Last week, 28 of my sixth graders wrote the word cool on a piece of paper and dropped it into a bowl at the front of my class. The remaining 26 of them wrote average and did the same. The instructions were simple: think about how you see yourself, write one of the two words printed in red on the whiteboard on a piece a paper, and turn it in. No names. No discussion. Don’t think too much about it.
One by one I unfolded those anonymous papers read the results while a student tallied the counts. With every cool or average the kids gasped, or whispered yes, or exhaled. I didn’t expect the suspense would be so thick. I wondered which word I would have written as an eleven-year-old.
I asked if they would have chosen different words if, instead of writing anonymously on paper, they were asked to choose a cool or average side of the classroom. A few brave tweens raised their hand, indicating that yes, they would have chosen differently if their choice were public.
This exercise in self-perception was the introduction to our new Advertising For Good curriculum, which is the airplane filled with middle schoolers that I am currently building mid-flight. This cool vs. average experiment led into some excellent critical thinking about Dove’s recent #choosebeautiful stunt, where women were forced to make a very public declaration of their own self-perception by choosing a door: beautiful or average. The stunt took place without context or explanation, but posited that their choice made a statement about their internalization of the beauty industry’s impossible standards.
This Advertising For Good curriculum comes on the heels of a series of lessons on marketing to kids, which was a unit rooted in a curriculum book filled with worksheets and supplemented by my enthusiasm for YouTube. They learned how Coke uses the bandwagon mentality to convince us we’ll be left out of the rollerblade party if we don’t drink their diet soda. We scowled at Joe Camel and his cute, cartoon smoking ways. We mocked makeup ads that told us we’re worth it if only our eyelashes are “millionized.”
Their eyes widened as it sunk in what a powerful demographic they are a part of despite their joblessness. They were quick to catch on: companies want their parents’ money, and want to get it by selling us love, popularity, and happiness. Corporations and brands are messing with us, was the bottom line. All that ethos, pathos, and logos preying on kids in the most insecure time of their lives. Class after class, the kids complained half-jokingly that because of this unit, they couldn’t watch television anymore. My work, apparently, was done.
This unit on marketing and kids was intended to segue into a persuasive writing assignment which would assess their ability to use the marketing tactics they learned about to create a persuasive letter about something they cared about. Perhaps a later start time for the school day. An ambitious, big-picture thinking sixth grader might take on the death penalty or marriage rights. But when I taught this sequence last year, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the take away felt so negative. In essence, students were left to conclude three things: children are targets, greed surrounds us, and we can use the tactics of the greedy to sway others in our favor.
As I worried about turning my idealistic sixth graders into cynics, I came across an ad for War Child Canada and was stunned. The minute-long spot, created by Toronto ad agency john st. juxtaposes scenes of daily life in a war-torn community with scenes of children at play; a child solider attacking a man in the street attempts to fire his rifle, but the gun jams. When he opens the chamber to investigate, crayons fall to the ground instead of bullets. Next a grenade explodes in a crowded marketplace, but then the cowering shoppers look up to see bubbles floating overhead. Screams and gunshots are replaced by music. In the final vignette, a child running along a rural road trips a landmine. But when the smoke clears, the smiling boy looks up to see the pages of children’s books falling around him. More music. The sunlight. The copy comes in and hits like a truck: Where childhood thrives, war does not.
Keri Zierler was part of the creative team that created the War Child ad, and is now the Associate Creative Director at an agency called Creature here in Seattle. Generously, she said she’d be thrilled to meet my students and share her thoughts on how the advertising industry is not completely evil. She emailed me to follow up: “At the end of the day, advertising is meant to sell stuff. But it’s an immense responsibility, and in my mind, an obligation—to use the voice and power we have as communicators to try to make the world a better place at the same time.”
And just like that, my Advertising for Good project was launched ten weeks before the end of the school year. I spent my spring break diving in with reinvigorated teacher zeal as I organized slide shows, got lost following links to brilliant and inspiring ads, and brainstormed a key terms list with Social Responsibility and Activism right at the top.
And now my classes have been shaken awake. My students arrive early and stay over after the bell as they dive into researching for their own activist campaigns. They’re fighting against Sea World’s captivity of orcas by planning stunts in the lunchroom with students in cages. They’re pushing back against unrealistic beauty standards with a print campaign showing Spongebob Squarepants looking hot after some photoshopping. They’re designing posters for a bake sale with different price points for boys and girls to raise awareness about gender-based wage discrimination.
As part of the assessment for this unit, students will write a persuasive email (like a boss!) to an actual entity involved in the cause of their choice in which they cite concrete details to prove that the action they are calling for is necessary. This is right out of Common Core Grade 6 Writing Standards: Students will write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence. There’s so much anxiety that standards-based learning will replace teacher innovation with scripted curriculum and reduce teachers to robots. Perhaps though the real issue is not the standards. Perhaps the real issue is how to elevate teaching (and teacher compensation!) to a place which continues to ensure that the classroom is an enticing place for the energized among us who see a set of frameworks and are inspired.
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