More Students Are Becoming Activists. Teachers Can Help Strengthen Their...

Opinion | 21st Century Skills

More Students Are Becoming Activists. Teachers Can Help Strengthen Their Voice.

By Molly Pulda     Jan 21, 2019

More Students Are Becoming Activists. Teachers Can Help Strengthen Their Voice.

Clara immediately stood out as a different sort of high school student—and yet, she was a type of different I have started to spot more and more.

When I first encountered Clara, she was applying to the feminist pre-college program I direct at Tulane University called Newcomb Summer Session. Her application essay opened with an anecdote from her sophomore English class: She noticed that every author on the class reading list was a “dead, straight, white male,” as she summarized it. When she approached her teacher and asked why, he suggested that Clara take a “women’s literature” course if she wanted to read books by women. Undeterred, Clara submitted an alternate book list with greater diversity, but her teacher ignored it.

This, according to her application, was why she was relieved to discover our pre-college program in women’s leadership.

My intensifying hunch—informed by my experience teaching high school students during the summer and undergraduates during the academic year—has been that students like Clara are increasingly common in high schools across the country.

It turns out that recent research backs up this impression. According to one survey, school counselors at 52 percent of U.S. high schools report increased interest in political activism among their students. From student walkouts in the wake of mass shootings, to taking a knee at sporting events, more teenagers are discovering the power of protest and speaking up about the causes that matter to them.

We educators have a responsibility to nurture these student voices, and to respond to their interest by further illuminating histories of systemic inequalities, prejudices, and violence in the U.S.

It’s not that today’s student activism is unprecedented in this country—not by a long shot. Throughout the twentieth century, students have organized major protests, walkouts and sit-ins to support teachers’ demands for raises, bring attention to the poor conditions of segregated schools, push back against Jim Crow laws, fight sexist school dress codes (for both young men and women), bring attention to the first Earth Day and oppose the Vietnam War, among many other causes, writes Dawson Barrett, author of “Teenage Rebels: Successful High School Activists from the Little Rock 9 to the Class of Tomorrow.” Still, I believe that since Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 election, high school activism has taken on a new level of sophistication and pervasiveness.

One of the subtle but crucial changes I’ve noticed in the past year or two is in how intelligently students discuss the issues they care about. Many students are passionate about what may seem like single-issue causes, such as freedom of religious expression or transgender rights. But in reality, there is no such thing as a “single issue,” and increasingly my students show me that they understand this before I even bring it up.

Even when protesting a smaller-scale issue, students are linking their voices to broad networks of activists in America, past and present. School dress codes? Most students understand that this is a feminist and free speech issue. Gun safety? Ask a high schooler to explain how this is inextricable from conventions of masculinity in American culture, and odds are you’ll be impressed. The language of “intersectionality”—a term coined by legal theorist Kimberle Crenshaw—has helped give students a framework for understanding how their multifaceted personal identities fuel their innovations of age-old social causes.

As flat-out impressed as I often am when listening to my students discuss their activist inklings, this growing interest can also present challenges in the classroom. There are some students who might not want to recognize that they have been born into particular structures of privilege. At our summer program, discussions around unconscious bias and other forms of oppression are sometimes heated.

For example, one student felt implicated in a conversation about the economic, racial and gendered history of American patriarchy. She protested, “many girls in the class have dads who are middle class white men.” Often, a teenager’s first reaction is to take an issue personally, even if it is deeply rooted in historical and contemporary social systems. Our job as educators is to encourage students to research and engage intellectually in longer histories of social injustice. I believe we must also encourage students to work to restructure those inequalities in their own generation.

One way to approach this is to begin training students in media literacy, at the high school level and earlier. A student like Clara can apply a critical perspective to her English teacher’s reading list, but she might not know how to apply it to the images and messages that surround her in everyday life. Many students likely sensed degrees of sexism during the 2016 presidential election; they might have watched parody videos of Donald Trump looming over Hillary Clinton during their second debate in October 2016.

In our summer program, my colleague Aidan Smith adapted research from her book, “Gender, Heteronormativity, and the American Presidency,” into a workshop that prompted students to analyze family portraits of presidential candidates on People magazine covers from the 1950’s to today. Popular media have long presented male presidential candidates as authoritative and caring “patriarchs” of our nation. This kind of media literacy is useful within and beyond the classroom, as students learn to contextualize the present-day causes they care about. Educators from across curriculums can encourage students to apply the critical lenses they gain in the classroom to everyday life.

Once students are able to interpret messaging in media, teachers and advisors can help them harness that power of media to amplify causes they believe in. Prof. Smith trained our high school students in theories and practices of effective advocacy, from coalition-building to crafting persuasive calls to action. If we help students draft clear roadmaps to policy change, we can look forward to encountering their voices not just in the classroom and on the street, but in op-ed pages like these.

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