Opinion
School Climate & Safety Opinion

Students Are Walking Out. Are Schools Ready for When They Walk Back In?

Four lessons for teachers and school leaders in these politically tumultuous times
By Sarah Andes & Dana Harris — March 13, 2018 5 min read
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This moment is one of tumult for our nation. In the past year, multiple mass shootings have left hundreds dead. Wide exposure of workplace sexual assault has prompted challenging reflections, conversations, and reckonings. Kneeling athletes and protests in the streets have launched a national dialogue about the experiences of communities of color and the meaning of patriotism.

Unprecedented political divisiveness has contributed to a national discourse simmering with anger and suspicion. For students and educators, it can be terrifying, it can be overwhelming, it can be uneasy. It can also be incredibly powerful.

As educators, school leaders, and school partners, it’s easy to exist within the illusion that we are able to script our students’ educational journeys. We agonize over curricular development and homework completion. We mandate graduation requirements and work tirelessly to perfect course schedules. And yet, students’ lives exist within and beyond those bubbles. And their eyes are wide open to the travails of broader society. Rather than luring students back onto our prescribed paths in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., tragedy and other moments of upheaval, we must make our schools a space where they can make sense of the world.

It is time to look beyond just what we are held accountable for and to remember what we are responsible for: developing young people’s capacities so that they can sustain, improve upon, and thrive in their communities. They are the future stewards of our democracy. We must lean into their energy and idealism and use this moment as a teaching one, without stifling their individual perspectives.

To be sure, this can seem a challenging task, but we must give ourselves a healthy dose of grace and try. In our work at Generation Citizen, which promotes project-based civics education across the country, these are some of the lessons we’ve learned about how educators and school leaders should respond to this challenging political climate:

• Connect students to the broader community. Cloistering students, teachers, and staff from what lies beyond the school building reinforces the implicit messages that learning only happens within a school’s walls and that students are not prepared to engage with the world in which they live.

Open the school doors. Encourage teachers to bring in guest speakers whose work draws upon the content students are studying. Invite public officials from the school board or the city council to remind students that their lives are influenced by systems and by people within those systems. Host a forum or town hall in which students are able to ask questions about local political happenings and in which officials can suggest next steps for students getting engaged in politics in your community.

We must lean into their energy and idealism and use this moment as a teaching one, without stifling their individual perspectives."

Conversely, acknowledge students’ engagement in the broader community. Use bulletin boards, newsletters, and meetings to highlight not only their academic successes but their efforts and activities elsewhere.

• Build learning opportunities from students’ passions. If students are energized by student-led walkouts arising across the country and you’re comfortable doing so, let them walk out. But be ready when they walk back in to have a conversation about their actions. Follow the example of school leaders in Brighton, Mich., who created a safe space for students to walk out and set the expectation of ongoing conversation.

Whether students are walking out or staying seated, use the lens of history to drive students to analyze the goals, targets, asks, and tactics of past and present campaigns for policy change. Use the Learning Network’s lesson plan template from the recent Dakota Access oil pipeline protests to explore multiple perspectives of those affected by the issues driving your students’ passions.

• Weave current events into classes beyond social studies. Suppose students are passionate now about the gun regulation debate. Let them practice persuasive writing about the topic in English class. Encourage them to analyze gun-sales derivatives and fatality statistics in math, explore the firing velocity of different makes of guns in science, or channel and illustrate their emotions in art and music. We know how difficult it is to be responsive to students’ interests while pushing to meet strict academic standards. But teachers can meet this challenge without expecting all scope and sequences to be trashed for the year. Incorporating practices of Action Civics into all subjects will give students the opportunities and the skills to address the most pressing issues in their lives.

• Facilitate student input and leadership. Over the past few weeks, we have seen students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School ignite a national debate and spark a student-led movement. They have researched laws, identified legislators they need to convince, captured attention from the press, and forged important coalitions. Their response is a powerful reminder both of how much young people are capable of and that those directly affected by an issue often know the best solutions. The work of running a school and nurturing a school community is indescribably challenging. Do not try to do it alone. Give students the space to share their experiences and ask them to help.

Make sure that students know the respective responsibilities of different bodies within your school, such as the student government, the school-improvement team, the parents’ association, and the school and district administrators. Make sure students have access to these decisionmakers so that their needs and views on school-based issues affecting their lives are reflected in the decisionmaking process.

Leaders should also involve students in their funding-allocation process through participatory budgeting. Enliven student government by charging representatives with being the voice of students at town council meetings and of the town council back at school. Poll students at the end of the year to determine professional development priorities for your staff for the next year. When in doubt, ask for your students’ opinion.

Each day as an educator is a challenge and a privilege, including during these politically trying times. Throughout history, students have been at the helm of critical social and political change. Today is no different. It is incumbent upon us, as educators, to grant them the space and support to utilize their talents and learning to change the world. Their livelihoods—and our democracy—depend on it.

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