Studying Social Action through

Children’s Literature

Cynthia A. Tyson and Todd W. Kenreich

In response to the call for “character education” to be taught in the elementary grades, schools are placing a greater emphasis on service learning and social action projects in the K-12 curriculum. Students who do not participate in school-sponsored service learning may learn about social action from other sources such as parents and the media. In school, upper elementary students usually learn the concept of social action from an instructional unit on, for example, the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Sometimes, though, students leave our classes thinking that social action ended with the bus boycotts and freedom rides of the 1960s.1

We believe that learning about the concept of social action should be an essential part of the social studies curriculum at every level. Social action clearly fits with the NCSS thematic strands 6 Power, Authority, and Governance and 10 Civic Ideals and Practice.2 Although the greatest emphasis on these strands typically falls in the secondary social studies curriculum rather than the elementary or middle school curricula, students at the elementary level are often eager and ready to dig deeper into these strands. Teaching elementary students about social action can be an engaging way to explore how citizens, even young ones, can be involved in social change.


Stories of Social Action

From our experiences in the classroom, we believe that social action is a concept in the social studies that can be brought to life by contemporary realistic children’s literature. Researchers have given some attention to the link between the use of children’s literature and students’ involvement in course material. Children view basal texts as less authoritative than literary texts.3 When literature is linked with social studies, students display better comprehension of fundamental concepts, and some of the negative attitudes students may hold toward social studies classes can be replaced by more positive ones.4 Most importantly, experiences with quality children’s literature and the social studies engage students, both academically and personally. Students feel motivated to become active in their communities as young citizens when they hear about how other young people have gotten involved in social change.

We wanted to design some lessons in which children would develop their own concepts of social action through the use of contemporary children’s literature. Some of the best children’s literature attends to accuracy of historical detail and focuses on important social problems such as racial prejudice, poverty, violence, and homelessness.

With fifth and sixth grade classroom teachers, we examined state learning objectives and local learning outcomes for language arts and the social studies. The objectives for language arts included reading comprehension and written expression. The objectives for social studies included civic knowledge. We wanted our project to be fully integrated into the language arts/social studies class block as regular instruction. We identified four works of children’s literature for the project, which lasted the academic year. One book was integrated into each of the nine-week marking periods.

The selection of literature to include in any content area can be tricky. We applied the criteria used by the Book Review Committee appointed by NCSS in cooperation with the Children’s Book Council. (The committee’s list of recommended new books, “Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People,” appears as a supplement each spring in Social Education.) The committee’s criteria read as follows:
“The selection committee looks for books that emphasize human relations, represent a diversity of groups and are sensitive to a broad range of cultural experience, present an original theme or a fresh slant on a traditional topic, are easily readable and of high literary quality, and have pleasing format and, when appropriate, illustrations that enrich the text.” In addition to these criteria, we looked for books in which there is a character who takes a personal action that benefits people or the environment.


Evolving Definitions

With the classroom teacher, we implemented the project described below in a daily 80-minute language arts/social studies block. The project can be completed during one block when shorter books such as Faithful Elephants are read aloud in-class. However, with a longer book, students will likely need to complete independent reading outside of the class time. Depending on the length of outside reading assignments, and student independent reading ability this project can be extended to four or more instructional days.

We implemented this instructional project with fifth and sixth grade students in an urban upper elementary classroom in a midwestern city, in which four lessons were taught at various points during the year. (With slight modifications, the project could be done in lower grades as well.) We began the project by asking students to write their definitions of “social action.” Students’ initial definitions ranged from “no idea” to “communication” and “interacting with people.”

Over the course of the year, we read and discussed examples of social action in four books. These books describe social and ethical problems arising at different times and places in the twentieth century. Each book has a character (or characters) who take an action, involving some personal risk, to confront the problem.

We concluded the project at the end of the year by asking students to write their definitions of social action. Some of these definitions included:

“An action taken on behalf of yourself or others inside or outside the community.”

“From the books, I learned that social action is taking part in something, and standing up for yourself.”

“Taking a stand, helping the environment as well as others.”

“Working with others with a problem you have, to learn to solve it with others to help.”

“Showing leadership in a community.”


Teaching Activities

For teachers using children’s literature to explore social action, the following lesson outline may provide some guidance. A typical lesson took one class period (of 80 minutes). We used these steps with each of the four books in our project. These steps can be used for any children’s book that relates to social action.

Step 1. Write the words “social action” on the chalkboard. Ask students to write a definition of this term. After a few minutes, encourage students to share their definitions. Begin a class discussion with questions such as: What are the similarities among our definitions? What are the differences among our definitions? How might we use our definitions to create a single definition?

Step 2. Describe the author of one of the works of contemporary children’s literature. Provide a brief overview of the historical and geographic context as background to the story.

Step 3. Read aloud the first few pages. Be sure to be sufficiently familiar with the text so that you know when to pause in the initial reading (at a point where the characters are known and the dramatic conflict is clear, but the outcome is not yet in sight). This should help engage students’ interest in the book.

Step 4. Explain that students have produced a “working definition,” and remind them of their initial definitions of “social action.” Next, assign students to read the next section of the book aloud, or allow students to read on their own.

Step 5. Identify a critical incident from the book and refer students to the specific page number where the incident is described. Ask students to evaluate whether the critical incident is an example of social action according to the class’s working definition. For example, in the book Faithful Elephants, the zookeepers at first resist the military’s order to kill the zoo’s elephants. At this point, ask students a question such as, “Is this event an example of social action?”

Step 6. At the conclusion of the book, challenge students to revisit the class’s working definition of social action and ask whether the definition should be revised on the basis of any new understandings of social action gained from the book.

Step 7. Social action today takes various forms. Ask students to identify and describe a problem in the local community. Design an action plan that includes two possible courses of action to address the problem. Such a plan could include studying a problem and then describing it to an appropriate government agency; writing a letter to a local newspaper; conducting a survey of student opinion about the problem and possible solutions, or asking the student council to get involved in solving the problem.

Recommended Books

Below are descriptions of the four books that we used for developing the concept of social action.

Leon’s Story

Leon Tillage works today as a custodian at the Park School in Baltimore, Maryland. In this book, Leon describes his childhood in the segregated South.5 Growing up on a farm outside of Raleigh, North Carolina, he faced individual and institutional racism in a variety of settings. Leon describes how whites set formal and informal limits on his behavior as a Black boy. From facing discrimination at a movie theater to witnessing the death of his father at the hands of local Klansmen, Leon provides a lucid account of the events that shaped his life, but these vignettes about racial discrimination do not leave the reader without hope. Instead, Leon emphasizes his growing awareness of the importance of social action in the face of oppression.

In one of the most powerful passages, Leon explains why he participated in civil rights protests. His parents warned of the dangers protesters faced from angry white mobs. Leon writes, “Then we would say to [our parents], ‘We’re getting beat up now. We’re getting killed now. So I’d rather get beat up for doing something or trying to change things. I mean, why get beat up for nothing?’” Leon’s Story relates to the social studies thematic strands 6 Power, Authority, and Government and 0 Civic Ideals and Practices.



Author Paul Fleischman writes an uplifting story of a Vietnamese American girl, Kim, who starts a garden in an abandoned lot in an urban neighborhood?6 A neighbor watches from the high rise apartment building as the little girl digs six little holes to plant six beans in memory of her father. Each day she waters the seeds. One day the little girl does not come to water the plants; after four days a neighbor goes down to the patch to pull weeds and encourages a homeless neighbor who slept behind an abandoned refrigerator to help water them each day. Soon another man on his way home sees the small rows of beans and decides to plant peppers on another small patch he cleared of debris.

A girl named Leona watches these events from her window, “I studied all the trash on the ground. Don’t know why anyone called that lot ‘vacant.’” Leona decides to call city hall to get the lot cleaned up. She leaves messages at the Public Health Department for three days, with no answer. Eventually, she also calls the City of Cleveland, Cuyahoga County, the State of Ohio, and the U.S. government. Finally she collects a bag of the trash and catches the bus downtown to the Department of Public Health, where she opens the bag of trash so that officials there can see and smell the contents. Shortly afterwards, the city cleans up the lot. This action opens the way for other residents to plant—-and plant they do: pumpkins, tomatoes, flowers and watermelons. The garden brings together urban residents who, only the day before, did not know each others’ names. SeedFolks connects to the social studies thematic strands of1 Culture; 4 Individual Development and Identity; and 10 Civic Ideals and Practices.

Something Beautiful

Sharon Dennis Wyeth’s picturebook takes us on an autobiographical journey into childhood.7 A little girl wants to find “something beautifu#148; amidst her city neighborhood, which is sullied with debris and graffiti, yet also alive with children playing. From her window, she sees “fallen stars” in the broken glass and leaves, but she finds the word “DIE” scrawled on her front door. As she walks past a homeless woman and through a scary alley, she tries to focus on the word beautiful, “ Beautiful! I think it means something that, when you have it, your heart is happy,” she says. On her quest to find beauty she is invited to embrace other examples of beauty, such as a neighborhood diner, a vegetable stand, a young friend dancing on the playground, and the laughter of her baby cousin. Upon her return home, she decides to get soap and a broom to wash the word “die” from her door and to clean her courtyard. She says to herself, “ When DIE disappears I feel powerful.” Something Beautiful illustrates the thematic strands 4 Individual Development and Identity and 10 Civic Ideals and Practices.

Faithful Elephants

Yukio Tsuchiya writes about one of the many tragedies of war, the euthanization of animals in a city under attack during World War II. 8 This is a book that could be read with older rather than younger students, who could become emotionally upset by the tragic story.

Japanese zoo keepers determined that if their city were to continue to come under heavy bombing, large animals might get loose, which would constitute a danger to people. Other animals could not be cared for. The zoo keepers were very sad and at first resisted the order to kill the animals, hoping that the war might end. They finally obeyed the orders to kill the animals for the safety of the human community.

With deep regret, the zoo keepers began to euthanize the reptiles, fish, birds, and tigers. The very last were the “faithful elephants.” Each day, when the zoo keepers would walk by their cage, the elephants would lift their trunks and stand on their hind legs, performing for their beloved keepers. Now, however, the zoo keepers gave them no food. The elephants continued to perform until finally, in absence of food and water, they began to die. Tsuchiya helps the readers explore issues such as civil disobedience, conflict, and civic responsibility in time of war. Faithful Elephants relates to the thematic strands of 1 Culture; 3 People, Places, and Environments; and 10 Civic Ideals and Practices.


At the close of this project, several students called for the creation of a “social action coalition.” The coalition now meets after school as a school-sponsored extracurricular activity. Thus, the students’ responses to contemporary children’s literature in the social studies classroom resulted in their thinking carefully about their participation in society. Students demonstrated not only a deeper interest in the content of social studies, but also a fresh desire to connect their learning to their lives and to the life of their community. Children’s literature that focuses on community issues can provide a framework for helping students develop a sense of personal and civic responsibility and begin to make improvements in their own lives and the lives of their communities.


1. Cynthia A. Tyson, “‘Shut My Mouth Wide Open’: Children’s Literature and Social Action,” Theory into Practice 38 (summer 1999): 155-159.

2. National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies. (Washington, DC: NCSS, 1994).

3. L. S. Levstick, “Mediating Content through Literary Texts,” Language Arts 67 (1990): 848-53.

4. B. J. Guzzetti, J. Kowalinski, and T. McGowan, “Using a Literature-Based Approach to Teaching Social Studies” Journal of Reading 36, no 2. (1992): 114-22.

5. Leon W. Tillage, Leon’s Story (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1997).

6. Paul Fleischman, SeedFolks (New York: HarperCollins Juvenile Books, 1997).

7. Sharon Dennis Wyeth, Something Beautiful (New York: Doubleday, 1998).

8. Yukio Tsuchiya, Faithful Elephants: A Story of Animals, People and War (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1997).


Resources for Teachers

Bibo, K. Organizing for Social Change: A Manual for Activists. Potomac, MD: Seven Locks Press, 1996.

Duper, Linda. 160 Ways to Help the World: Community Service Projects for Young People. New York: Checkinark Books, 1996.

Hoose, Philip. It’s Our World, Too! Stories of Young People Who Are Making a Difference. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 1993.

Lewis, Barbara. The Kids’ Guide to Service Projects: Over 500 Service Ideas for Young People Who Want to Make a Difference. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.

Lewis, Barbara. The Kids’ Guide to Social Action. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.

Shaw, R. The Activist’s Handbook. A Primer for the 1990’s and Beyond. Berkeley, CA: University California Press, 1996.

Wade, Rahima. Community Service-Learning: A Guide to lncluding Service in the Public School Curriculum. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press Press, 1997.

Wade, Rahima, ed. Building Bridges: Connecting Classroom and Community through Service-Learning in Social Studies. Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies, 2000.



Cynthia A. Tyson is an assistant professor of Social Studies and Global Education at The Ohio State University. Todd W.
is an assistant professor of Secondary Education at St. Thomas Aquinas College in Sparkill, New York.