This post originally appeared on the Leadership 360 blog in Education Week on February 22, 2018.
Last week at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, seventeen students and adults were murdered in a mass shooting. What happened next was unusual. Instead of waiting for adults to act, students took the lead.
They are giving fiery speeches, demanding their turn to enact change. Emma Gonzalez, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, addressed a rally just days after the shooting.
"We are going to be the kids you read about in textbooks. Not because we're going to be another statistic about mass shooting in America, but because, just as David said, we are going to be the last mass shooting. Just like Tinker v. Des Moines, we are going to change the law."
They are demanding legislative action. Lyliah Skinner, who hid in a classroom during the attack, reflects:
"We shouldn't have to talk about this. This country needs stricter laws to help prevent other kids, like me and my classmates, from ever having to experience this. Words mean nothing. Actions do."
They are urging people to get out and vote. In his CNN op-ed, Cameron Kasky, a junior at Marjory Stoneman, writes:
"I'm just a high school student, and I do not pretend to have all of the answers. However, even in my position, I can see that there is desperate need for change--change that starts by folks showing up to the polls and voting all those individuals who are in the back pockets of gun lobbyists out of office."
Students are uniting around the newly formed National High School Walk-Out for Anti Gun Violence. They are planning a Day of Action Against Gun Violence in Schools of April 20, the anniversary of the Columbine massacre. And they are calling for a March on Washington on March 24.
Teachers, parents and other adults in young people's lives may wonder how they can support them in taking the lead and acting, not just on this issue but on all the others that will affect their lives for far longer than it will those of the adults who dominate the popular discourse. Here are some suggestions.
Dig Deeper Into Current News Events
One of the best ways to tap into young people's advocacy and activism is to engage with them early and often about current events generally. Young people read the headlines and hear the sound bites. They want to be part of the conversation, and should be.
- Use these discussion strategies that include ideas on how students can express thoughts and feelings, generate questions, reflect on what they read, conduct research, engage in debate and embrace complexity.
- Use these lesson plans as a framework to address various current events.
Explore Points Of View
Talking about issues of importance to young people creates a teachable moment to explore different points of view. When conducted in a planned and thoughtful manner it leads to self-reflection and the sharpening of their own viewpoints, an understanding of those of their classmates and of others in the larger society. As we have these conversations at home or in the classroom, it's important to:
- Create an anti-bias learning environment that is safe, respectful and inclusive
- Develop ground rules and engage in dialogue that helps student actively listen, express their thoughts/feelings, and communicate to be understood instead of to win an argument.
Expand Their Horizons For Taking Action
Providing tools and strategies to help young people engage in activism is an excellent way to support them. Ideas for powerful engagement include educating others at school, running for office, protesting, creating a public awareness campaign, using social media, and getting press involved.
It is not enough just to understand the issue. We see in Parkland that young people are ready to take action. Indeed, becoming informed and then becoming the change you want to see is what education and democracy are fundamentally about.
Anne Frank said, "How wonderful it is that nobody need to wait a single moment before starting to improve the world." As we see with young people in Florida and around the country, they are not waiting any longer.