Student Action on the Economic Crisis

February 10, 2009

How can teachers help their students understand and take action on problems stemming from the economic crisis? We propose a process for encouraging active student citizenship.

"Social responsibility—that is, a personal investment in the well-being of others and of the planet—doesn't just happen. It takes intention, attention, and time."

—Sheldon Berman, "Educating for Social Responsibility," Educational Leadership, 11/1990

The greatest economic crisis since the depression of the 1930s grips America. This teachable moment suggests two challenging questions: 1) How can teachers help their students understand what is happening? 2) How might teachers work with their students to create a community of socially responsible citizens who act on the crisis to make a difference in their school or community?

Before beginning a class project on this issue, teachers may want to read these pieces on TeachableMoment.Org: "Teaching on Controversial Issues" and "Teaching Social Responsibility."

You might begin your work with students by having the class read about and discuss the current economic crisis facing our country and the world. Consider using any of the materials on this topic recently posted on TeachableMoment.Org. These lessons provide background information and student activities on the economic crisis, including discussion questions, inquiry possibilities, writing assignments and citizenship suggestions. Beginning with the most recent posting, they include:

  1. FDR and Barack Obama: Leading the Nation Through Hard Times
  2. What will President Obama Do About America's Economic Nightmare?
  3. Presidential Election 2008, Second Debate: Financial Crisis
  4. Financial Crisis: Bailout or Rescue? Student Readings & a DBQ
  5. Presidential Election 2008: Financial Crisis


A. Make a start

Consider using a group activity called "Concert" to focus the class on group cooperation and problem-solving. (See "Concert on TeachableMoment.Org at: ) The exercise demonstrates dramatically the roles students play, the problem-solving and decision-making strategies they employ, and the behaviors they exhibit that may help or hinder them when they are presented with a problem.


B. Identify school/community problems and their effects

Schools, towns and cities are cutting staffs and programs as tax revenues and government funding fall.

Divide students into groups of four to six to 1) identify the problems they are aware of in their school and in the wider community because of the severe economic downturn and 2) comment on how these problems have affected them.

Ask each group to appoint a note-taker. Then call on one student in each group to speak briefly in their group, without interruption, about a problem they are aware of in their school or community as a result of the economic crisis. Then give time for other members of each group to identify a problem. Next, ask each group to conduct a second go-around. This time, each student will briefly discuss how each problem has affected them. After everyone has had an opportunity to speak on each issue, ask the recorders to report to the class. List on the chalkboard, without comment, the problems identified and the effects felt for later reference.

Continue the discussion by posing additional questions such as: What major problems have their school and community officials identified? What are they doing about them? What don't students know? What might they know about a school issue that officials don't? What problem or issue seems to interest students most?


C. Discuss experiences with acting on a public issue

Talk to students about your experience in taking action on a public issue or making a difference in the lives of others. Describe how that felt and why it made a difference in your life. Take your time. Provide detail. Answer questions.

Have any students tried to make a difference on a school or community problem? What was the problem? What did the student do? What obstacles were there? What did the student do about them? How did working on the problem make the student feel?

D. Consider a class project

Use the words of Martin Luther King Jr. to begin a discussion of different attitudes toward social activism:

"It is interesting to notice that the extreme pessimist and the extreme optimist agree on at least one point. They both feel that we must sit down and do nothing in the area of race relations. The extreme optimist says do nothing because integration is inevitable. The extreme pessimist says do nothing because integration is impossible."

Can students see themselves as social activists-or do they already? Are they extreme pessimists? Extreme optimists? Why? What would an effective social activist be like? Can they name any? What qualities must such a person have or develop? How would such a person behave?

How might acting together on a problem of common interest help students not only to make a contribution on a public issue but also reduce the stress and fear they may be living with as a result of the economic crisis?

Ask students to explore the possibility of working as a group to learn about and do something about a school or community problem they have identified. Invite suggestions about what that problem might be.


E. Launch a discovery process

Discuss with students how they might select and carefully define a problem to work on as a class project. The session might begin with a period of brainstorming. The class might then carefully consider proposals that are limited, focused and doable. Ideally the project will be a productive response to a school problem created by the budget crisis that students are already familiar with.

If, as is likely, the problem students want to address results from a cut in the school or community budget, students need to consider some questions:

  • Why did officials cut this but not that? What priorities did they have in mind?
  • Might money for the program be found elsewhere in the budget? Specifically, where?
  • Is there some other possibility of funding the desired program? Some new source of revenue?
  • If not, might there be another way of keeping it going? Students need to be realistic, as well as creative.

The project idea must be clear. What does the group want to accomplish? Based on what students know about challenges facing their school and community, how likely are they to succeed? How much class time can be allotted to the project?

Before students launch their action project, they should research the problem further. This might include conducting interviews with school and public officials, PTA and civic group leaders.

What specific questions need answers? Devote time for brainstorming interview questions, analyzing them, and rewriting them if necessary. See "Thinking Is Questioning" on TeachableMoment for suggestions on formulating and analyzing questions. Role plays may be useful with, perhaps, the teacher as the official or community member to be interviewed. Assess the effectiveness of the student in the role play.

Students might also need to gather information from local newspaper, radio and TV reports. Establish deadlines and methods for students to report to the class on their research.

Once the research has been completed, have a class discussion. What have students learned? Does the action project still seem feasible? If so, the teacher needs to clear it with a department chairperson and the principal. Inform parents about what students are doing and why.


F. Plan the project

Key to any success for the project is careful planning.

Consider with students:

  • What additional information, if any, needs to be gathered? By whom?
  • What tasks and actions does the project require? Who will perform them?
  • How will the project be coordinated? By an executive committee? A project leader?
  • How much student control of the project is possible? Students should feel the project is theirs. Define clearly what teacher control there must be and why.
  • How much class time can be allotted to the project?

Media attention to the project might be desirable. If so, include in the organizational plan a media group to seek meetings with a local newspaper, radio station, or TV channel to explain what students are doing and why. Would establishing a website be desirable?

Develop with students a written plan for the project that includes everyone. The plan should detail the project's goal and proposed actions (such as additional research, meeting with school or town officials, speaking at their public sessions, finding and working with allies in the PTA or a public citizens' group, generating publicity for the campaign), potential obstacles to success and how they might be overcome.

G. Assess the project experience

Consider having students keep a journal during the project period that might include a daily report on learning experiences, obstacles encountered and how they were dealt with, successes, and connections between the project and what students may have studied in class.

Devote a class session to assessing the project experience. Did students make a good project choice? Why or why not? How effective was the organizational plan? What do they think they learned? How? What was successful? Unsuccessful? Why? What would they do differently next time? Why? How did they experience the project personally? Was it fun, scary, boring, exciting? Did working on the project affect their thinking or their feelings about the economic crisis? Did the project affect their thinking about being a citizen activist?

This lesson was written for TeachableMoment, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: