Action can come in many forms, and, depending on the group of kids you’re given, students’ attitude towards action ranges from the enthusiastic to the idealistic to the unsustainable to the irresponsible. While taking action is a major component of the IB PYP, it can be tricky for teachers to get it right.

In this post, I’d like take some action of my own by sharing my most recent summative on How We Express Ourselves to the wider learning community. My hope is that this will help you to think about how careful planning can help empower students to take action and make their own unique contributions to society.


It Began with Backwards Design

I’m a “backwards planner” in that I start with a goal. The process of designing the most effective learning engagements to get to that goal is the messy part, where teacher collaboration, year-to-year reflection, and student and parent feedback are essential to creating a unit that ends in sustainable, responsible, effective student action. For those PYP people among us, you can find the CI and LOI of the unit here. As I am ordering the sequence of this unit “backwards” (from 10 – 1), you may find it easier to see the pace and direction of the unit if you scroll to the bottom of the article and start at 1.


Goal – students can raise awareness through creative expression about a wicked problem that matters to them

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10) Students take action by initiating multi-directional dialogues of their findings in a public forum.

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9) Students plan their exhibition, focusing on how best to share this information, including face-to-face and through social media. Not only did students plan their display boards and apps, but they planned the design of the art gallery that would be their mini-exhibition in our cafeteria. To make it fun, students were given the choice of using Minecraft to plan the layout, and it led to some pretty interesting choices.

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8) Students finalize and publish, having produced unique and symbolic products, as well as having collected the parallel artifacts to raise awareness in multiple forms (app, text, photos, videos, surveys, graphs, etc). 

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7) Students work to complete an app that can lead people to information about the topic. For this, we used appsbar.com, an easy-to-use app creating web tool for students to take what they had collected in their “sandboxes” and refine it once again into published content that can easily be shared with the world.

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6) Students create a visual display of their art pieces, focusing on making a unique and appealing aesthetic for visitors at the gallery. 

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5) Students refine and improve the design of their art pieces, looking at models of design once more. 

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4) Students create their own pieces of art on their respective topics, choosing their mediums. By collaborating with our art teacher, we were able to really push the limits on what a Year 5 student can do to with the materials we had available. The “Starry Night with Recycled Plastics” below is just one example of some of the beautiful pieces they were able to create in a short 6 week time period.

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3) Students engage in the mediums, vocabulary, and symbolism of contemporary activist art and poetry through interactions with various activist artists and their work. 

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I set up multiple galleries for students to contribute activist art, including this one of Banksy. Students were then able to comment, like, and download the pictures for marking up to make some pretty deep and insightful connections.

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2) Students research the topic and collect information in an online, shared, “sandbox” repository. For this I used Moodle online forums so that students could easily copy/paste, drag/drop links, pictures and videos within our online learning environment. Many students also chose to use Keynote, Pages, Inspiration, Notability, and a variety of other apps and tools along the way. Also essential was an elink I put together called “I Wonder…” that is basically a webpage loaded with child-friendly research sites such as Wonderopolis and BrainPop.

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1) Students choose a “wicked problem” that matters to them (I stole this term from Dr. @SonnyMagana, and I love it. Check out his website ). While I provided a ton of resources to get students started, I found the Global Goals for Sustainable Development to be especially helpful to narrow the topic down to an actionable, categorizable goal.


It Turned Out Great

I think that this was a particularly successful and impactful unit. While these ten steps to designing the unit were sort of the guiding “backbone” of the lesson sequence, there was so much more that was taught and assessed during the unit, including non-fiction writing, content vocabulary, data handling, presentation skills, and digital citizenship. You can see the community engaged in this exhibition by checking out the student-created hashtag, #Year5ActionArt, which was projected during the event on a Wallrus social media wall.

At the end of the day, empowering student action is about “infecting students with an ‘I can’ attitude” – see the TedTalk below. Students at my age level often have the energy and willingness to take action, but not the skills and tools to do so. By making action the goal of the unit, which in this case was to have students raising awareness about an important issue that matters to them, it assured that this unit was action-focused.


What do you think? What does this look like in comparison to the action-based units that you have facilitated? Feel free to comment below, visit other pages at educationrickshaw.com, and join our facebook group, Over-Posting Educators!

– Zach Groshell, @mrzachg

5 thoughts on “Empowering Students to Take Creative Action

  1. Fabulous post, Zach. I really like the work you got your students involved in. It reminds me of actions taken in the Student Blogging Challenge. Do you participate in it? http://studentchallenge.edublogs.org/ The TED talk is very inspiring too. So many times children are involved in hypothetical situations. Why not put their energies to use solving real problems. They will be much more engaged.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! It was a hard post to write because of how much goes into unit planning – plus there is always so much that students learn that you cannot plan for and couldn’t anticipate – but I am happy that visitors to this blog could join in on their learning.

      I haven’t done the Student Blogging Challenge. . maybe something to do for our next unit?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The amount of work required to conduct such a unit was obvious, as was the learning gained. It’s a great effort from teachers and students and good to see the parental response.
        I think the Student Blogging Challenge would appeal to you. Have you checked it out?

        Liked by 1 person

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