It all started with a student’s question in a 10th grade English class.
The class was reading Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs, and Asa Welch ’12 asked teacher Robin Neal, “Aren’t we going to do something?”
A different teacher might have given a cursory answer about how slavery is an age-old problem with no easy solution and stuck to his lesson plan, but Mr. Neal saw Asa’s question as a way to engage his students more deeply, both with the assigned text and with a larger issue of social justice. Working in tandem with Ms. Sarah Akhtar, a fellow English teacher, the two scrapped their planned unit and, instead, pressed students to develop the course of study.
“Too often school is about preparing students for ‘the real world,’ and we forget that we can use the skills we learn to affect the real world right now. Thank you to Asa Welch for the reminder. Whenever possible, teachers should be creating situations in the classroom that allow students to learn by doing…doing something that puts their voices out into the public,” Mr. Neal wrote in his introduction to The Modern Slavery Project, a two-week unit he and his students created together to learn and take action.
The sophomores began by researching contemporary forms of slavery (from child soldiers to child labor to sex trafficking) and sharing their findings on the class wiki. Among the astounding statistics they learned: that about 27 million people are enslaved today – more than twice as many as during the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
The more they learned, the more they wanted to take action and to inspire others to lobby for change. The students created video public service announcements that they posted to YouTube and wrote letters to elected officials, foreign ambassadors and corporate leaders. They also joined social networking communities like freetheslaves.net and change.org and participated in online forums on the topic.
The project also prompted some soul-searching about how their own habits as consumers may unintentionally contribute to the problem. Activists have long pressured companies like the GAP, Nike and Timberland to stop using sweatshop labor, and one student-musician in the class, Diego Fiori ’12, discovered that a Korean company (Cor-tek), which manufactures inexpensive musical instruments and parts for better-known brands, also uses exploitive labor practices. In protest, Diego wrote a letter to the Guitar Center store and painted “Shame on Fender” on his own guitar; his research partner, Carly Furr ’10, wrote an article about the issue for Beaver’s online newspaper. The two invited friends to have their photos taken holding Diego’s guitar as part of a campaign to lobby Fender to change suppliers.
Another student, Emily Levesque’ 12, drew a version of the Google logo and her classmate, Melissa Carp, is going to ask the company to put on its home page for a day to draw greater attention to slavery.
The Modern Slavery Project is a terrific example of how Beaver teachers weave social justice issues into the curriculum and engage students through responsive teaching. Mr. Neal and Ms. Akhtar were pleased to see that project piqued the students’ interest in the book, sparked livelier and more informed class discussions, and gave them practice with persuasive writing, a skill that will stand them in good stead in the 11th grade Rhetoric class and well beyond.