How Authentic Texts Lead to Engaged, Socially-Aware Students

change 2

We are in a season of educational change with teachers required to move  into unchartered waters with the new curriculum focus. The Common Core emphasizes reading informational texts, which for many English teachers is a departure, a powerful change, from the curriculum we have historically taught.

Creating connections between the classroom curriculum, world events, and the informational texts can be problematic–teachers wonder, where and how do I start?  

It’s actually an easier connection than we first thought: with an awareness of world events and students’ interests, we can transition into a curriculum relevant to  current events, creating students who are knowledgeable citizens of the world they live in.  We need to stop, look around, and investigate what is happening in the world.  And then we need to process how that can be best used in our classrooms to create informed, critical readers, and thinkers.

Currently the Middle East is a battleground where ideologies are fighting for control of regions, and many of the participants in this war are children the age of the students in oimagesCAUIPW76ur classrooms.  It’s difficult to wrap our minds around the atrocity of child soldiers because our job is to protect children.

Children forced to join the military, leaving their dreams, innocence, and homes to become warriors,  are forever changed.  As ugly and obscene as this is to us, it is an opportunity for us to connect our students to past and current conflicts while introducing them to the human rights abuse of using child soldiers.  Out of this learning, we create empathetic students who will  better understand the importance of an education and their role in eradicating injustice.

Experiences of child soldiers parallel the autobiographical novel, A Long Way A Long Way GoneGone, a great resource to use in the classroom.  Although the book is the story of a child soldier in Sierra Leone’s former civil war, the horrors are similar to the plight of child soldiers elsewhere in the world. This information about child soldiers and their role in conflicts, can be instrumental in engaging students in the current global crisis or the fragile state of our world.

child soldiers 3Child soldiers have been used throughout history, and today global agencies believe that there are well over 250,000 child soldiers in the world, but it is impossible to document as rebel forces and cartels do not release the number of girls and boys they abduct.  Preyed upon by older men, fighting in wars becomes their reality and their nightmare.

So, what do we honestly know about this human rights abuse?  Do lists 11 facts about who the child soldiers are and how they became involved in the conflict.  Two of the most compelling reasons are:

  • Children who are poor, displaced from their families, have limited access to education, or live in a combat zone are more likely to be forcibly recruited.
  • Children who are not forced to be soldiers volunteer themselves because they feel societal pressure and are under the impression that volunteering will provide a form of income, food, or security, and they willingly join the group.

We must understand that many of the  participants are vulnerable young people who do not have an opportunity for education or for a future.  This is an excellent opportunity to engage our students in investigative reporting, allowing them to become the teachers as they research, learn, and teach others about this practice.

Lesson plans for this topic can begin like this:

Part 1:

  • Essential question:  What should our response be to global injustice?  In our post Eight Essential Questions, we examined essential questions to guide the students to examine the bigger ideas of the text.  We want not right or wrong, but thought-provoking questions that can facilitate critical thinking and conversation in the classroom, keeping in mind that is what they will be required to do when they leave our classrooms.
  • Have students access prior knowledge about child soldiers by making a list.prior learning
  • Then have them move around the room, sharing their list and practicing give one get one.  Using this template may make it easier for the first time.
  • Put the 11 facts on child soldiers on the overhead and share out the different ideas students have on this topic.

Part 2

Divide into small groups and assign one of the following countries to each group:  Somalia, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Colombia, and Thailand.   As a group, they will do a computer search using the following questions as guidelines for their research:

  • Where is the region ( a map) and what is the conflict that involves child soldiers?
  •  How are the children recruited?
  •  What are the tasks they are to carry out in the military?
  •  Describe their life in the military.
  •  Is there an attempt to rescue than and if so, is their rehabilitation?
  •  How does their service change their lives?
  •  What are the international groups currently involved in rescuing child soldiers?

Rules for presentation:

  • The participants must become the experts and guide the class to new learning.IMG_3378
  • All members of the group must actively participate.
  • They must share equally in the presentation, which will require planning.
  • There must be a PowerPoint that underscores their
    presentation, but presenters must speak to the audience, not just read the slides aloud to the class.
  • All audience member must take notes and can ask questions at the end of the presentation.


Part 3:

We suggest a persuasive / argument essay of your choosing.  An excellent way to begin is with a persuasive letter to your congressmen.  Because students are addressing an authentic issue that matters to them (and the plight of child soldiers will speak to them after all work they’ve just engaged in) to a real audience, we find that quality writing follows.  We don’t have to nag them to edit and revise–they are keen to mail flawless writing to stakeholders.  Trust us on this: authentic purpose + caring about the audience = quality writing.  

What we do in the classroom must have lasting meaning in the lives of the students.  Teach with a zen urgency.  Our students can develop–and have developed— into global, thoughtful citizens who make positive differences in the world.  Our time with our students is limited; make it count.  Think in terms of whole to parts to whole teaching patterns*–it’s the pattern that delivers us success in creating young people who learn to stand up in their lives.


*look for future posts on whole to parts to whole teaching patterns; hint, it’s the pattern we’ve used in all of our posts over the last two years.  That skill isolation temptation (parts to whole teaching) to which many teachers fall prey is exhausting and doesn’t deliver results.  Stay tuned.






Syria Sudan  Somalia


About Teaching it Forward

We are high school language arts teachers in Oregon.
This entry was posted in character development, Child soldiers and global conflicts., Child soldiers in the Middle East, classroom lessons that change the world, classroom projects that change children, Creating a project on child soldiers, Creating empathy in students., How do I create projects that will have meaning/, How do I teach global conflict?, Injustice in the world and how children are involved., Project-based learning about current issues., Teaching studnets to care beyond themselves, Transforamtionbal projects. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to How Authentic Texts Lead to Engaged, Socially-Aware Students

  1. We totally agree. Thanks for your comments!

  2. Teaching students to be aware of the world around them helps to prepare them for that world. It gives them the opportunity to form their own question, opinions, and solutions. It allows them to put their brains in gear. Encouraging them to think for themselves. In the case of child soldiers, let them relate it to their own lives. If all they had to look forward to was the life of a soldier at a young age. Compare their life with that of a child in a war torn country. Brain storming sessions will give them a chance to throw out thoughts and ideas. Afterwards others having a chance to expand on them.

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