What happened when I ran a Challenge For Change with graphic design students.

I love that my high school students are always up for a challenge, and it was no different this time. But what I learned about them--and our school--really surprised me.

We were about a month in to the school year, and it was my first time teaching high school Graphic Design as a year-long course. Our Adobe Creative Cloud licenses had yet to arrive, and we'd been using Canva to create designs. When I heard about this years' Challenge For Change focused on storytelling, I was excited--it's a topic that is near and dear to my heart as a Media Arts teacher and author of the forthcoming book, Storytelling With Purpose (ISTE/ASCD, Feburary 2024).

The process

After hearing Malala's talk, I quickly created a lesson where students would research a topic and design a social media campaign around it. I had used similar processes for PSA video stories with my Cinematic Arts students, and it was an easy pivot to graphic design. The process involved:

  • curating and discussing high quality professional examples of instagram carousels
  • curating and discussing high quality professional examples of social activism
  • how to connect students' previous learning about graphic design to social activism
  • discussing and walking through the design thinking process (empathy, research, iteration, testing, revision)
  • talking about why anyone would publish publicly (as opposed to a closed, private group of friends)
  • logistics about creating graphics for social media and posting using comments, hashtags, and mentions

What surprised me.

A lot of assumptions about student voice and activism were challenged during this process, although I anticipated some of these from my previous work with journalism students.

  • Many of my students had never written an annotated bibliography before--primary research was new to them, even for many older students.
  • The concept of forming an opinion based on research and knowledge was new to them, perhaps because they are expected to simply repeat an answer pre-determined by their teacher, or that non-argumentative opinion stories are rarely included in ELA or social studies or science curriculum.
  • It's socially and emotionally risky to stand up for something. In our community (maybe in the U.S.) you can get shade (or worse) for believing in something or sharing hopeful messages, or simply standing out from the crowd. (!)
  • Using social media for something other than private messaging or social branding with kids at school was new, unusual, and slightly uncomfortable for many students.

For these reasons, many designs were simply performative, and echoed familiar phrases and feel-good advice that don't truly advocate in passionate ways.

Hopeful, positive results

Despite these surprising findings, many students were successful with this project, and poured themselves into the assignment. The main reason, I believe, is that students had flexibility to address a topic of their choice, rather than having to conform to a much narrower list provided by their teacher--they were personally invested in their topic and were passionate about letting other people know about it. In many cases, this was a result of prior knowledge of a topic, or one that had affected students personally before they got this assignment. This is in alignment with research about the importance of context in learning, and why wealthier students perform better in school and on standardized tests.

In any case, this was a great project and experience for my students. It's only in un-standardized tested curriculum that students have the time and space to learn through exploration, apply research and writing skills in an authentic way, and make room for conversations that connect social and emotional concerns with our assignments.

The example below was created by my student, Anna Hattendorf, about the "Pink Tax," a phenomenon where women's items are more expensive than their male equivalents.


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Posted on October 30, 2023

Wow Michael, every bit of this is phenomenal! Interesting findings for all of us - both your process and surprises. The research your students did also aligns well with media literacy and your comment about context - so important.

Great project from Anna - tell her 👍

I’m passing this along on LinkedIn & Threads

Posted on October 30, 2023

Thanks for the kind words, Cheryl!

What I've been finding is that social activism through digital storytelling is a lot more complex and challenging than we think, especially if we want it to be actually meaningful rather than simply performative. The social-emotional and political pieces need to be part of the equation, too. But I'm so glad Apple is standing up as a large corporation to give space and time to this important activity and help teachers lead students through the process.

Posted on October 31, 2023

Yes and… I’m grateful that you are sharing what you are seeing as you guide your students through social activism using digital storytelling. It is not an easy path for students, and it is important for teachers to see and hear reflections from colleagues and classroom teachers so they can facilitate with knowledge and support. Your podcasts, newsletters and posts are full of a wealth of information.

Posted on October 31, 2023

So impressive to see your students putting their skills learned into action in this meaningful way! I just can’t help but be awed by the lessons they are learning from both inside and outside of the classroom through this work. How amazing would it be to hear your students’ reflections or story-behind-the-storytelling about this CBL Challenge! Thanks so much for sharing the student example and I look forward to finding more “on the socials”!

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