AFT: Human Rights Resources- Helping Youth to be Activists

“How wonderful is it that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”

— Anne Frank 

Youth Making a Difference

If asked, most of us could name a few things we’d like to see changed in our school, community, state, and country. And often, there are many others who would agree with us. However, young people often feel as if their voice doesn’t matter. But in reality, students have power and strength, and have been at the forefront of change around the world throughout history. Unfortunately, things don’t change just because we want them to. People make change. And this change can only be made by taking action. In this lesson, students will learn about the power of youth activism and see its influence around the world. This lesson serves as a primer to embolden students to stand up for issues they are passionate about and sets them up with activist tools.

Step 1:  Hook — Standing up for Change

Have students take out a piece of paper and write down something within the school, community, or world they would like to change, stop, or an issue they are passionate about. After they have a minute to do this, call on a student and have them read out what they wrote. Then, tell all the students who wrote something similar to stand up as well. Next, call on another student who is still sitting down to read out what they would like to change, then again have all the students who wrote something similar to stand. Continue doing this until all of the class is standing. This activity allows students to see how issues they care about are often issues others are passionate about as well.After the activity is finished, have the students sit back down and then pick one of the topics the students’ raised and ask the class what they would do to address the issue. Write down on the white board methods of change-making that the class proposes, then leave it up for the remainder of the lesson for student reference later on.    

Step 2: Videos and Other Teacher Resources 

After your students begin thinking about change-making and the connection between young people and change, show them a historical example from around the world of student activism and the huge impact it has made in creating change. You can play one of the videos below that AFT has produced about young people all over the globe and the crucial push for a better and more just society they have created throughout time: from student involvement in the movement to end apartheid in South Africa (video at left, 6:25), the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1960s (4:07), students standing up in Burma during the democratic uprising of the 1980s (6:42), to the youth led movement in Iran which helped to push for the democratic election of Mohammad Khatami to the presidency in 1997 (6:32), to lastly the student led protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 (5:15).​

Step 3: Standards-Based Exercise

After inspiring the class with examples of youth activists from history and keeping in mind their ideas for creating positive change from Step 1, introduce them to the SWOT analysis model. This model can easily be used by youth who seek to create change, but are not sure where to start. ​Once your students have an understanding of the SWOT model, have them pair up into groups based on those who picked similar topics for what they would like to change, and begin the process of creating a SWOT model. It might be easiest for them to first use this worksheet to jot down their ideas and after they can order their ideas into a drawn out SWOT model.Here is an example SWOT analysis where the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats are accessed in a mock scenario. The students in this scenario want to swap their unhealthy school lunches for a healthier alternative:    

Step 4: What Can Students Do? 

Thinking and brainstorming about change are important because they help students identify the problems and issues they are passionate about and lead them to the most important part of the change-making process — action!Look back to the courses of action that were written out on the white board during Step 1. Encourage your students to see how they themselves can take action within their own community. Here are more ideas for how students can take action:Forming student clubs or hosting forums to educate others about the issues Calling and writing letters to their representatives to express their opinions Creating and sharing activist art, from poetry to murals, posters, and stickersVolunteering with organizations working on the issues Participating in rallies, marches, and protests

Additional Resources

“How to Become a Student Activist” guide “So Change It: A Guide for High School Youth Activists” from Advocates for Youth Learn about current youth activists who can inspire your class, and visit students in Jordan engaged in school and community-based initiatives linking them to political and public life as part of the Ana Usharek Schools program
For a more comprehensive toolkit, check out Amnesty International’s Activist Toolkit Learn about South African student activists and the Sharpeville Massacre Check out PBS NOW Classroom’s lesson plan about critical thinking and making informed decisions Focused on the refugee crisis, I Am Syria provides great ideas about how students can get involvedThis “Where Do You Stand?” activity from Amnesty International allows students to practice taking a stance on human rights issues ​The American Democracy Project developed a comprehensive Guide to Informed VotingStudents can learn how to start their own United Students Against Sweatshops and Amnesty International clubs  

AFT Resources

Find more lessons on famous activists and human rights defenders at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights​Check out this lesson plan on ShareMyLesson, a lesson plan-sharing platform available for all AFT membersShare My Lesson provides several more lesson plans about the importance of civic engagement, as well as lessons on action planning Check out the teacher resources at Voices for Peace- Nonviolent Strategies for Change Teacher ResourcesRead about the 2017 AFT Higher Education conference, which featured young activist speakersVisit for upcoming events relating to student activism, and keep informed at and

About eslkevin

I am a peace educator who has taken time to teach and work in countries such as the USA, Germany, Japan, Nicaragua, Mexico, the UAE, Kuwait, Oman over the past 4 decades.
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