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One World Lessons: Activism – Part 1

In our latest blog series, Laura D’Elia and Wendy Garland discuss their experiences and offer diversity, equity, and inclusion lessons that can be taught in the K-6 classroom or library. Each lesson incorporates the Learning for Justice Social Justice Standards and the AASL Standards Framework for Learning, as well as includes recommended picture books from the Diverse BookFinder collection. 

Laura Beals D’Elia (she/her/hers) has been an elementary library teacher since 2002. She has presented at various state, national, and international conferences on such topics as 1:1 iPads in an elementary school library and technology program, digital storytelling, and guided inquiry. She currently co-teaches a professional workshop for educators with her district’s ELL District Coordinator about using inclusive picture books in the classroom for all grade levels. Follow the Armstrong Elementary Library at @aeslibs.

Wendy Garland (she/her/hers) has been an elementary librarian since 2002. She has a BA in Spanish and a BS in liberal studies from Southern Connecticut State University and a MLIS from Simmons College. Wendy has spoken at library conferences both locally and internationally and was a participant in the AASL Induction Program. She shares all things “library” at @dancelibrarian and Listen. Connect. Empower blog 

Why Activism?

The world is not a perfect place and we want our students to know that they have the power to make positive changes. Learning about the work and actions of people who are trying to make the world a better place is how we continue to build empathy and community in our lessons. Encouraging students to look at the world as not something that they sit by and watch but something they can help create is a major thread throughout the Social Justice Standards. Activism is a big topic so we are breaking it down over these next two monthly posts. In this month’s lesson we introduce students to the concept of activism and to activists who have already made a difference in the world. Next month we will ask students to build their own plans for activism.

Jane Goodall quote "Young people, hen informed and empowered, when they realize that what they do truly makes a difference, can indeed change the world" on a green background with a golden yellow globe

The Lesson

We have been intentionally building up to these next two blog posts about activism. In November, we began with You Matter and in December we continued with Leadership. Both of these lessons helped students understand what is worth fighting for and what kinds of skills someone needs to be an activist (a leader isn’t always an activist). This month, we take the ideas and understandings discovered in the previous lessons and introduce the concept of activism.

  • Essential Question: What is activism?
  • AASL Standard: Inquire/Create I.B.1 Include/Grow II.D.3 Learners demonstrate empathy and equity in knowledge building within the global learning community by reflecting on their own place within the global learning community
  • Social Justice Standard: Justice 13 Students will analyze the harmful impact of bias and injustice on the world, historically and today. 

Pre-Read Aloud

With our younger students, we chose the book Maybe Something Beautiful: How Art Transformed a Neighborhood by Isabel Campoy and Theresa Howell. We looked at the cover (the image of the houses on the girl’s head and the paintbrush in her hand) and discussed the subtitle. Students predicted what the neighborhood might be painting in the community. We asked if they had seen public art in a neighborhood or community. Student responses: 

  • The boxes for the wires are painted like bees near my house.
  • Tedeschi’s has a wall outside that is painted
  • There is a wire fish near the pond by my house

With our older students, we wanted to engage them in a more inquiry-based lesson, and and have them exercise voice and choice as a way to learn about activism. We chose to read Like a Girl by Lori Degman as a quick way to introduce students to a variety of activists in a succinct way. We shared that while students might not know who all of the people were in the book, they should look for some familiar figures.

Like a Girl


by Lori Degman and Mara Penny

"Create, prevail, change the world . . . like a GIRL! This celebration of international girl power honors a multitude of women who made a difference. Once upon a time, “like a girl” was considered an insult. Not anymore! In art, aviation, politics, sports, every walk of life, girls are demonstrating their creativity, perseverance, and strength. From civil rights activist Rosa Parks, who stood up for her beliefs by staying seated, to astronaut Sally Ride, who soared to the skies, the 24 women profiled here took risks, acted up, broke barriers, and transformed the world. With its simple yet powerful text, this book will inspire young women everywhere. Subjects include: Rosa Parks * Mother Teresa * Malala Yousafzai * Ruby Bridges * Helen Keller * Tammy Duckworth * Wilma Rudolph * Temple Grandin * Frida Kahlo * Zaha Hadid * R.J. Palacio * Maya Angelou * Amelia Earhart * Bessie Coleman * Sally Ride * Mae Carol Jemison * Simone Biles * Gail Devers * Babe Didrikson Zaharias * Gertrude Ederle * Jane Addams * Irena Sendler * Wangari Maathal * Harriet Tubman" -- publisher

Biography Incidental

Read Aloud

As we read, we asked questions (that we will see later in our Checklist activity) such as, “What is the problem?”, “What are the characters doing to help the problem?”, and “How did this action help others?”

Other read alouds we recommend:

  • Shirley Chisholm is a Verb by Veronica Chambers
  • Separate Is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh
  • 111 Trees by Rina Singh
  • We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom
  • Amara and the Bats by Emma Reynolds
  • We March by Shane W. Evans
  • The Little Things by Christian Trimmer

Note: Some of the titles that we included in our Leadership lesson also make great read alouds to introduce students to activists.

Post-Read Aloud

Following our read aloud, we introduced the “How to be an activist” Checklist. Using the story we just read, we wrote responses to the three checklist items as a group:

Screenshot of How To Be An Activist Checklist including problem, action, and how does the action make other people's lives better?
K-2 How to Be An Activist Checklist

In next month’s lesson, we will be asking students to make a plan to engage in activism. We will use this same checklist, so it is important that students practice identifying the three items. To reinforce their understanding, you could read a second book and have students practice responding to the items in small groups moving towards independent practice.

For older students, they chose an activist to learn more about and completed the 3-6 What is An Activist Checklist

Screenshot of What Is An Activist Checklist including What was the problem? What mattered? The action helped others know about it, change their minds, both. What action (s) did the person take to help the problem? Who or what was needed to help complete the action (s)? How did the action make other people's lives better?
3-6 What is An Activist Checklist

We provided students with an assortment of activists from which to choose using digital options so more than one student could use the resource at a time. Wonderful resources can be found on:

Students used the checklist to apply the learning to their chosen activist.  In this way, they were able to engage with the actions of an individual that interested them, and reflect independently.

Screenshot How To Be An Activist Checklist with student responses. Our activist is. What is the problem that he/she cares about? How can this positively affect other people? Who or what can help?
Student checklist for activist Rosa Parks

Additional Lesson Ideas

KidCitizen has a related self-guided, interactive activity entitled “Agent of Change” which is an exploration of Lewis Hines’ use of photography as an agent of change (activism). Students interact with primary source images and explore how he used his photographs to advocate for child labor laws to protect children.


The activism checklist that we linked to in this post was modified from the checklist seen in the student work above. Following the activity, we determined that the format and order of the questions we asked would be more effectively presented so we tweaked the student checklist.

An interesting concern that surfaced following the read aloud of Maybe Something Beautiful was that students wondered if the community members were doing something wrong by painting a community space. We had to stop and unpack the events, and ultimately we settled on the idea that if the community artists had permission to do so, their actions would be a positive contribution to the community, rather than a negative act. Although the question felt like it could derail the lesson, it was important to discuss it in the moment.

One of the best aspects of this lesson was witnessing the excitement (and sometimes awe) students exhibited in learning about real people, the very real (and important) things that mattered to them, and the actions they took to make a difference. This is the good stuff that inspires our students to take action themselves . . . which leads perfectly into next month’s lesson. Stay tuned!

Explore other One World Lessons

Many of the cover images on this site are from Google Books.
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