Since the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas HS in Parkland, Florida, students have been engaging in a variety of actions to force change on gun control, including preparations for nationwide student walkouts on March 14 and April 20.
Whether you personally support these walkouts or not, as a teacher or school administrator they are an opportunity to elevate student voice and action as powerful teachable moments. These can include conversations and activities not only, as in this case, about gun violence, gun laws, and individual rights, but also about other divisive issues and about student and citizen action more generally.
By providing a framework for young people in the discussion of their societal concerns, educators model the path to active participation in our democracy. Students are following these events in real-time in our classrooms and hallways in any case. Acknowledging and incorporating student voice and agency contributes to a more respectful, inclusive and engaging learning environment.
If your students are interested in this particular topic, the walkouts provide an opening to explore issues of gun violence and gun legislation using widely available curriculum resources. This can include helping students understand the historical context of mass shootings, the evolution of gun laws in the U.S. and internationally, relevant constitutional laws, principles of federalism and more.
Explore Other Issues and Activism
Your students may be passionate about advocacy unrelated to or in addition to gun violence prevention. The larger point is for students to identify the issues that are important to them and understand that they have a stake in the future direction of America in the 21st century. You can support this by helping them to explore and thoughtfully reflect on social and political issues in your community, and how they can bring about change.
After identifying those issues about which students care, help them to make sense of news stories by generating questions, conducting research and grappling with different points of view. Study the history of activism past and present, considering different movements and reflecting on what worked, what didn't and why. This contributes to critical thinking about the best strategies students might pursue.
You can then consolidate ideas for activism by teasing out, for example, what students in Parkland and elsewhere have been doing since February 14, a textbook example of the diverse modes of activism. Parkland students have used a mixture of digital and in-person activism by:
- using social media to raise public awareness;
- creating petitions;
- raising money to further their cause;
- engaging the press and conducting interviews;
- demanding that lobbyists and politicians be held accountable;
- planning protests like the walkouts and the upcoming March for our Lives;
- organizing acts of civil disobedience;
- encouraging people to vote;
- meeting with elected officials to influence legislation and addressing legislators in a nationally televised town hall; and
- writing op-eds.
What About Discipline?
Plans for coordinated student walkouts have already resulted in disciplinary threats from some school administrators. However, it is noteworthy that many colleges and universities are promising that their application process will not consider disciplinary action taken against students who participate in such walkouts. Encourage students to know their rights, and the potential consequences if they intend to participate in a walkout. Students should be aware of their school's policy for missing class. Schools may typically discipline students for walking out of class, but that discipline should not be harsher because the school disapproves of their message. And schools should realize that while punishment may be within a school's legal right, depending on the context, that doesn't mean it is always the best or most appropriate reaction.
Though much attention has been paid to a principal who threatened severe punishments if students walk out, many principals will support students. For example, at Denver School for the Arts, a No Place for Hate® middle/high school in Denver, CO, the administration has been supporting their students' activism around the Parkland shooting and gun control. Last week, the students held a mass speak-out, were interviewed by a local news station, wrote petitions to send to their members of Congress and are planning a fundraising event. "As educators, we can understand the students' pain and anger," says Gary Lubell, Middle School Counselor. "As a school, we need to provide opportunities for students to share their voice and take a stand."
Adults often complain that young people don't vote and are indifferent to the world beyond them. This moment demonstrates the opposite: students who have found their voices on a critical issue are passionately and methodically working for change. Our country has a long history of youth-led activism and the student survivors of Stoneman Douglas are continuing along that path. We have a lot to learn from them. Whether you agree with their positions or not, their engagement and leadership should inspire respect and confidence in the future of our democracy.
This post originally appeared on the Leadership 360 blog in Education Week on March 1, 2018.