Using Malala’s Story to Develop Student Agency

Monisha Moore

     The National Council of the Social Studies (NCSS) suggests that social studies instruction in the elementary classroom should offer opportunities for students to recognize societal problems, investigate those problems through questioning, consider the possible solutions and consequences, and act upon their learning (NCSS, 2017). Nonetheless, Heafner and Fitchett (2012) documented the diminishing role of social studies in the elementary curriculum in a notable meta-analysis. Further analysis of the literature (Hubbard, 2013; Britt & Howe, 2014; Heafner & Fitchett, 2015) indicates that social studies instruction in the elementary grades is marginalized as a direct result of the attention required in high-stakes tested subject area such as English language arts (ELA) and math. Even though tenets of equity are set forth in Common Core State Standards, the emphasis on teaching to standardized test still undermine quality efforts to teach social justice issues in most classrooms (Dover, 2015; Agarwal, 2011; Alsup & Miller, 2014). Although the focus on ELA and math are deemed necessary, so are the skills introduced to elementary students through quality social studies instruction. It is often through this instruction that students learn to investigate structural inequities, analyze multiple perspectives, critically examine history, and envision how they can enact social change in their world (Nieto, 2000; Sleeter, 2015; Picower, 2012)

     Rethinking the curriculum could benefit students significantly. Using culturally sustaining trade books to supplement the curriculum benefits students in important ways (Tschida & Buchanan, 2017). Providing opportunities for students to learn historical context of subject matter through inquiry based curricular activities allow students to construct deeper knowledge of subject matter introduced in core reading programs. That deeper knowledge positions students to do history through hands-on activities rather than just receive it through transmission from the teacher (Levstik & Barton, 2015).

     In elementary core reading programs, there are often stories that show main characters in leadership positions. Each of these lessons is an opportunity to expound upon the concept with additional material which makes the learning personal while providing historical context. The addition of well-thought out activities supplemented with developmentally-appropriate trade books encourage students to delve deeper into the curriculum. Students need to examine these topics to more fully understand acts of resistance such as organized protest. They benefit by gaining a firmer grasp of the historical context of children advocates so they can better understand how they are capable to effect comparable change (Witherspoon, Clabough & Elliott, 2017). The activities in this article introduce a method of extending a reading lesson on leadership with a trade book, For the Right to Learn: Malala Yousafzai’s Story.

The value of trade books

     Students must be able to utilize the inquiry process, collect and analyze data, and collaborate with others in decision-making and problem-solving activities as described in the NCSS C3 Framework (NCSS, 2013). To ensure that students develop agency, they must be intentionally introduced to texts which are rich in historical value. Trade books are an excellent means to provide such experiences (Moore, 2018).

     Trade books allow students to explore historical events in depth through factual accounts (Clabough, Wooten & Turner, 2014). Trade books are usually levelized (Bickford & Schuette, 2016) so they readily offer themselves to teachers for differentiated lessons (Schwebel, 2011). Paperback versions of trade books are economical and they are often used in elementary classrooms as independent and readaloud options. Such developmentally appropriate opportunities allow students to learn about historical events through the integration of social studies and literacy instruction (Bickford & Schuette, 2016; Agarwal-Rangnath, 2013).

     Rather than experiencing leadership through a singular perspective, trade books allow students to connect to literature through multiple perspectives. Trade books also provide students with a springboard from which they can critically evaluate those perspectives as begin to formulate and analyze their own position (Allen, 2018). Trade books tap into the emotional elements of events in ways that textbooks often lack (Krey, 1998). Culturally-sustaining trade books allow students to see themselves and their cultures represented in positive ways which affect their emotions, attitudes and connections to information (McCarty, 2007). Students are drawn to characters and themes which are relatable to them (Bickford, 2018). These relatable experiences allow students to understand the value and importance of their history within the larger history of America. The following activity for working with trade books afford students the ability to develop personal agency.


     I begin the lesson by writing the overarching question on chart paper so that it visible for the duration of the lesson. The question is “How can children act as leaders to effect change?” I explain that all of the activities in this lesson are based on this question. Further, I explain that events in the past have allowed young children to act as leaders on behalf of themselves or others. Their actions at specific moments in history had implications for others which are still felt today. Next, we work collaboratively to define leaders, effect, and change. The definitions are added to the chart paper with the inquiry question. We discuss synonyms, and I elicit synonyms for the word leaders so that students understand the meaning of other words they may hear that define leaders (i.e. advocate, agent).  

     I ask students to describe their education by completing the left portion of a t-chart entitled “My Education.” This activity allows students to thoroughly examine their feelings about the educational process they experience as they formulate their own thoughts and ideas. When students are expected to speak on an issue, they should be able to determine their perspective based on their background, their culture, and the empathy they may either share with others or that will stand in defiance to the voice of others. This is an integral step in students connecting themselves, their emotions, and their attitudes to information they encounter (Ladson-Billings, 1995; 2014). Students will share and explain their responses with the larger group.

     Next, I explain to students that they will have the opportunity to research the life of Malala Yousafzai. They are told that they should consider the ways their educational experience parallels or differs during the reading. Students read the book, For the Right to Learn: Malala Yousafzai’s Story. For students with reading difficulties, the text can be read aloud by the teacher, pre-recorded and independently accessed by a QR code, or peer-read with a reading buddy. This ensures that each student has the opportunity to read and comprehend the story before extending the learning.

     Students work collaboratively with peers to identify the person(s) being discriminated against in the text. The graphic organizer that follows allows students to chart their ideas as they work. Their responses should include text evidence. The text evidence should indicate a quote from the story or a paraphrase of the author’s words along with a page number from which those words were taken. This facilitates students’ ability to cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking so they can support conclusions they have drawn from the text. Students meet together to discuss their findings. The teacher serves to clarify information disclosed using prompts such as “Tell me how you arrived that that conclusion” or “Can you tell us more about your thinking?” This activity is important as students learn how to substantiate their claims with textual information. Having students attend to textual information and applying that information to authentic discussions call for higher order thinking. Higher order thinking skills associated with such text analysis has been related to better comprehension in elementary students Deeney, 2016).                            

Figure 1: Graphic organizer for text analysis

     Next, students summarize the steps taken in the text to address the restrictive policy. This step ensure that students recognize advocacy. Further, it ensures that students are able to distinguish how they can act as agents of change. This benefits students as they further develop comprehension skills through determining central ideas and summarizing key ideas and details from text.

     When students complete their graphic organizer, they share and discuss their findings with their group through Socratic activities. These activities encourage students to think critically and ask questions about the text they have read. Further, students engage in questioning their perspectives and the perspectives of those in the larger communities in which they live. This discussion is instrumental in aiding students in participating effectively in conversations with diverse partners as they listen to the ideas of others and express their own ideas persuasively.

     An example of a Socratic activity engages students in analysis of the text. As young students may be novice participants in these types of discussions, the teacher leads the whole group discussion by asking questions such as:

1.Analyze how the educational expectations for students in the text differ from those in your community.

2. In what ways are students that you may know prevented from attending school?

3. What are some reasons people may have for keeping children out of school?

     The teacher listens to the responses and asks students to clarify necessary information by using prompts such as “Tell me more about that” or “Can you explain what you mean?” The teacher charts the students’ responses and encourages students to evaluate or connect to them. Next, the teacher explains the importance of the Nobel Peace Prize. She acknowledges that in 2014 Malala was the youngest recipient of the award. Students then watch a short clip of the video at accessible at The teacher explains that characters in books can impart multiple perspectives. She asks students to think about the ways in which Malala’s perspective may differ from the perspective of her father or her mother. Then, students choose one of the following prompts and work in pairs or small groups to discuss and write about their prompt through perspective writing.

1. What does it mean when Malala says “Thank you to my father, for not clipping my wings, and letting me fly?”

2. Malala thanks her mother for inspiring her to always speak the truth. Discuss how someone has inspired you to speak the truth. What was that truth?

3. Malala thanks her teachers for inspiring her to believe in herself and be brave. How have teachers (or others) inspired you to believe in yourself or to be brave?

     This activity benefits students as they learn to acknowledge the importance of multiple perspectives. Such diverse perspectives encourage students to acknowledge how values and cultures other than their own are represented and experienced by those around them. Further, students are able to construct knowledge about the world in which they live (Bickford & Rich, 2017). Students are also able to distinguish their own point of view from the author’s.

     After working through the activities, students move into a whole group area. Collectively, they summarize prior learning by highlighting their group work. I chart the students’ responses. Then, I ask the group to evaluate if the restrictive policies they have identified are still problematic for individuals or groups today. I chart the responses and facilitate the discussion as necessary. Facilitation of the discussion includes clarifying erroneous presumptions that young students may offer through supplemental discussion or primary source information. For the policies identified by the students, I ask them to evaluate the ways in which they can act to effect change. I facilitate a discussion in which students plan their next steps as agents of change to restrictive policies they have identified.

     Finally, students will complete the Tchart they completed at the beginning of the activity. As students have been immersed in the learning, they have encountered multiple perspectives through independent, small group, and whole group efforts. Completion of the graphic organizer allows students to compare and contrast their educational experience with Malala. Most importantly, it allows students an opportunity to recognize and address internal conflicts they may have encountered through this learning. Students will have choice in how they utilize this segment of the activity. They may choose evaluate the comparison privately. Otherwise, they may choose to expound upon their learning by constructing a poem, composing a song, producing a video response or writing a letter to Malala. Options such as these are important to students. Although some students may be emotionally ready to delve into such important works, others may require more time to analyze how their feelings align with those they have encountered.


     Students need to understand that children can act as advocates for change. They need to understand that even as young students, they have the ability to address restrictive policies in important ways. Doing history rather than learning facts allows students to delve deeply into historical content as they read expository and narrative text, collaborate with peers, and write about their learning (Levstik & Barton, 2015). Through identification of policies and appropriate actions, students have the ability to create more equitable communities.

     Presenting students with opportunities to learn about children in other parts of the world or at other times in history allows them to understand other cultures and multiple perspectives. In doing so, students learn to question the decisions and choices of others as well as their own. Developing the ability to understand issues from multiple perspectives allow students to better understand the complex society in which they live. Through social studies literacy skills, students learn to engage in practices which are transformational.

     Students can use social studies literacy skills to challenge and change systems they view as oppressive. Participatory actions such as those discussed in this article encourage students to develop developmentally appropriate responses to these systems which benefit themselves and others. As students become more aware, they are more capable of acting upon socially constructed rules which serve some while marginalizing others.


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