Changemakers in Four Vignettes

Changemakers in Four Vignettes
Dina ElBohgdady & Danny Stock

At every stage of learning, the GDS curriculum encourages students to explore how they can give back to their communities and the world at large. It’s a concept that teachers return to with increasing levels of complexity as students progress through the grades, introducing them in creative fashion to changemakers and innovators who have challenged the status quo to help solve a social problem. These are just a few of the ways that GDS students learn to discover the issues they care most about, develop a sense of social responsibility, and find opportunities to make a difference in the world.

KINDERGARTEN: Going Deeper in Social Studies

Last year, a happy accident aided the expansion of the kindergarten “Changemakers” unit to a yearlong study of people positively impacting their communities. When a mistaken order of half-sized, hardback sketchbooks arrived at the School, kindergarten teachers Bianca Santos Channell, Sam’n Iqbal, Michelle Levy, and Jody Welsh repurposed them as a creative way for students to catalog their learning about champions, trailblazers, and leaders. They also expanded literacy skills and connected to annual calendar events like Hispanic Heritage Month and International Women’s Day.

By the end of this year’s study, students anticipated their teachers’ guiding questions as they learned the stories of each changemaker: How did this person use their voice to make a positive change in their own communities? What change did they make and why do you think they did that? And, with each new entry in their booklets, the students improved their artistic skills—accurately representing features and skin color—as well as their understanding of the ways the changemakers made their mark

FIFTH GRADE: Part Research, Part Performance

For two weeks in May, as they have done each year for more than four decades, dozens of luminaries—from van Gogh and Gabby Douglas to Grace Hopper and Stephen Hawking—appeared to walk the GDS hallways, telling their stories. Traveling Biographies, a signature program of the 5th grade curriculum, is part research project and part performance. 

Changemakers 5th grade

(l > r) JJ Levien as Bo Jackson, Poppy Fox as Misty Copeland, Eva Blum as Simone Biles, Max Maragh as Duke Ellington, Patrick Lara as Steve Jobs

During English and library time, students read biographies about their chosen famous person and wrote a first-person monologue that was conspicuously missing the actual name. During the traveling weeks, 5th graders dressed in character and performed their monologues in various LMS classrooms and offices, ending each presentation with some form of “Who am I?”

Students, though anxious during their first classroom visits, enjoyed living into their characters, choosing just the right props and costume pieces to help them be a convincing Keith Haring, Queen Latifah, or Charles Darwin. As LMS history teacher Judy Brown (who oversaw the program for many years) noted, students’ comfort level and self-assurance grew each day of presentations. And the 5th graders weren’t the only ones who enjoyed the project; the hosts—from kindergarten classrooms to the Head of School’s Office and, finally, parents during the culminating Living Museum event— loved learning about the different visitors. First graders’ hands shot up for the chance to say, “You’re Jane Goodall! We just learned about her!” and 3rd graders couldn’t wait for the chance to double fist-bump Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves. 

8TH GRADE: Crafting Arguments and Writing Letters

Eighth grade English students mailed letters asking decision makers to honor changemakers. Zora Howard (above) wrote to U.S. Rep. Yvette Clark (D-N.Y.) asking her to recognize Shirley Chrisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress.

Reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X was a jumping off point for 8th grade English students this year as they learned the power of advocacy in affecting change. 

The book did more than teach students about the life and times of an internationally known civil rights activist. It served as an anchor for a broader project in which students wrote letters asking decision makers to honor select changemakers. They worked to craft an argument rooted in research, develop a voice on paper, and form ideas in a format other than the usual essay. 

Among the picks chosen by students: Megan Rapinoe for her impact in both soccer and the LGBTQIA+ communities, restaurateur José Andrés for his disaster relief efforts, and Alice Walker for her contributions to literature and social justice. 

In June, the students walked en masse to a mailbox near GDS and sent their missives to a host of people in positions of power, including President Biden. Sam Gross asked the president to honor voting rights activist Stacey Abrams by changing the name of the proposed John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to the Lewis-Abrams Voting Rights Act. “Mr. President, … Stacey Abrams should be honored not only because she is part of the reason you are sitting where you are today, but because she represents a true American, one who organizes and advocates for the betterment of America, and inspires people like me to make America a better place for all people,” Sam wrote.

Eighth Grade English Teacher Caitlin Vanderwolf hopes the project inspired all the students. “The assignment was our way of conveying to them that they are not learning in a vacuum,” Caitlin said. “They are gaining knowledge, doing research, and writing effectively so that they can do good in the world.”

11TH GRADE: Which Stories Do We Remember?

Students flexed their creative muscle while learning about the suffrage movement in Julie Stein’s 11th grade “American Studies: Focus on Gender” class, where students worked in small groups to design a monument that would honor the movement. 

The suffrage unit has always focused heavily on the role of racism and the stories of women of color who were overlooked in the traditional narrative, many of whom did not fully gain the right to vote until decades after the 19th Amendment was adopted. 

A few years ago, Julie added the monument idea to the unit in response to the controversy surrounding the initial design of the suffrage sculpture in New York City’s Central Park, which was heavily criticized for ignoring Black women’s contributions to the movement. The sculpture was redesigned before it was installed in 2020.

The final sculpture added Sojourner Truth alongside Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton–even though the three women did not work together closely. In effect, the sculpture prioritized the appearance of inclusiveness over accuracy, Julie said, obscuring the history of suffragists of color. For students, the challenge was to find a balance between both as they designed a new suffrage monument that would tell a more historically accurate and inclusive story about the fight for voting rights.

One group focused on literary activism, designing an intricate hedge maze that leads to four gardens, each with an open-book sculpture displaying portions of poems, speeches, and other written works of pro-suffrage writers. Another created a card game that teaches players about under-represented people, events, and roadblocks in the suffrage movement, delving into the lives of activists such as Zitkala-Sa and Mabel Ping-Hua Lee. The students designed a 3-D model of a gazebo where visitors could play the game. 

“I was so impressed by my students’ creativity,” said Julie, who described the class’s monuments as “complex” and “historically nuanced.”

Changemakers in Four Vignettes