This post was written by NCTE member Rebecca Marsick.
From the Black Lives Matter protests, to Parkland students’ #NeverAgain movement, to Greta Thunburg’s fight for climate change, to my own home state of Connecticut, which saw students fight for and see enacted the nation’s first statewide course on African American/Black and Puerto Rican/Latino Studies, students are organizing to make their voices heard.
While adults may view social media as a negative time suck, adolescents are using platforms like TikTok and Instagram to spread their messaging. Therefore, shouldn’t we be supporting students by weaving different tools for engaging in social activism into our curriculum?
A few summers ago, I read an article by Beverly Tatum in the Harvard Educational Review titled “Talking about Race, Learning about Racism: The Application of Racial Identity Development Theory in the Classroom.” In it, Tatum states, “Heightening students’ awareness of racism without also developing an awareness of the possibility of change is a prescription for despair.” This line has stuck with me. How often have we heard people lament that they just feel hopeless in helping with _____ (insert reference to current issue/social movement) because they don’t know where to start or what they could possibly contribute on their own?
If we teach students the myriad ways that activism can look, we are helping them to see that they always have an ability to contribute and that no contribution is too small, empowering our students to be changemakers.
This year at my institution, the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, we were fortunate to have Dr. Yohuru Williams, distinguished university chair, professor of history, and founding director of the Racial Justice Initiative, work with our social studies department. One of the things he said they are seeing at the university level is that students are responding with vulnerability to national crises, often with inappropriate responses in terms of how they are addressing the issue and the level to which they escalate their grievances.
One of the ways we, as educators, can support students in making these reactions more productive is to teach ways in which to effectively engage in agency. We need to model for them in our classrooms what it means to be actively engaged, including making tools for agency part of our curriculum.
Yet the key to all of this work is not teaching students what causes to triumph, but how to best be voices for the ones that they choose to triumph.
In my role as a literacy coach, I work with teachers across content areas. I am fortunate that some of these teachers have embraced teaching students tools that are crucial in creating an environment for activism within a classroom.
There is a difference between a “safe space” and a “brave space.” This article from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) explains, “In diverse groups and especially when the goal is equity and safety for all, it is important to be aware that the word ‘safety’ is open to interpretation and how it is understood depends on the person. This means people have different ideas about what it means to ‘feel safe,’ ‘assume good will,’ ‘participate fully,’ ” etc. These different perspectives may be attributed to whether one is part of a marginalized or majority group in school or society.”
In order to create a classroom community in which student activism thrives, students need to be able to engage in uncomfortable conversations. They need to be able to both speak their truth and listen to the truths of others, even if they disagree.
I was fortunate to attend the first Institute for Racial Equity in Literacy with Sonja Cherry Paul and Tricia Ebarvia in which discussions of race were central to the institute’s work. We spent a lot of time discussing and practicing Glen Singleton and the Pacific Education Group’s Courageous Conversations protocol which involves committing to the following four statements:
- Stay engaged.
- Experience discomfort.
- Speak your truth.
- Accept and expect lack of closure.
We hang the statements on the wall of the classroom so that they are easy to see throughout the school year and often refer back to them when engaging in uncomfortable dialogues in order to norm the conversation. Teachers spend time at the beginning of the year digging into what the four statements mean and discuss the tools students might use to be able to commit to each one.
Another tool that we have found to be critical is engaging in identity work. Students need to understand where their own power and privilege comes from in order to be able to work with others. Through working with the ADL and using their Identity Iceberg to having students create Identity Maps outlined by Facing History, and furthered by the work that Sara Ahmed beautifully details in Be the Change, students have begun to better understand where their beliefs come from and the potential impact they can have in these conversations.
Writing as Thinking
In many classes, students have writing journals, an essential tool for processing issues that matter to them. The first five to ten minutes of each class focus on responding to a prompt in their journals. This prompt could be a response to an event that recently happened in the news or a request to think about how an aspect of the curriculum relates to their own lives or even just a check-in on how they are feeling. Sometimes we will ask students to share (sharing is always a choice for them, never a requirement); other times we tell them the writing is just for them. In either case, students have a record of their thinking throughout the year.
Writing also plays a critical role during uncomfortable conversations. When the classroom atmosphere become tense, taking a pause and asking students to write how they are feeling in their journals diffuses tension and helps students process through their thinking.
The more introverted students who might not be comfortable sharing have time to construct their ideas and then can simply read them if they choose. This allows for more voices to be heard in the classroom and for these voices to have had the necessary time they need to ensure that their ideas are well-supported and clear. It also teaches students that stepping back and taking a moment is essential when working towards change.
Activism Comes in Many Forms
Given the nature of public activism, it is no wonder that many students think the only option for being an activist is to attend/lead a protest or start a petition, but activism can be achieved on so many different levels. We have students who have been activists by being allies. Other students have written to the school paper, describing issues at our school regarding Period Stigma and Pervasive Yet Inexcusable Jokes.
Some have engaged in much larger projects, often related to connecting a current issue with a piece of the curriculum. Through collaborating with fellow classmates and engaging with community resources, students have run fundraisers to support Syrian refugees and organized a panel of women across professions, Persisters: The Fight for Gender Equity, as a community event.
Regardless of the form that activism may take, it should be a vital part of our classroom communities, teaching students reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills, as well as the ability to engage in inquiry and research. Ultimately, it empowers students to be active citizens and future changemakers.
Rebecca Marsick has taught at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. Currently she’s a secondary literacy coach for the Westport Public Schools in Westport, Connecticut. She is also the coauthor of Stretching Beyond the Textbook, a conference presenter, and is one of the founders of the Saugatuck StoryFest, a festival that celebrates bringing communities together through story. She can be found on Twitter @RebeccaMarsick and Instagram @marsickreads.
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