Newsela inspired Janet Jeffries' students to become activists

Can you imagine anything that would make a class of fifth-graders ask to skip their holiday party? There was no bribe or punishment or anyone to impress. There was simply an article that hit close to home.

On the day before winter break, Newsela published an article called “These students have to go to a new school after just a few months.” The article describes migrant worker families who move at least twice a year. Their children repeatedly leave behind everything they know and often fall behind in school. The article is set in Watsonville, California, which is the next town over from our school.

My class was so intrigued that they asked to skip their holiday party in order to read and discuss the article.

My students live in a low-income area of southern Santa Cruz County, a historically agricultural area. Their backgrounds are primarily Hispanic.  

One particular quote stood out to them: A state official said, “[S]ome families are not looking for permanent housing, and some even enjoy the lifestyle.” We all know at least one migrant worker, and we know that they work extremely hard and lead difficult lives. So this quote got students fired up.

After returning from winter break about three weeks later, students remembered the article and wanted to do something with their strong opinions. So we decided to write a letter to the Office of Migrant Affairs in Sacramento.

The article mentions a California law that requires migrant workers to move at least 50 miles away after the growing season ends and the temporary housing camps close for the winter. Students thought this law forced families to uproot unnecessarily, so they asked the Office of Migrant Affairs to help repeal it.

Students explained the potential long-term effects of frequent moving, including feeling lonely, being bullied or bullying, and even joining a gang. They cited outside research, such as a statistic from a 2009 New York Times article “Study Finds High Rate of Imprisonment Among Dropouts”: “Kids who don’t graduate have a 1/10 chance of ending up in jail, as compared to 1/35 for kids who do graduate.” And they called the law “cruel and harsh.”

We are still waiting for a response from Sacramento. And we may not hear back. But my students have started to take pride in their opinions and their ability to stand up for what they think is right.

In the meantime, we continue to read Newsela articles. I select articles that relate to the content we are studying, and students read them at a learning station during reading class. For example, as we study westward movement in the 1860s, students read Newsela articles about American Indians and land development issues around the Grand Canyon. Many students read below grade level, so they read articles on their level to make sure they understand the content and build up to grade-level texts.

César Chávez lived and worked just 50 miles away from here, and the grandparents of many students worked with him. While lobbying for migrant workers’ rights, my students are carrying on this legacy. Even in fifth grade, they are activists.

Janet Jeffries teaches fifth grade at Freedom Elementary School in Freedom, California. She has been teaching for 22 years, including 16 years at her current school and 3 years in Honduras. An avid traveler, she loves her daughter and her job. She wakes up to Newsela by reading the newest articles before getting out of bed.  

Written by Erika Dunham


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