I’ve never really gotten over watching A Muslim and Jewish Girl’s Bold Poetry Slam on YouTube. Amina Iro and Hannah Halpern share their poem about the way the world sees them. They help us see the way we are all more alike than different. I remember thinking about how powerful their message was the first time I watched it. I couldn’t help but wonder: What had to be in place for these two during their school years for them to learn to raise their voices like this?
Certainly to write a poem like this, these two young poets had to have considerable opportunities to write for purposes that were important to them. Listening to the craft of the lines they wrote, the way the two voices danced together and then drifted apart, hearing the words carefully chosen, one can’t help but see the layers of teaching and experience that have gone into making this moment. Certainly many writing opportunities and a lot of work helped these two poets get to this place in their writing lives.
This poem, although beautifully crafted, is about much more than ways with words. It illustrates the power in words when children are taught to raise their voices, when they learn that their words matter. Although the poem was first shared nearly six years ago, there has been little change in our world that tries to fit people into boxes, often choosing to hear one story over the complexity of the many that make each of us who we are. Even if we reach back into the history of our world, we will find that we have always been unable to shake the stereotypes and really look deeper into the complexity of the stories. In Being the Change, Sara K. Ahmed points out, “What I have learned is that we cannot progress as a society if we rely on television images, single stories, and sensationalized headlines over getting proximate to the personal experiences and individual truths of human beings who don’t look like us.”
Many experiences and conversations go into getting our young writers to this place. Perhaps we can help students learn to raise their voices like Amina and Hannah simply by thinking about reading and writing. First of all, it seems, children have to know their stories are welcome in our classrooms. We spend time building safe writing communities where children feel comfortable taking risks, where they know their peers will listen to their stories.
In addition to opportunities to write stories, many books can help students learn to raise their voices. Here are a few to begin:
For Our Youngest Learners
Come with Me by Holly M. McGhee and illustrated by Pascal Lemaître
A small girl is frightened by all she sees on the news and in the world. Her father helps her see that sometimes we begin by just taking a step and then finding someone to take a step with us. This book helps readers see how being our best selves can be one positive way to raise our voice.
Say Something! by Peter H. Reynolds
The author encourages readers to take action when they notice something that needs to be changed. The book reminds readers to trust their voice and find a way to say something.
One by Kathryn Otoshi
It takes a lot of courage to stand up for others. In this story, Blue is always being picked on by Red. Although other friends see what is happening, no one is brave enough to stand up to Red until One comes along. This book reminds us about the importance of speaking up and raising our voice for others.
How to Change the World (a work in progress) with Kid President by Soul Pancake
In this video, Kid President shares ways we can begin to work toward change. This could easily work as a mentor for growing discussions about how we can work toward change in our classroom, school, community, and world.
As They Grow
She Persisted Around the World by Chelsea Clinton and illustrated by Alexandra Boiger
The world is full of challenges and hurdles to overcome. Chelsea Clinton shares the stories of girls around the world who raised their voices and broke through barriers.
Malala: A Brave Girl from Pakistan/Iqbal: A Brave Boy from Pakistan by Jeanette Winter
Two children from Pakistan raise their voices against the fact that some children have to work or are unable to get an education. This picture book has the story of Iqbal on one side and the story of Malala when the book is flipped.
Let the Children March by Monica Clark-Robinson and illustrated by Frank Morrison
This beautifully illustrated book tells the story about how the children of Birmingham, Alabama, raised their voices and marched to fight for their right to freedoms afforded to others.
Reuben Paul: What This Third Grader Has Accomplished Will Blow Your Mind. This news clip shares the story of Reuben Paul, who wanted to raise his voice to help others stay safe in today’s cyberworld.
Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison
This book is full of stories of Black women who raised their voices to create change.
Rhythm and Resistance: Teaching Poetry for Social Justice edited by Linda Christensen and Dyan Watson
This publication from Rethinking Schools is full of poetry written to illustrate the many ways poets can raise their voices. Not only is the book full of poems that can be useful across grade levels, but there are suggestions for lifting student voices through poetry.
Mari Copeny: Mari Copeny has stood up against the Flint water crisis since she was eight years old. The social page of her website shares the way she uses social media to amplify her voice and raise awareness about the crisis.
When the news gets the better of me and the world makes me shake my head, I look out at the young learners gathered together in one community. I listen to them talk to one another, share their stories, and work to make sense of the world, and I know we need their voices. My job is to help them realize they have a voice today—and certainly tomorrow. The picture books, poems, and digital compositions shared above might be a starting place for helping our students know the power in their words. Their communities need to understand their stories. The world needs each one of their stories.
Helping students learn to raise their voices begins in the safe space of our classrooms. It begins in quiet conversations, in our community circles as we talk together, in the willingness to open the floor to everyone’s story. In The Day You Begin written by Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by Rafael López (yes, another one to add to your list), we are reminded, “There will be times when you walk into a room and no one there is quite like you until the day you begin to share your stores. All at once, in the room where no one else is quite like you, the world opens itself up a little wider to make some space for you.”