Protest Buttons for Middle School Campers

Summer camp at my school consists of a two- or four-week boarding experience for middle school students from around the world. More soon on the Maker Space class I’m teaching most of the time. Today is about the intersession workshop I led on Protest Buttons.

The genesis: button-making is fun beyond all expectations. How could I add substance to the activity?

I designed a one-hour workshop surrounding Protest Buttons. I’d show the campers several examples, teach them to use the button maker, and encourage them to create their own for causes they want to take a stand on.

We started here:

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I explained each button’s roots. For instance, the raised fist (lower left in the picture above) has a broad and fascinating history of which I was largely unaware. I tried to choose causes that would be both interesting and un-alienating to my audience. Each camper chose one or two to make for themselves.

Cue the button-making station:

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Then, the fun part: choosing their own causes. Below are the raw materials I provided.

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This is a great time to add that my class of 17 included a number of kids from Hong Kong and several more from China. The kids from Hong Kong immediately said they wanted to make “Ban Carrie Lam” buttons (here’s an explainer on the protests in Hong Kong). Knowing this could get contentious between the two groups — mind you, they’re in middle school — we talked about the care with which we’ve built this camp community and that we don’t want to alienate our friends. There were Chinese students in the room who fall on the opposite side of these major protests. At the same time, thinking about the LGBT and black students in the room, I made clear that no one has the right to deny your humanity. It was a delicate balance — in making the Chinese campers feel safe in the space, I might alienate the queer campers. I hope I succeeded in bringing some nuance to a tricky situation.

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Student protest/cause buttons included:

  • lots of iterations on rainbows for LGBT students and their allies
  • save the turtles
  • save Chinese pets from pet thieves who want to sell them for meat
  • save the Earth
  • “we’re only kids”

We closed with a variation of my opening questions on the button board: what do you notice makes a good protest button? Students said it’s important to have colorful or bold graphics, to have few words on the button, and that the button be readable quickly as you walk past someone. If I had a few more days, we might dive into graphic design principles and iterate on the designs they sketched.

Here are my Illustrator files, in case you’d like to lead a similar workshop.

In almost totally unrelated news, last night’s sunset looked like this:

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In the morning, I’m off to start the second session of camp. I hope that you have a great week, no matter what you’re doing!

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