Getting into Question One

After reading Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise,” I asked my students what issue of oppression they would rise against.

Language is an essential tool for change. Melissa Strelke used the Ten Questions for literacy education in a middle school. By reading El Deafo, The Outsiders, Of Mice and Men, The Secret Life of Bees, Between the World and Me, and The Hate You Give, her students learned the languages of social change: words such as “oppression,” “agency,” “prejudice,” “institutionalized,” “marginalized,” “stereotypes,” “civil rights,” “equality,” “equity,” and “justice.” Using the Ten Questions, they also explored how literary characters and historical figures created change. Read more from Ms. Strelke.  


What I’ve found to be the most challenging, and important, step with implementing the ten questions in my classroom has been the preparation and build up to question one, “Why does it matter to me?”. My eighth grade students definitely know of issues that they care about, but I find that their depth of knowledge on the subject is often limited. When I ask them why they care about an issue, they often say “because it’s a problem,” but cannot articulate as to why. I am happy that my students care about issues in the world, but I want to ensure that they have the language and abilities to express how they feel about an issue and why in order to use their voices to create change.

As a result, throughout the first few months of English class, we spent a fair amount of time learning essential language to be able to identify and explain issues in the world such as “oppression,” “agency,” “prejudice,” “institutionalized,” “marginalized,” “stereotypes,” “civil rights,” “equality,” “equity,” and “justice.” Some students have heard of these terms before, but many of them couldn’t articulate what they mean nor apply them to a greater context. We not only learned working definitions of these terms, but we explored them in a greater context through literature and history. Students read texts such as El Deafo, The Outsiders, Of Mice and Men, The Secret Life of Bees, Between the World and Me, and The Hate You Give. We explored issues of ableism, poverty, mental illness, racism, sexism, and police brutality. Some of these forms of discrimination were new to students, while others were familiar, but no matter what issue of oppression we were exploring, students were eager to learn more. They began exploring the roots of these forms of oppression as well as the ways in which oppression is seen in our society today. When we read some nonfiction in class to complement the literature we were reading, many students wanted to dive deeper.

After reading Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise,” I asked my students what issue of oppression they would rise against. From this open-ended prompt, students spent two weeks researching the form of oppression that they would rise against. At first, students had broad topics, but for the sake of the project, I asked them to narrow down their topic so they could fully explore and define it using reliable sources and proven facts. Their research then culminated into a persuasive speech on the issue, urging their fellow students to join them in acting against a form of oppression. Modeled after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech and various TED Talk speeches, students appealed to ethos, pathos, and logos to inform their classmates on important issues that they care about, ending with a few things every student in the class can do to make a change. Their topics ranged from LGBTQ+ employment rights and urban poverty to institutionalized racism in law enforcement and gender roles/ depictions in media and advertising.

I left school each day feeling uplifted by the passion of my students. Their will to create change in their world is strong, but at this point, we were still at question one. However, I think that their speeches will be a stepping stone on their way to creating a larger change within their community. Through looking at both literary characters and historical figures, we traced the ten questions. For example, when examining the march from Selma to Montgomery, my students analyzed how civil rights leaders like John Lewis and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used the ten steps to create change. While history often portrays horrible examples of oppression, we can often learn how to create successful forms of agency as well.

I hope to continue these analyses throughout the other texts we explore this year so my students can better grasp and explore the ten questions. My goal is by the end of the year, students will be able to pair up with someone who cares about a similar issue they gave their speech on to investigate the rest of the ten questions. Throughout the next few months, I plan on developing curriculum to scaffold each question. This should culminate into the students developing and implementing action plans to create change within their community. Students will then, in TED Talk format, report out on their issue, reflect on their implemented action plan, and urge their audience to act in a way that will continue to create positive changes. I am hopeful of the future positive outcomes, I’m sure, these ten questions will bring.

Melissa Strelke/Frontier Regional Middle School