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March 8, 2016

“He Named Me Malala”: Understanding student activism through film – Lesson Plan


English, Social Studies, U.S. History, Civics

Estimated Time:

One to two 50-minute periods

Grade Level

Grades 7-12


Using the documentary “He Named Me Malala” (2015) and short films produced by PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs, students will understand their role as activists in matters of social justice. 


Students will have seen the documentary, “He Named Me Malala,” and will watch videos made by Student Reporting Labs in order to learn how young people’s voices can act as instruments for change. The lesson will take one to two class periods and may be used in English, social studies, or civics classes in which themes of identity, including race and gender, and issues of social justice are discussed. 

Note: It is possible to complete this lesson using the resources provided by PBS about Malala without seeing “He Named Me Malala.” However, discussions may be more in-depth and engaging if students have seen the film.


  1. Students will examine their roles as activists through the lens of “He Named Me Malala” and student-produced videos by Student Reporting Labs. They should respond to the discussion questions below in their notebooks. Then, students should discuss their responses with their neighbor. If time allows, you may also open the discussion up to the class.
  2. Begin by giving your students some background on Malala Yousafzai. Read this ARTICLE with students, which describes the events surrounding the attack on Malala before going to see the documentary, “He Named Me Malala.” If there is time, watch the following PBS NewsHour interview with Malala and complete the questions that accompany the video. 
  3. Discussion one: What does it mean to be an activist?
    1. In the film “He Named Me Malala,” Malala famously says in her speech to the United Nations, “One teacher, one child, one book and one pen — they can change the world.” How does Malala think an education will make a difference in people’s lives? Do students think that going to school will help them learn the skills necessary to stand up to injustices? How so?
    2. Discuss if students feel they are able to make a difference on issues they face in their community. Young people often feel their voices don’t matter — that it’s adults who make the rules they have to live by. Point out that one reason society marginalizes young people is that adults often think they don’t know or don’t care about the issues. Show the following Student Reporting Lab film to students:
    3. Follow-up discussions: Ask students to reflect on Anna Naranjo’s statement about the importance of understanding current events worldwide. Do students feel that understanding similar problems people face across the globe, including racial or gender discrimination, will help them make bring about change? How so?
      1. Director David Guggenheim asks Malala if she feels hatred towards her attackers at one point in the film. She responds no, “not even one atom, one neutron.” How do you think Malala maintains such poise under so much pressure? Is this realistic for most people? Why is it possible to feel anger or sadness towards those who carry out injustice but not hatred? Think of times in history when anger or sadness motivated people to make change. Are there examples in students’ lives in which this is currently the case?
  4. Discussion two: Getting the word out
    1. In the opening scenes of “He Named Me Malala,” Malala tells the story of a young girl who led her people to a great victory but died on the battlefield. She states that it was better to live like a lion for one day than it is to live like a slave for a thousand years. Ask students to think of past and present examples in which an individual or a group risked their lives for their cause. What are some ways students may actively participate in changing the world without putting themselves in danger?
    2. Throughout the documentary, Malala speaks with numerous news organizations and shows her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, how to use social media, including Twitter. Ask students if they believe social media is an effective force for change. You may want to look at organizations like “The Malala Fund,” inspired and led by Malala, which use social media to promote quality education for girls. Ask students to think of other examples where social media has been used to spread awareness about a particular issue.
      1. At one point in the documentary, Malala visits Goodluck Jonathan, then president of Nigeria, and strongly encourages him to do more to help find the 200-plus girls who were kidnapped from their school in the middle of the night. Malala, along with First Lady Michelle Obama, many celebrities and millions of people participated in the #BringBackOur Girls campaign. How has social media helped bring attention to critical issues like the Nigerian schoolgirls?
    3. Watch the video below by Student Reporting Labs’ Dawn Belkin. How are the challenges Belkin describes similar to Malala’s? How are they different? How could social media be used to raise awareness and lessen some of the fears Belkin raises?
  5. Discussion three: How do you change people’s minds?
    1. There are violent images featured in “He Named Me Malala” of individuals who have been killed by the Pakistani Taliban for allegedly violating an interpretation of Islam that Malala and most Muslims do not agree with, which includes not allowing girls to go to school. Each evening a radio program broadcasts the names of men in the Swat Valley who are deemed sinful and in supposed violation of the Taliban’s extreme rules. Ask students what effects they think hearing programs like these have on everyday Pakistani people. Do they think some of the violent footage was necessary to include in the film? Why or why not?
      1. One night, Malala’s father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, is named on the radio program for violating the Taliban’s rules. Ziauddin discusses how the beautiful face of Islam is being destroyed and that he will not back down to the Taliban. Describe the role Malala’s father played and continues to play in her life. Ziauddin blames himself for why Malala ended up getting shot. Was he right to encourage his daughter to publicly speak out against the Taliban? Defend your answer.
    2. Watch the following Student Reporting Lab video featuring Braiden Paa, who discusses the challenges involved in changing people’s minds, especially when much of their thinking is based on long-seated cultural traditions and family values.
    3. Follow-up discussion: Do you think it’s necessary to have a meaningful dialogue with people who disagree with you? Explain your answer. Do you think it’s possible to change people’s minds around issues of racism and sexism? What are some examples where society has showed progress towards a particular group of people or on a specific issue? What happened in history to affect those changes?
  6. Discussion four: Unpacking stereotypes
    1. Is it possible that we stereotype people even though we may not mean to do so? Were you surprised to learn that the Swat Valley in Pakistan was once known as a vacationer’s paradise? Ask students if they have heard of Pakistan’s former prime minister, the late Benazir Bhutto. Give some background about Bhutto’s political career. Were students surprised that Pakistan had a female prime minister? It may be worth discussing that the U.S. Senate has 20 female members and, so far, we have not had a female president in U.S. history. Discuss with students why this might be the case.
    2. PBS Student Reporting Lab’s Eric Hinton asks people to take a look at themselves as one way to correct the injustices in their community and in the world. Are there times in your life in which you caught yourself stereotyping a person based on their race, gender, ethnicity, or disability? What did you learn from the experience? How can taking a look at your own actions help you to address important issues?   
    3. At the end of the film, Malala states that she shares her story because she is not special — and points out that there are 66 million girls throughout the world who do not have access to an education. Do you think the film will make a difference in the fight for universal education for all girls and boys, a goal recently renewed by the United Nations this fall? Explain. Do you see yourself as an activist in some way or know someone who identifies as a social justice activist? Based on the documentary and the Student Reporting Lab videos, what is one step you can take in your own life that could make a difference today?

Extension Activity

  1. Write a film review:
    1. Ask students to write a review of “He Named Me Malala.” Be sure to tell students to avoid looking online before they write their reviews, although it would be a good exercise to do when they are done. Here are some suggestions for students: A few the role of Malala’s father Ziauddin Yousafzai, the use of pastel drawings and cartoons to tell part of the story, the decision to include real footage of the aftermath of the attack and the violence carried out by the Pakistani Taliban, Malala’s relationship with her brothers and mother, some of the backlash Malala has received from Pakistanis back home, her experiences trying to live a “normal” life going to school, and the director’s attempt to get Malala to open up about her pain towards the end of the film
  2. Try this PBS NewsHour Extra lesson that explores the question of “Why is it important to educate girls?” Help students to see the connections between social movements across cultures and international boundaries. Check out this Extra lesson that examines the history of the civil rights movement in the U.S. and ask students to think of similarities and differences between the March on Washington and Malala Yousafzai’s mission of girl’s education.

Additional Resources

PBS Student Reporting Labs’ interview questions for Malala, September 2014.

Student Voice’s article written by a Pakistani’s student in the aftermath of the attack on Malala’s school bus.

PBS’ Student Reporting Labs website.

by Victoria Pasquantonio, PBS NewsHour Education Editor, History Teacher – feedback on this lesson is welcome. Send to vpasquantonio-at-newshour-dot-org

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  • Standards

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    Relevant National Standards:
      CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.7.2 Analyze the main ideas and supporting details presented in diverse media and formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) and explain how the ideas clarify a topic, text, or issue under study.

      CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.8.2 Analyze the purpose of information presented in diverse media and formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) and evaluate the motives (e.g., social, commercial, political) behind its presentation.

      CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.9-10.2 Integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) evaluating the credibility and accuracy of each source.

      CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.11-12.2 Integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) in order to make informed decisions and solve problems, evaluating the credibility and accuracy of each source and noting any discrepancies among the data.

      CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.6 Identify aspects of a text that reveal an author’s point of view or purpose (e.g., loaded language, inclusion or avoidance of particular facts).

      CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.6 Compare the point of view of two or more authors for how they treat the same or similar topics, including which details they include and emphasize in their respective accounts.

      CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.8 Evaluate an author’s premises, claims, and evidence by corroborating or challenging them with other information.

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