Study of First Nations Peoples Inspires Students to Act

Students in seventh grade became activists during a year-long study of First Nation peoples. While the class explored history and culture, they also delved deep into the inequities that have affected this community in both the past and the present. Through this interdisciplinary study, the Middle Schoolers explored elements of science and social justice, which helped to shed light on the complex issues still faced by First Nations peoples. Fired up by all they had learned, the seventh graders felt an urgency to make change, ultimately setting their sights on activism. 

Middle schooler raises his hand in class

The in-depth study started with the exploration of human migration patterns, as the class discussed different theories on how First Nations peoples may have come to the Americas. As they continued to explore the history of this community, the class learned of the injustices tribes faced at the hands of settlers and later, the government of the newly-formed United States of America. In addressing this difficult history, the conversation naturally turned to issues relating to race and racism. The Middle Schoolers conducted an interdisciplinary experiment in which they tested their own DNA, shedding light on the fact that race as we know it has no basis in science, but is a concept invented to categorize people based on physical traits. 

Exploring race and racial bias allowed the class to confront stereotypes that still persist to this day. Together they watched the film The Real Injun, which discusses the negative and damaging images of First Nations peoples exhibited in the cinema over the course of a century. After watching the film, students began to make connections to stereotypes they saw in contemporary media. They discussed problematic names and mascots of sports teams and examined cultural appropriation of traditional dress in the fashion world. 

Soon the Middle Schoolers began searching beyond the media, looking at many serious social justice issues that continue to plague this community. To dive deeper, the teacher gave the students a list of various topics, tasking them with researching a particular issue that spoke to them. The list included such topics as the elevated suicide rates of people living on reservations, sexual assault and limited access to healthcare; all of which continue to affect First Nations peoples. The students’ learning was further enhanced by visits from special guests. Seventh graders welcomed artists from the Lakota tribe who shed light on their experiences as First Nations peoples. The class also met with Calhoun parent and activist Steven Donziger, who discussed his work advocating on behalf of native communities in South America. 

Student researches on laptop

The more they learned, the more students felt a responsibility to act. They expressed a desire to make change and draw attention to a community that has long been ignored. As they grappled with what they could do to affect change, they discussed various types of protests such as marches and sit-ins. While the Middle Schoolers had experience with demonstrations, they wanted to create something that would last beyond a single experience. Harnessing their passion and tapping into their creativity, students decided to work together to produce documentary films aimed at educating the public and amplifying the voices of people within this marginalized community. 

Using what they had learned, the class divided into small groups, with each group focusing on a single issue of their choice as the subject of a documentary film. The creation of these films was a true collaboration amongst the Middle Schoolers. Each student took on a specific role in the production— from writers to script supervisors to actors— and played a crucial part in bringing their films to life. Throughout the filmmaking process, research remained at the heart of each film. As they deepened their understanding of their chosen topics, students also learned to note sources, support their opinions with facts and use their research to formulate arguments. The result was a collection of films that displayed their knowledge and their deep desire to share what they learned with a broader community in hopes of inspiring lasting change. 

Through their study, these seventh graders became more than students— they became advocates. While the exploration of the history of First Nations peoples exposed them to many harsh realities, it also helped them discover their own power to make change. By diving deep into the past and facing history, the class became motivated, using their knowledge and raising their voices in order to work toward a more inclusive and equitable future.