Standing Up to Injustice

To help students move beyond the role of bystander, give them real-world examples of young people who fought injustice.

By Erin Bailey

young students picketing

The opposite of bravery is not cowardice but conformity.” - Robert Anthony

Bravery is not an easy thing to teach; yet our world needs brave acts now more than ever. History has taught us that facing those who perpetrate injustice is the only way to correct the situation. From ending slavery and segregation to women’s suffrage to gay marriage rights, every cause needs bravery to create change. As schools search for ways to encourage students to stand up to bullying, it may help to have real-life examples of young people who fought injustice. Three such examples are Malala Yousafzai, Barbara Rose Johns, and members of the White Rose.


Three Who Stood Up

In 1942, some German college students at the University of Munich founded the White Rose movement and began distributing pamphlets to inform the public about the Nazi’s genocidal policies. Their aim was to end German society’s apathy toward the Nazis. However, a janitor reported them to the Gestapo, and several members were executed in 1943.

Barbara Rose Johns was a high school student in Prince Edward County, Virginia who grew increasingly frustrated with the inequality between the segregated school facilities. While she and her classmates attended classes in tar paper shacks, white students had access to science labs, gymnasiums, and current text books. In 1951 she led her classmates in a strike to protest the inequality. The NAACP filed a lawsuit on the students’ behalf, which eventually became part of the infamous Brown v. the Board of Education.

In 2012, a young Pakistani girl was shot in the head by the Taliban. Her crime was speaking out against the Taliban’s policy of not educating girls. Malala Yousafzai survived the attack and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in October. She recently spoke to the United Nations to advocate for peace policies that protect the rights of women and children, including their right to be educated.

Inspire Your Students

So how can you use the stories of these inspiring young people in your classroom? First complete a KWL chart for the Nazis, the civil rights movement, and the Taliban. Next, introduce each of these young people with news articles, biographical summaries, and videos. The following links can get you started:

The White Rose: The United States Holocaust MuseumThe Jewish Virtual Library

Barbara Rose Johns: Scholastic NewsAmericans Who Tell the Truth 

Malala Yousafzai: The New York TimesNews Video of Malala's Speech to the U.N. 

Ask learners to make notes about the injustice that each of these young people was fighting, what tactics they used, and the threats they faced. After independent research is complete, help the class make a Venn diagram comparing and contrasting the three. What conclusions can participants make? Finally, ask small groups to ponder these questions:

  • What prompted these young people to speak up when no one else did?
  • What keeps most people silent when faced with injustice?
  • Did their actions have any effect on the injustice that they and others like them were facing?
  • Malala has said that books and pens are powerful weapons. How?
  • How do even small actions add up and begin to make things better?

Drops in the Bucket

As a culminating activity, share with your class the “drops in the bucket” theory; the idea that even small and seemingly insignificant amounts of kindness add up. For this, you will need two small buckets, one filled with water and one that is empty, a tally sheet, and an eyedropper. You can use a small paper cup if you want to complete the activity much quicker.

Instruct students that when they witness or perform an act of kindness, or someone standing up to injustice (such as a bully), they should add a dropper full of water to the bucket when they walk by your class. They should also record it on a tally sheet. How many acts does it take to fill the bucket? How long did it take to fill? How long would it take if no one did anything?

Related Resources:

Baseball: The Tenth Inning

Secondary students in grades 7-12 study the practice of segregation in baseball in the early part of the 20th century. Using video segments from Ken Burn’s film Baseball: The Tenth Inning, participants analyze and evaluate the reasons that whites gave for excluding African Americans from MLB teams.

Scapegoating and Othering

After gaining a deeper understanding of scapegoating, middle schoolers will recognize how it promotes hatred and intolerance. Learners will then survey news articles to recognize current examples and develop ways of addressing it.

Justice or Injustice

This very detailed set of lessons is best suited for grades 8-10 but can be adapted down or up. The lessons focus on key questions such as who protects human rights, how violations are addressed, and how citizens can stand up for human rights. Participants attempt to address current issues by writing a persuasive essay and participating in a theater exercise.

I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban

While not necessarily about injustice, this article offers another way to incorporate Malala's story into your classroom.