Social Justice Ideas for Middle-High School English

As the world struggles to deal with a myriad of issues from the global pandemic, to racism, climate change, women's rights, and more... students need help unpacking it all.  Many students are overwhelmed as they directly experience it, or they are bystanders watching it all unfold in front of them.  Students may struggle to understand the how and the why of inequity and may wonder how they can help.  As educators, it's so important to help students understand social justice issues.  

Social justice topics can be taught through reading fiction, exploring song lyrics, watching a slam poem, viewing a TED Talk, listening to a podcast, digging into some incredible online resources, visiting a museum, and more.

The ladies of the Secondary Coffee Shop are happy to share how they include social justice topics in their ELA classrooms and we hope you find inspiration in our ideas.

Presto PlansTo state it simply, kids need stories that reflect their own experiences, but they also need literature that allows them to see the perspective of others.  The concept of making sure the literature you share in your classroom are “mirrors and windows” was introduced by Emily Style.  A text that is a mirror reflects your own culture and identity. They allow the reader to feel a connection and also see that their culture is not only being reflected but that it is valued. A window, on the other hand, allows you to view and consider someone else’s experience.  They allow students to develop a deeper understanding of the world we live in and to provide windows into someone else’s culture and identity.  For some students in your classroom, this might be the first time they are able to learn about differences in culture, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.  I would recommend doing a library audit to ensure that your classroom library includes books for all students.

Tracee Orman: Sometimes it’s much more effective to hear from an outside expert. Don’t be afraid to reach out to local organizations to see if someone would be willing to speak to your class about their experiences. Hearing another person’s story first-hand is going to be much more impactful than you trying to share their story yourself. You can do a Google search for social justice organizations in your area to find groups to contact. Also, a local college may have organizations with students willing to come to speak to your class.

 Nouvelle ELA: Have you checked out Learning for Justice’s Social Justice Standards? This is a great way to make sure your students are learning skills like self-advocacy, empathy, and standing up for others. For example, one standard is “DI.6-8.8 I am curious and want to know more about other people’s histories and lived experiences, and I ask questions respectfully and listen carefully and nonjudgmentally.” We can build a whole lesson around asking respectful questions (or building skills like “Googling first.”) We can also draw in a fun video like this one.

The Daring English Teacher : Another great resource for teaching social justice that all teachers should know about is the Anti-Defamation League. The ADL has an educators section on its website that has dozens of prepared lessons, activities, and resources for educators to use. You can filter your search by grade level and topic to make sure that you are providing your students with meaningful content. And if you teach in an area where you need to tie social justice education to the standards, you’ll want to check out the ADL’s lesson on social justice poetry.

Addie Williams - I love to weave social justice themes through my entire English class and there are some great resources on CommonLit that are free and include everything you need for a lesson. A quick search for "social justice", or a more specific topic like "racism" yields some excellent resources on their free platform. If you're looking for a film to show in class the National Film Board of Canada has some free and fantastic resources - again use the search bar to find specific topics. Many of the films can be streamed for free. Lastly, I've recently discovered Imaginaction - a partnership between the Canadian Federation of Teachers and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. They have over 350 resources and ideas for a wide range of topics - they span a wide range of topics and cover the globe. I also really love this free lesson on How to Be An Upstander from the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

Room 213

“People like us in situations like this become hashtags, but they rarely get justice.” This is a quote from Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, one I have my students reflect on and discuss. Our students are more socially aware than ever before and so we have the amazing opportunity to move them from awareness and hashtag activism to actually doing things that can bring justice to those who need it. One way we can do this is by showing them examples of ordinary people doing simple actions that make a difference. Download this PDF to get some videos of Ted Talks that you can share with your students. 

We hope we have inspired you with some fresh ideas for your classroom!

The Secondary English Coffee Shop

Teaching Poetry before Winter Break

By Nouvelle ELA

Teaching poetry is a great way to use fragmented class time before winter break. November and December can be a wild time: spirit days, holiday concerts, and family vacations that start early. If you’re not sure how many students will be in your class on any given day, teaching poetry is one way to keep kids learning.

Here are six ideas for teaching poetry that are winners in the weeks leading up to winter break. 

  1. Use Poetry Bell Ringers

These bell ringers are short poetry tasks that students can complete in 5-10 minutes. Some of them ask students to identify figurative language in a small excerpt, some ask for a short analysis, and others involve a short creative task. 

Before Winter Break, these can be a good way to get students to focus. If we open class with a ritual, like bell ringers, we can calm the chaos of “it’s almost vacation!”

  1. Do an Independent Poetry Analysis

This independent poetry analysis is a scaffolded analysis of Emily Dickinson’s poem, “I Died for Beauty.” Students move from concrete skills (identification and description) to abstract ones (analysis and creativity). 

Before Winter Break, this activity provides you freedom. If you need a work day, you can set your students to work on this. It’s totally scaffolded, so they can complete the steps on their own. If you have a surprise snow day before break, this is a great activity to send home. If you have absent students, this can be completed just as effectively out-of-class as in. In fact, this is one of my emergency lessons that I leave with admin. 

  1. Listen to Slam Poetry

Slam Poetry is a great engaging activity for teaching poetry. Since it’s got such a storytelling feel, it really hooks student interest! Here’s a YouTube playlist with some slam poems that are appropriate for middle and high school. You should definitely preview the videos before you share them with students. 

Before Winter Break, Slam Poetry provides a big impact for short attention spans! Most of the poems on the playlist above are 3-5 minutes long, so you can even play them twice. Then, students can discuss what worked from each poem in small groups. You can even host a poetry slam, if you want. :)

  1. Organize Poetry Challenges

I like to give my students four poetry challenges, and then give them a couple days to work on them at their own pace. They write a limerick, create a blackout poem, write a haiku, and make an illustration inspired by Neil Gaiman’s poem, “Instructions.” 

Before Winter Break, student workdays are a lifesaver! Yes, you’re giving students these four tasks. More than likely, you’ll also have students who need to catch up on work in your class. Why not let them work on what they may need your help with, and work on the poetry challenges at home? However you want to manage it, students are always grateful for independent work time. It definitely gives them space to take a breath.

  1. Set up Poetry Speed-Dating

In this poetry activity, I literally just pull out my poetry books and spread them on tables. Then, students spend about a half an hour looking at whatever poems they want. I don’t have my 9th graders take organized notes, but you could add that element. I do have them write down poems and poets that grab their attention. During the last fifteen minutes of class, students write personal reflections on poems they found and what stuck out to them. 

Before Winter Break, this activity is a great way to let the inspiration flow! Students get to decide what paths to follow - which poets to read more of, which type of poetry appeals to them - and that sort of ownership is fun!

  1. Play the Elements of Poetry Escape Room

If you’d like a totally different idea for teaching poetry, play an escape room! In this escape room, students identify figurative language, analyze poetic devices, do a close reading, and decode a secret poem. This is another day where students “go” and you get to observe.

Before Winter Break, this is a fun way to channel the chaos. Students already want to be up and moving and talking to their friends, so why not leverage that? 

Have fun :)

If you haven’t noticed, these ideas also give YOU a break! We’re all tired and just trying to make it through… so why not use the flexibility and fun of poetry to help you out?

What are your favorite ideas for teaching poetry? Let us know in comments.

Happy teaching!

Other Coffee Shop resources for teaching poetry:

Teaching Poetry Online and in Class (blog post) by Room 213
Poetry Analysis Collaborative Poster (blog post) by Daring English Teacher

Acrostic Poetry Writing - Snowball Activity by Presto Plans

Poetry Analysis - Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening by Tracee Orman

Pet Peeve Poetry by Addie Williams

Reframing Peer Editing in the Secondary ELA Classroom

Reframing Peer Editing in the Secondary ELA Classroom

When it comes to teaching writing, incorporating all elements of the writing process into your lesson plans helps students build essential writing skills. Whenever I assign a formal essay, I make sure I dedicate classroom time to brainstorming, outlining, drafting, editing, and revising. One key component of the writing process is peer editing. However, I’ve started to notice that it is time to reframe our thinking about peer editing and why we include it in the classroom.

Writing is a fluid, ever-changing process, and unlike mathematical equations that have a clearly defined start and endpoint and one correct answer, there is always room to edit and revise writing. Peer editing is not and should not be viewed as a means to an endpoint in writing. Rather, it is the process that we should focus on as teachers.

When I walked my students through their first formal essay of the school year, I recently noticed this shift in how students viewed peer editing. They were looking at the end product as the goal when they should have looked at the process as a way to learn.

The sole purpose of peer editing is not to free a paper from grammatical errors. Instead, peer editing aims to help students become stronger writers by getting them to think like editors.

Introducing Peer Editing

Introducing Peer Editing

When I introduce peer editing to my students, I want to make sure that they understand that even after peer editing, their work will not be perfect. I have them think about published writers with teams and editors, and sometimes, there are still errors in the published work - and those are the professionals. So I tell my students that the goal is to use this process as a way to become stronger writers themselves and that a stronger essay is just the byproduct of the process. 

Goals of Peer Editing

Goals of Peer Editing

  • Have students read multiple peers papers
  • Help students learn to think like editors
  • Help students apply their editing skills to their own writing
  • Have students think critically about their peer’s edits

Facilitating Peer Editing

Facilitating Peer Editing

When I conduct peer editing in the classroom, I want to make sure that my students have manageable, focused tasks for each part of the essay. In doing so, students feel less overwhelmed.

My favorite way to facilitate peer editing is by using these peer editing rotations. In this process, students will read four other student papers, and with each paper, they focus on editing the paper for just the tasks at hand.

In the first rotation, students look at the introduction and organization of the essay. They check the thesis statement and topic sentences. In the second rotation, students look at how the evidence is incorporated in the body paragraphs. They check to see if it is relevant, properly introduced and fully explained. In the third rotation, students read the papers looking just for grammatical errors. To help make this rotation more successful, I teach a series of mini-lessons on grammar beforehand. And finally, in the fourth station, students use a comment bank to write one compliment and one suggestion.

After reading four different students’ papers, I find that my students have a clear idea about my expectations. Seeing their peers’ writing helps them gauge their own writing. Furthermore, completing the peer editing process also helps students begin thinking like an editor. Once they’ve read through four other papers, they then receive their paper and start the process of evaluating their peers’ comments, edits, and suggestions. Another helpful way to conduct peer editing is to have students complete a peer editing checklist

For more on facilitating peer editing in the classroom, you might be interested in reading this blog post entitled "Five Ways to Foster Effective Peer Editing."

Reframing Peer Editing in the Secondary ELA Classroom

Focus on the Process

As we begin to reframe our thinking on peer editing, it's important to stress to students that they aren’t just doing this to fix their friend’s essay or to have their table buddy fix their essay. Instead, it is essential to stress the process and how completing the process benefits the student.

More Resources on Peer Editing:

3 ELA Substitute Lessons That Leave No Grading

We all know the struggle of having to prepare a lesson plan for a substitute teacher, and typically when we need to make one on short notice, we end up leaving a lesson that results in a huge stack of papers for us to grade when we return. I always make it a rule to strategically provide a substitute lesson that leaves me with absolutely no grading, but one that is still relevant and capable of improving student skills while I am away. Here are my 3 favorite lessons that do just that!


Lesson 1: Millennials in the Workplace 


This lesson is designed to have your students engage in a discussion about what Simon Sinek believes are the four issues standing in the way of bringing millennials happiness and fulfillment in life and the workplace: parenting, technology, impatience, and environment.


How the lesson works: 

1.     Video Clip: Have your students watch the 15-minute video clip of an interview between Simon Sinek and Tom Bilyeu. 

2.     Small-group discussion: After students have watched the video, put them in small groups of 4-5 students and provide them with discussion cards featuring thought-provoking or controversial quotes from the video. Students will spend between 2-3 minutes discussing their thoughts on each quote. This usually leads to some friendly debate between students.

3.     Chart paper activity: Then, each group will be given a large piece of chart paper. They will choose one of the quotes that sparked the most discussion and dive a little bit deeper into that topic. Have students decide if they agree or disagree with it and provide support with their own personal experiences. If they agree with the statement, they may propose suggestions or advice for millennials to spark improvement or change in this particular area. If they disagree, they may attempt to expose the flaws or issues in the speaker's claims using evidence for support.

4.     Share with the class: If time remains, have each group share their thoughts with the rest of the class in a brief presentation. 

 Find the resources for this lesson here: Millennials in the Workplace 

Lesson 2: A Grammar Challenge 

Mini lessons with a fun, related activity are the perfect lessons to leave a substitute teacher with because they are completely self-contained and will require no extra work when you return. My favorite mini lessons are on grammar topics since they are specific and easy to check for understanding. Below is the general outline that I use when presenting a mini lesson with a related challenge.

How this lesson works: 

  1. Mini lesson: Begin by giving a mini lesson on a particular grammar topic. You might choose punctuation, sentence structure, parts of speech, or fragments, for example.

  1. Challenge: Once students understand the content that you have provided in your mini lesson, they are ready to be given a competitive challenge! I like to put students in small groups and have them use what they learned in the mini lesson to complete the challenge. 


Want to try a free grammar challenge to get a better idea of what an effective challenge for this lesson might look like? Click the link below:


>>> Grab a free grammar challenge

  1. Review: When students have completed the challenge, have them verify their work with you to determine who was able to solve it. Then, take the time to review it with your class so that everyone understands how the challenge was solved.


This challenge is part of my Full-Year Grammar Challenge Program! You can also browse all the individual challenges here.

Lesson 3: A Silent Discussion

The silent discussion method works really well as a substitute lesson because it leaves absolutely no work for you when you return, but also prompts everyone (even your most reluctant students) to share their ideas. It allows time for students to reflect on their own thoughts as well as learn about the perspective of others before sharing out loud.

How this lesson works: 

  1. Develop Questions: Develop a variety of questions related to a topic you are teaching. Write them or project them on the board. If you have 25 students, you’ll probably want at least 12 questions. I have a set of ethical dilemma prompts that work incredibly well with the silent discussion method that you can take a peek at here.

  2. Number Students: Number students off and have them write the question that corresponds to their assigned number at the top of a blank piece of paper, or you can hand out this free template here: Silent Discussion Template.

  3. Students Circulate: Students respond to the question they wrote with their own opinion. When they are done, they get up, circulate the room at their own pace, and find an available seat with a new discussion question. Students then read the new question along with the responses of their peers and add their own thoughts to the “discussion” in writing. This step continues for as long as you like.

  4. Whole-Class Discussion: You can conclude by having a whole-class open discussion on all the topics, or you can put students into small groups to discuss!

I hope these ideas take some work off your plate in preparing lessons that will not only keep your students engaged and improve their ELA skills but will also leave you with an empty desk when you return to work!


Looking for more "no-grading" lessons and resources to leave for an ELA substitute? No worries! The bloggers at The Secondary English Coffee Shop have you covered: 

Literary Terms Review Game Powerpoint by Tracee Orman

Round-Robin Creative Writing Activity by Nouvelle ELA 

FREE Substitute Teacher Feedback Form by The Classroom Sparrow 

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