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Engaging in Activism with Children: Receptive vs. Active roles

Source: Pelo, Ann and Fran Davidson. That’s Not Fair! A Teacher’s Guide to Activism with Young Children. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press, 2000, pg. 71 - 81.

How to use this tool
Educators who work with young children can apply these concepts when considering how to engage in activist education. The basic paradigm also works with older learners.

Planning for an activism project takes place day by day, rather than all at once at the beginning of a project. Teachers can’t plan activism curriculum very far in advance, because the content of the curriculum depends so much on what happens with the children. The children’s discoveries, questions, and passions shape the direction of the project. Teachers aren’t just along for the ride, though. They plan and provision for their journey with the children.

As teachers plan for an emerging activism project, they take on the role of researchers. Researchers ask questions, form and test hypotheses, then observe hypotheses in light of what they see, and they are ready to change course in response to new leads. They slowly hone an idea by moving between receptive work (observation, documentation of what they observe, and thinking) and active work (testing their hypotheses).

Teachers take on receptive roles when they

  • observe children’s play
  • take notes about, audiotape, or otherwise record children’s play and conversations
  • take pictures
  • ask questions to understand children’s feelings and ideas
  • represent what’s happening in the classroom

On the other hand, teachers step into active roles to test their hypotheses about what children are thinking and feeling, to create discussion and debate, to stimulate children’s thinking, and to facilitate action. 

Teachers take on active roles when they

  • change the classroom environment
  • make room for stories to emerge
  • offer children opportunities to represent their understanding
  • invite children to document their own work
  • plan field trips and other excursions
  • invite visitors to the classroom
  • ask questions to nudge children’s understanding
  • use ‘persona dolls’ [characters created by the teachers who represent missing or additional perspectives] to add voices to the classroom discussion
  • hold meetings and facilitate group discussions
  • enter children’s play
  • suggest ways of taking action

Here is a curriculum web that can be used to represent a project’s evolution. This web depicts the evolution of an activism project aimed at collecting money for people who are homeless. This web shows how a project unfolds rather than being wholly pre- planned by the teacher.

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