.
Students are creating a visual representation of what they have learned, as well as creating their own assessment tool to ensure the other students learn from them.

Day 4: Presenting Our Work
Students will present their brochures.
Students will assess each other’s comprehension.
Students will reflect on the overall experience.
Students will get feedback from invited guests.
Students will distribute their brochures to the school, to encourage other students to get involved and do community service.
Students' brochures and copies of rubric
Food, drinks, paper products, balloons, flowers, music (brought in by students), CD player or iPod
Posters created the day before
Sticky pads
Procedure 1
Icebreaker: Human Barometer (before guests arrive)
a. Explain to students that you will read a series of statements for which they should either agree or disagree. They show their response by moving to one side of the room, as you determine for them. Explain that the middle of the room is neutral, and that they can stand there if they feel unsure or ambivalent about their answer. Remind students to speak only for themselves and to respect each other’s views without judgment. Also, explain that this is not a debate. People will have a chance to express their opinions, but there will be no arguing or trying to persuade another person that his/her views are wrong. This is merely a chance to share our opinions.
b. Read the following statements, having students move each time, and giving students a chance to explain why they are where they are standing for each statement:

1. Activists are in unique situations to help people, and “average” people aren’t put in these situations.

2. Anyone can be an activist. We all have what it takes.

3. It is more important to help in our own communities, than in other people’s communities.

4. You can only make a difference if you have help from other people. You cannot make a change on your own.

Procedure 2
Preparing to present
a. Have students get back into groups and finalize their presentations. Ask them to make sure their materials are in order, they know who is going to say what and when, etc. Walk around while they prepare and check in with each group to make sure they are on track and have what they need. Allow time for dress rehearsals, either in front of their peers or just in front of you. This way you can avoid any unforeseen mishaps when the actual presentations are given and guests are in the room.
b. Have students set up the room for the presentations (create a food table, hang posters, put up balloons, put out flowers, arrange seating in an appropriate way for the presentations)
c. Welcome invited guests
d. Students/guests take food/drink.
Procedure 3
a. Give out the grading sheets and have students put their names on the top.
b. Give groups time to present. You can introduce each group or have a student act as MC. After each group presents, they should allow time for questions from the audience. They should then give out their quizzes and allow time for the students to complete them. Have each group collect completed quizzes from the class.
c. Repeat for all groups.
d. Give students/guests time to have food/drink.
Procedure 4
Gallery walk
a. Give each student and invited guest a small package of sticky notes.
b. Have students clear their desks.
c. Have groups place their brochures on clean desks, prominently displayed.
d. Invite students/guests to walk around the room, visiting the brochures. For each brochure, they should write a positive comment (what they like about it, what they learned from it) on a sticky note, which they should place on the brochure.
Procedure 5
a. Put the following questions on the board and have students respond to them in writing:

a. How was it to do this project and why?

b. What did you learn?

c. What English skills did you use?

d. What will you do with this information?

b. Have an open discussion in which students can share their answers.
c. Collect the journals so you can get a sense of what students got from the experience.
Take one action to help the human rights defender who moved you the most.
The quizzes and journals are excellent assessment tools, showing what students learned from each other and what they feel they gained from the experience. Groups will grade the quizzes, then return to the students in the class. Students then put the grades they receive on their rubrics. In addition, you give the presenters a group for their presentation which also goes on the rubric. At the end of all presentations and quizzes, students add up the scores to see their total grade.

Day 5: Speaking truth to power – reaching a wider audience
Students will form “activism teams” to distribute brochures.
Students will distribute brochures in official classes.
Students will get students taking brochures to complete an action for one of the Human Rights Defenders learned about.
Copied brochures (enough for all students in the school, if possible)
Letters or petitions to help human rights defenders (enough copies for all students in the school)
Procedure 1
Forming a distribution plan
a. Put students back in their groups.
b. Have each group choose the official classes (homeroom/advisory group) they will visit.
c. Have each group decide what easy action the students in these classes can take to help their human rights defender.
Procedure 2
Distribute the materials.
a. Students go in teams to official classes to distribute brochures.
b. Teams help the students take an action for their defender.
Procedure 3
We take stock of the work we have done.
a. Teams report back on the number of brochures distributed.
b. Teams report on the actions taken and show letters written, petitions signed.
c. We all “pat each other on the back”.
d. Help students see that they have all just become true activists!
They say that the best way to learn something is to teach it. By having students go into classes and share their brochures as well as encourage other students to take actions to help human rights defenders, it is easy to see how much the students have truly learned. They are clearly speaking the truth and empowering themselves, their peers, and the human rights defenders.

Julie Mann


Newcomers High School
2801 41st Avenue
Long Island City, NY 11101

Julie Mann has been an ESL teacher at Newcomers High School for over 12 years. During this time at the school, she has also run a human rights program about which she is extremely passionate. She often incorporates themes related to social justice into all of her classes.

Important documents for this lesson plan.



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