Teaching Self Care: Social Engagement

Seeing our capacity to effect change and working with others to make it can be a powerful self-help strategy. Here are some ways to support students in acting on the issues they care about.

To the Teacher

In our series on self-care so far, our focus has been on supporting students in creating and restoring their own sense of well-being primarily on an individual level, within the bounds of a supportive and encouraging school community.

This internal practice towards well-being, hopefulness, and optimism can be further bolstered when students are able to see their own needs and challenges in the context of decisions being made in the wider social and political world. When young people – or adults – begin to see their own capacity to effect change and are moved to action to make life better for themselves and others, they step into their power, make new connections, learn, and grow.

Most of us are aware of problems in our world that require our urgent loving attention, be it on the local, city, state, national or global level. The Covid pandemic has further exposed and exacerbated many of these problems, bringing into clearer view a society plagued by issues such as poverty, homelessness, poor health and healthcare, addiction, inequitable distribution of resources and power, police violence, the prison industrial complex, pollution, and rampant exploitation of the environment. And all this persists in the context of the historical racism and trauma that this country was founded on.

Covid-19, along with the climate crisis, has also caused many of us to reflect on the kind of world and society we humans want and need. The pandemic has shown us how deeply connected we all are to each other and to the living world that sustains us. We’ve seen how we pay the price if we don’t honor and protect those connections and value the fabric of life we all are a part of.

Our interconnectedness is captured in the Zulu concept of Ubuntu, which South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu described as “the essence of being human.” He says:

“Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality — Ubuntu — you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.

A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has the proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.”

The concept of Ubuntu isn’t just a social idea – it is affirmed by quantum physics, which points to the profound interconnectedness of the universe. The physical world is an inseparable whole, and each action has consequences that reverberate throughout this web of life.

Sheldon Berman, one of the founders of Educators for Social Responsibility, defined a community as "a group of people who acknowledge their interconnectedness, have a sense of their common purpose, respect their differences, share in group decision-making as well as in responsibility for the actions of the group, and support each other's growth." Add to that a social justice lens, and a focus on liberation for all, and we see how we might reimagine our classrooms and schools.

For many people, it has become clear that these are the kind of communities we need to address some of the problems in our world, so that we can purposefully direct our urgent loving attention and bring about change. This brings us back to Ubuntu, which recognizes that our humanity is found through collective engagement and service to others.

How can we support students in becoming active agents in ensuring their own personal well-being as well as that of their community and environment?

Rather than seeing students as too young, passive recipients perhaps, who can’t engage in their own or their communities’ well-being in any intentional or meaningful way, the goal is to motivate and inspire students. We can co-power with them as they tap into their best selves and work to effect the change they want to see.  A strengths-based and asset-driven approach of this kind allows us to encourage young people’s well-being in a holistic way, and on multiple levels.

Shawn Ginwright, Associate Professor of Africana Studies at San Francisco State University, writes: “researchers have found that well-being is a function of control and power young people have in their schools and communities …. These studies focus on concepts such as such as liberation, emancipation, oppression, and social justice among activist groups and suggest that building an awareness of justice and inequality, combined with social action such as protests, community organizing, and/or school walk-outs contribute to overall well-being, hopefulness, and optimism.”

When people advocate for policies that address the causes of harm, such as lack of access to mental health services, writes Ginwright, it contributes to “a sense of purpose, power, and control over life situations. All of these are ingredients necessary to restore well-being and healing.”

With that in mind, here are some strategies to promote self-care through social engagement and connection.


PAZ rally

Share Personal Histories

Inviting students to share their personal experiences, family, and community stories while others listen and bear witness can be a powerful healing practice, and can help us understand the kind of change we want and need to bring about. According to author Margaret Wheatley:

Listening is such a simple act. It requires us to be present, and that takes practice, but we don't have to do anything else. We don't have to advise, or coach, or sound wise. We just have to be willing to sit there and listen. If we can do that, we create moments in which real healing is available. Whatever life we have experienced, if we can tell our story to someone who listens, we find it easier to deal with our circumstances. 

Why is being heard so healing? … I do know it has something to do with the fact that listening creates relationship. We know from science that nothing in the universe exists as an isolated or independent entity. Everything takes form from relationships, be it subatomic particles sharing energy or ecosystems sharing food. In the web of life, nothing living lives alone. ….

Being listened to is a way to process our experiences. It can give students insight into their own personal lives; while recognizing how we all stand on the shoulders of our ancestors and draw on their culture, traditions, and resilience. Deep listening to each other’s experiences, moreover, can build the kind of empathy and connection that allows us to be stronger together. As Wheatley adds:

Listening moves us closer, it helps us become more whole, more healthy, more holy. …. It is impossible to create a healthy culture if we refuse to meet, and if we refuse to listen. But if we meet, and when we listen, we reweave the world into wholeness. And holiness.


Teach an Honest, More Inclusive History – and Teach Current Events

We need to give students access to a more honest account of history – an inclusive version that acknowledges historical harm and includes stories of resistance to the oppressive ideologies that are embedded in our systems, institutions, and practices. 

It can be liberating to finally understand the why and how behind so many terrible realities and to see that the conditions we face are a human-made, an intentional set of choices, over time, not immutable facts of life. This knowledge can inspire students to move beyond feeling stuck or trapped. 

Among the websites offering support for teachers in teaching history and current events:

Teachable Moment, Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility’s website of teacher resources, provides hundreds of timely and free classroom lessons and activities to help students learn about, discuss, and engage in issues in the news.

Teaching Tolerance provides film kits and lesson plans that include texts, student tasks, and teaching strategies aimed at bringing relevance, rigor, and social emotional learning into the classroom.

Zinn Education Project supports the teaching of people’s history in middle and high school classrooms. Based on the lens of history highlighted in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, the website offers free, downloadable lessons and articles organized by theme, time period, and reading level.

Facing History and Ourselves provides a wide range of flexible, multimedia materials, from primary sources and streaming videos to teaching strategies, lesson plans, and full units.


Teach About Social Movements

Better understanding the wheels and gears of injustice can give focus to our anger in healthy ways, turning it into valuable compost instead of the poison it can become when it is turned inwards. This kind of understanding can inspire students to develop tactics and strategies to address what is wrong, harmful, or unjust in their communities.  Sharing stories of movements and activism from around the world, moreover, can bolster their energy and courage.

Some resources to consider, in addition to those listed above:

The article Stirring Up Justice, by Laurel Schmidt, in Education Leadership, explores the how and why of teaching about activism.  Schmidt offers a template for how to engage students in authentic conversations about difficult issues, where students ask themselves what they can do about a given issue, consider ways they have acted in the past, study how other kids and young adults have successfully solved problems, and participate in their own social justice projects.

Global Oneness Project’s website features a beautiful collection of multicultural films, photo essays, articles, and lesson plans that use stories to “bring the world’s cultures alive in the classroom.” The project offers a library of award-winning films, photo essays, and essays that explore cultural, environmental, and social issues, plus companion curriculum and discussion guides. 

Use Read Alouds That Inspire and Promote Activism

Read alouds can introduce history and help younger students explore social justice issues in age-appropriate ways. There are many great lists of books dealing with social justice issues.  Here are three: Social Justice Books, 40 Picture Books for Young Activists and 24 Books That Teach About Social Justice

Here is a list of books for Early Childhood: Activism and Organizing and here a list of Children’s and Young Adult titles for Civil Rights Teaching.

Freedom Reads Anti-Bias Book Talk Series honors the rich tradition of reviewing multicultural children’s books that began with the Council on Interracial Books for Children, which provided a social justice lens to reviews of children’s literature.  Here is the video introduction to the series.  Currently there are four episodes in this series:

The Woke Kindergarten Family launched #WokeReadAlouds with Akiea “Ki” Gross in May 2020.  Ki engages students in the early childhood classroom using anti-racist, and other anti-oppression picture books.

Highlight and Encourage Youth Activism

Throughout history, young people around the world have led movements that have brought about significant social change. Young people in this country alone have advocated for and moved the needle on child labor laws, voting rights, civil rights, environmental protection, gun reform, school desegregation, immigration reform, LGBTQ rights, and racial justice.  

Young people, especially teenagers, are often seen as self-absorbed, lazy, and even anti-social. These negative stereotypes, though, underestimate youth who have long been leaders and catalysts of change. They fail to recognize young people’s capacity and motivation to contribute to something larger than themselves. Ongoing protests for Black Lives are a clear example of that. 

New research detailed in Greater Good Magazine supports that “young people do share a concern for the future and their contribution to it.” According to that research, young people between the ages of 14 and 29 “show levels of generative motivation that are as high or even higher than adults’. Early generativity is also associated with caring friendshipscommunity involvement, and healthy identity development in adolescence and young adulthood. So not only are young people interested and capable of caring for future generations, but doing so is likely good for them.”

Young people are taking leadership in social justice movements ranging from Black Lives Matter to the Sunrise Movement to the Dreamers.

Resources that encourage youth activism include:

Youth Activism Project  works with teens to lead policy advocacy and community organizing in areas including educational equity, mental health, and voting rights.

Dosomething.org connects young people to a range of campaigns, public education, and actions for young people to get involved in.

The Educational Video Center teaches students the skills of documentary filmmaking, telling important stories in the name of social justice. EVC offers in-person workshops in New York City as well as professional development for teachers beyond NYC who want to learn how to work with their students on filmmaking. Alumni of the EVC have created documentaries on everything from criminal justice to domestic violence to mental health. A collection of trailers for student-created documentaries can be found here.

The Alliance for Youth Action aims to empower local young people’s organizations to “strengthen our democracy, fix our economy, and correct injustices through on-the-ground organizing.”  Under their Take Action tab, you’ll find different initiatives to get involved in to protect democracy in communities across the country.

See Morningside Center’s Teachable Moment resources for lessons on youth activism, including:


Highlight Joy and Celebration Through Music

Throughout history, music, rhythm, and singing (in community) have been a way to heal, empower, protest, and resist. Music can be used as a direct form of resistance and show of resilience. It has lifted spirits and united protesters while strengthening their resolve.  According to indigenous scholar and media maker Jarrett Martineau: “It's … the opportunity for us to come together and elevate and amplify what's happening on the ground, to the community, and also to inspire people for change."

Resources to consider:

10 Songs That Rallied Resistance Around The World  “From Chile to Lebanon, and in worldwide opposition to climate change and to violence against women, certain songs have become part of the soundtrack that fuels the feelings.” This list from NPR focuses less on individual songwriters creating protest works and more on “songs that have become collective rallying cries (or seem to be on their way).”

The Music of Resistance is a six-part Al-Jazeera documentary series that tells the stories of musicians who fight repression and sing about injustices in some of the world's most troubled areas.

Music of Resistance, Music of Change.  KCRW radio’s Tom Schnabel created this compilation of world music inspired by Black Lives Matter protests across the world in 2020. “These songs of protest, resistance, change, anger, and also of hope, shine a light on the struggle for equality and respect as basic human rights.” Listen to the whole list on Spotify.

Music as Fuel for the Struggle, an activity in Morningside Center’s TeachableMoment resource collection, has suggestions for engaging young people in exploring and sharing songs that inspire and motivate them.