We used Pantene’s “Not Sorry” ad to examine gender in advertising while debating whether or not “girl power” is actually empowering. We did a close reading Shepard Fairey’s OBEY Manifesto and talked about the unexpected activism of artists and rule breakers. We teared up together watching Coke’s “Hello Happiness” ad and then discussed whether or not Coca Cola is actually using its success for good or if Coke is just really good at marketing.
We asked more questions than we answered. We held Socratic Seminars so fired up that students stood up out of their seats. We thought critically about how our choices as consumers make statements about our values. We thought about our values. Articulated them. And then we brainstormed campaigns to follow through on what we believe in.
And in our student-led classroom we dove all in, furiously. The students shot awake with uncommon zeal mid-springtime that first tiring year of middle school. My own fifth-year climb started to feel less uphill. Kids started arriving to class early and staying late. My inbox started to fill with late-night student emails sharing links to ads.
The students were invited to choose issues important to them and then they worked in peer groups and with me to develop awareness campaigns. In class, I taught the same CCSS-aligned persuasive writing lessons I have taught in years past, but this time I felt a renewed energy because now those persuasive assessments were tied to real life; the students used their knowledge of ethos, pathos, and logos to email actual entities involved in their campaigns and call for action.
And then, towards the end of May when all of us were feeling overwhelmed and I was questioning my sanity in deciding to take this on, some of the groups started receiving professional and legitimate responses to their persuasive emails, and we were all reinvigorated together to keep going.
Srishti and Jasna were thrilled to receive a letter of support from PETA after emailing off their bold and emotional one-minute End Zoos ad.
Melia, Nitya, and Jack were as elated as I was to hear back from Washington State Representative Ross Hunter after emailing him about their Save the Bunnies campaign, calling for Washington State to adopt a law that would make it illegal in our state to skin animals alive for their fur. Representative Hunter’s feedback was encouraging and positive, noting that the ninety signatures that the students gathered at our school was a great start. He connected the students to others who might help them take their cause to the next level. As the group shared the email chain with the class, their eyes sparkled. He’s treating us like we really could make a difference.
My 6th grade activists launched stunts and print campaigns before school, during lunch, and during tutorials and before the end of the school year the buzz was electric from one end of the campus to the other.
Provocative print ads from one groups’s Photoshop < You campaign featured sexy Dora the Explorer and buff Homer Simpson, and mysteriously continued to go missing off the hallway walls.
High schoolers were convinced by another group of my 6th graders to vow to go make-up free one day as a part of the Don’t Cover Up Your Beauty campaign.
A group of three middle schoolers delivered rousing speeches to our to our high school clubs and organized a school-wide volunteer clean-up day at Jetty Island.
A charming orca piñata was filled with candies wrapped with facts about the the lifespans of animals in captivity and erected in the courtyard one day at lunch to the delight of unexpectedly enthusiastic bat-wielding teenagers.
One computer cage was broken during an orca rights stunt in the cafeteria as Ronaldo—in his homemade whale costume and Chuck Taylors—locked himself in the cage during lunch while his partner stood in front of the entire school and boldly declared out a speech against Sea World complete with concrete details and colorful vocabulary. Despite the broken school equipment, we called that one a success.
In fact, as all of the groups presented their Advertising for Good projects during that last week of classes, all of my 6th graders celebrated all of the campaigns as successes. Even the poster campaign by three boys that asked, Do You Need a Six-Pack To Be a Man? that was mockingly covered with YES stickers and then thrown away by the custodian mistaking the poster for some kind of prank. Because regardless of the inevitable little missteps in the executions of individual projects, we all achieved our Learning Target together. Indeed, we became activists this spring.
As I read their self-reflections, my activist teacher heart swelled. I live-tweeted some of the gems with the hopes of sharing even a bit of the inspiration these students were leaving me with this year.
Advertising For Good taught me that my actions and opinions matter.
At first I thought you had to be older and richer to take a stand.
At the start of Advertising For Good I knew I could change the world but the problem was I thought no one would listen to me.
As I read through two classes of reflections, the same simple yet powerful message was echoed over and over again in various iterations that these kids were so excited to learn that their voices mattered. If building this Advertising For Good unit started out as a nagging crush, then seeing it through with fresh curriculum and community outreach was like falling in love: totally illogical and ultimately worth all the mess, risk, and sleeplessness. This spring turned out to be a fascinating and refreshing ride and I couldn’t be more grateful to work for a school that supported our experiment and for the enthusiasm of my brave 6th grade students who spoke up and followed through as active citizens, not only in our 6th—12th grade school community, but into the world.
Well done, activists. I am proud to be your teacher. Thank you for not only getting me through this fifth year, but turing it into one of the most powerful and inspiring teaching experiences for me so far.
All images copyright 2015 Kristin Leong
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