Acting for Justice

Students sometimes have difficulty seeing how they can stand up against oppression. Here are some ways to help students to "practice" behaving as allies.

By Linda Christensen

When my niece Kelly was seven years old, she developed odd tics – blinking her eyes rapidly, jerking her arms, then her legs, then convulsing her entire body. Grunts followed the tics. She attempted to make them sound like hiccups. At school she stood alone at recess; during lunch she ate alone. Kids tormented her, mimicking her sounds and movements. When her tics and noises distracted the class, her teachers placed her desk in the hallway. Some days they sent her to the principal’s office. When Kelly was in 8th grade, my sister discovered that her condition had a name – Tourette’s Syndrome.

How did this affect Kelly? She hated going to school. She feigned illness. Some days when she was unable to endure the teasing and isolation, she ran home. Eventually she dropped out of high school and spent years regaining the dignity that students and teachers stripped her of when she was a child. Kelly is not alone in her history. While most children don’t have a medical condition that causes their isolation, too many children learn that their race, class, or language can set them up as targets in our society.

Unfortunately, many people experience acts of injustice daily. Sometimes these injustices occur in the form of an unkind comment about a person’s weight, facial features, hair, or clothes. But often these injustices target people because of their race, language, or religion. Too often injustice moves beyond words. People are denied housing, jobs, fair wages, or decent education. As both history and daily news have informed us: People are physically abused – sometimes even killed – because of these differences.

But kids don’t have to be cruel; in fact, part of our roles as teachers and administrators in schools should be to intervene when children hurt others, but more importantly, our job is to educate them to disrupt unjust behavior.

We can accomplish this by teaching about people who worked for change – Frederick Douglass, Lucretia Mott, John Brown, Rosa Parks, Dolores Huerta, and other larger than life heroes who struggled to end slavery and injustice – so students have role models. We can teach them about the Abolition and Civil Rights Movements, so students learn how to collaborate with others for change. But we also need to stop them from teasing a child who does not speak English as a first language or to stand up for the overweight girl in Algebra.


I developed this “Acting for Justice” unit for students to “practice” behaving as allies. In the past few years, I connected this acting for justice lesson to literature or history that demonstrated both ally behavior and purposeful organizing for change. Although this activity can stand alone, I use it when I teach Melba Patillo Beals’ autobiography Warriors Don’t Cry. The book tells the story of Beals’ days as one of the “Little Rock Nine” who struggled to integrate Central High School in Arkansas. The story is an insider’s view of integration – the large and the small story of how people fight for change.

As students read the book, I ask them to keep track of people who act as allies for the Little Rock Nine. And they do – from the NAACP leaders who fought for integration to the white woman who led Elizabeth Eckford to safety on the first day of integration to Melba’s white classmate, Link, who called her nightly to let her know which halls to avoid, and who helps her escape torture on numerous occasions.

We also read an interview with James Farmer, one of the founders of CORE, Committee of Racial Equality. In the interview, Farmer discusses some of CORE’s early activities in the 1940’s using Gandhi’s nonviolent strategies to integrate Jack Spratt’s, a Chicago restaurant. (See box) Students love the white customers who aren’t part of the sit-in, but who realize what is happening and act as spontaneous allies refusing to leave their seats or eat. They chuckle at the ingenuity of the allies’ answer when they, too, are asked to “eat and get out.” They answer, “Well, madam, we don’t think it would be polite for us to begin eating our food before our friends here have also been served.” As we read the interview, I ask students to answer the restaurant personnel as if they are CORE members. “The restaurant says they will serve the Blacks in the basement. How do you answer them?”

The students yell, “No. We won’t be served in the basement.”

I come back at them with the restaurant’s next proposal. “The restaurant says they will serve the Blacks at the two booths in the back of the restaurant. How do you answer them?”

The students yell, “No. We won’t be served in the back of the restaurant.”


Once students have steeped in historical and literary descriptions of ally behavior, I ask them to create a chart on their paper with four categories:

  • Ally
  • Victim
  • Perpetrator
  • Witness

First, they categorize the historical/literary characters from Warriors Don’t Cry: Link and Grandma India were allies, Melba was a victim, many white students and teachers were perpetrators, Danny was both an ally and a witness. Once students are clear about the categories, I ask them to brainstorm a list from their own lives. When have they acted as allies? Were they ever victims? Perpetrators? Witnesses? (After reading about British Columbia Teachers Federation Program Against Racism, I would use their categories: Intervener instead of ally; target instead of victim; bystander instead of witness. See “Confronting Racism, Promoting Respect: A Union Program Tackles a Difficult Topic” by Tom McKenna in Rethinking Schools, Vol. 13 #4, Summer, 1999.)

When I first started using this activity, I developed “scenes” for students to act out because I wanted to get at injustices that I wasn’t sure they would cover. Over the years, I discovered that it was far more powerful for students to write from their own experiences. When I taught this unit to a sophomore class, I was astounded at how many students confessed to being perpetrators, victims, and witnesses, and how few acted as allies. One student offered that he was a “jackass” in middle school and regularly tormented other students. Many talked about making fun of younger, weaker students. Sometimes their abuse was physical. Few students had stories of acting as an ally. In our discussion, it was clear that students didn’t feel good about their participation or their lack of intervention, but they didn’t feel powerful enough to stop the racist, homophobic, or belittling behavior and comments.

After students make their lists, I encourage a handful of students to share their incidents. Mario, an African-American sophomore, talked about store clerks following him because they thought he might steal clothes. Adam, an African-American student, discussed how the counselor automatically placed him in a “regular” English class without checking his test scores. Michelle shared the story of acting as an ally for several special education students who were teased by a group of boys.

Once a few students share in the large group, I ask students to write the story of the injustice and encourage them to include a description of where the story took place, a description of the people involved, and the dialogue of what was said during the incident. They might also include how they felt about the act and whether or not they were changed because of the discrimination.

After students write their first drafts, I divide them into small groups to share their stories. Power relations in the classroom get played out in small groups. The more popular or assertive students sometimes silence or rudely ignore their peers when they tell their stories. I’ve observed students file their nails, flip through a magazine, or complete an Algebra assignment while one of their group members reads. Besides modeling how I want them to act, I create written tasks for students to perform while they listen to their classmates in order to break students of these “silencing” behaviors. After each story is read, students write on the following prompts to focus their attention on the storyteller:

  • Explain what can be learned from the piece.
  • Ask the writer questions to get more details.
  • Share any similar experiences from your life.
  • If no one intervened to stop the discrimination in real life, discuss how someone could have “acted for justice” in the incident.

Group members choose one story from their group to act out, then assign character roles and decide how to stage the story. Because this is an improvisation, they don’t need to write down lines, but I do encourage them to practice. I tell them to make sure at least one person in their group acts as an ally to interrupt the discriminatory behavior – even if that didn’t happen in real life. They can add details, characters, and props to make their scene come to life. Typically, students share and select a scene during one fifty-minute period, then gather for about 15 to 20 minutes the next day to rehearse their scene.

Over the years, I’ve learned to be an advocate during this part of the activity. I circle the class listening to as many stories as I can. Sometimes the most forceful stories come from students who don’t have “power” in the classroom: limited English speakers, shy students, chronic non-attending students. Their stories might be pushed aside by more talkative or popular students if I don’t intervene. For example, one popular girl wanted to act out the story of how her best friend stole her boyfriend – not exactly the kind of “social injustice” story I had in mind. When I asked about the other stories, I discovered Sabine’s. “I came to this school as a 9th grader. I didn’t arrive in the United States until August. I studied and practiced my English, but it wasn’t too good. I was afraid to come to school. In my PE class, girls made fun of me because I’m Muslim and I wear a scarf. They also made fun of my English. I would go home from school and cry. But one girl stood by me in class. She wouldn’t let the other students tease me.” I told the group that Sabine’s story would be a better improvisation. In other words, sometimes I intervene in the classroom on the behalf of the silenced.


After students have an opportunity to rehearse, I bring the large group back together and arrange the desks or chairs in “theater” style. Before we begin I say, “You might feel uncomfortable in your roles as you act as either people who discriminate or as the victims, and laughter is often a way that we release our discomfort; however, that doesn’t mean that we think discrimination is funny.”

As each group improvises its story, the rest of the class watches and takes notes to capture any great lines or words to use in the interior monologue they will write from one of the character’s points of view.

After each group presents its scene, students talk about the incident. Sometimes it helps for the “actors” to stay on stage, so that the audience can ask them questions, “How did you feel when Stella called you a name? What caused you to disrupt the injustice? How did you feel afterwards?” Jennifer Wiandt, a language arts teacher at Cleveland High School, added the question, “Who had power in the situation?” Students in her class discussed how older students, popular students, and teachers have power.

When Sabine’s group acted out her incident of injustice, I asked, “Who would have been Sabine’s ally in PE?” Two girls raised their hands. Then I asked, “Who would act as an ally now?” All of the students raised their hands.

After all groups have performed, I ask students to write an interior monologue from one character’s point of view. An interior monologue captures the thoughts and feelings of a character as they are engaged in a situation. They may write from a character they portrayed or observed or from their own original story.

As students read their monologues to the rest of the class, they often excavate the emotional territory these pieces triggered. How do people feel when they are laughed at? Excluded? How do they feel when they gather the courage to stand up for someone else, when they fight back against ignorance and hate? Why didn’t some of us act even when we felt immoral standing by as a witness to injustice? Who gets hurt?

As I mentioned earlier, I was surprised at how many of my students shared instances when they tormented others. I was equally surprised at how few intervened to help when someone was hurt. But I also learned that students felt conflicted and unhappy about their role in hurting others.

One student, a biracial girl who hid her African-American identity from the class, told me in private that she cried after watching the cruelty of her classmates in middle school, but she was so afraid that they’d turn on her that she never helped anyone out. She was light enough to pass, and she’d heard friends tell jokes about African Americans, so she hid her racial heritage. “They had teased me about my facial hair. I was afraid that if I helped the boy they were teasing that they would remember my hair or find out I was part Black and start laughing at me again.”

Students need the tools to confront injustice, they need to hear our approval that intervention is not only appropriate and acceptable to their peers, but heroic. Acting in solidarity with others is a learned habit. Elena, a sophomore, wrote about her experience tormenting a fellow student:

In a classroom of 32 fifth graders only one was singled out. His name was Lee. The only thing that made him different from the rest was the fact that he was smart, walked on the balls of his feet, wore a rat’s tail, and did a funny thing with his hands when he got happy… I’m sure if we could all go back in time none of us would make fun of his unique ways.

Was it the rat tail that singled him out or the fact we were all oblivious to people’s feelings? Or could it have been that we were all looking for a cheap laugh even if it was at someone’s expense?

Sure I admit it. I was one of those individuals who made fun of him. Worst of all, I was the one who did most of the nit-picking. I was the original class clown, the one who would get the class roaring. I made fun of him not to boost my self-esteem, but to get a cheap laugh. It was almost like a job to attend to.

By the time I realized this was an individual’s feelings I was juggling in my hands, it was too late. At this point he would break down on the first insult that came his way. The way the tears rolled down a ten-year old boy’s face made me think twice about what I’d done. I backed off him after that, but when it came to other kids making fun of him, I stood by myself knowing what they were doing was wrong.

In the introduction to The Power in Our Hands, Bill Bigelow and Norm Diamond write that to “teach is to be a warrior against cynicism and despair.” Our classrooms provide spaces for us to help students become warriors against cynicism and despair by acting for justice.

Linda Christensen ( is an editor of Rethinking Schools. Parts of this article are excerpted from her new book, Reading, Writing, and Rising Up: Teaching About Social Justice and the Power of the Written Word.