How Teachers can Foster and Encourage Student Activism

Kate Gallagher
Kate Gallagher
High School Principal; M.A. in Urban Education, ESL Program Specialist
Group of students protesting outside with their hands up.

On January 18th, 2020, I attended my first march. My sister-in-law is an activist, and she invited me. She made signs and was more pumped than I’ve ever seen her! It was a local Women’s March that coincided with the National Women’s March happening at the same time in Washington, D. C.

I didn’t know what to expect and was blown away by the positivity and camaraderie among participants. There were chants, songs, short speeches, and so many great causes to support. At least three dozen times, I thought to myself, “my students need to see this!”

Recent History of Student Activism

From the Greensboro sit-ins of 1960 to the Vietnam War protests of the late 60s to the Tiananmen Square demonstrations of 1989, students have historically been a disproportionate number of those who participate in activism.

In 2013, the Black Lives Matter movement was begun by three women in their 20s and 30s; but after the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown, the movement exploded, and most of the protesters became students filling the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. Students also took to the streets and protested gun violence after a gunman walked into Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. They lobbied legislators and spoke with President Trump. This increase in student involvement in activism, particularly high school students, is a hopeful sign for the future.

The Value of Student Activism

When my staff struggles to understand why students overreact when an item of theirs is confiscated, I remind them how little control a student feels over their own life. That cell phone may be that student’s only true item of value that they are responsible for.

For the most part, students can’t choose their parents or where they live. They can’t choose the socio-economic status they’re growing up in or the circumstances around them. Students who have great home lives may never notice their lack of control over those variables, but students in less fortunate backgrounds feel that lack of control every day. This is one reason why teaching students to be activists and ways that they can feel empowered is so important!

Learning that they have a voice to be used to create positive change and teaching students how to use it can greatly impact their lives — and the lives of others — today and in the future. To start, we must teach students about the First Amendment and what it means (and what it doesn’t mean).

After the horrific violence at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, students across the nation organized a walk-out from their school buildings on one specific date and time. This is one example of student-led activism, but it is important for us to remind students that walk-outs and protests are not the only way to make their voices heard, raise awareness, and create change. Some ways that they could get involved may be writing letters, making phone calls, starting a student council for impact, doing service activities, or participating in or leading marches for different causes.

It’s worth our time to also help our students understand that student activism is not only about gun violence or suicide awareness (even though both are extremely important). Their voices and actions can impact politics, climate change, immigration laws, civil rights, and many other areas.

One way to start is to teach them ways to influence the things around them in school. They should feel that they have the support of their teachers and administrators and that they’re on their side. When they feel supported, students have the potential to improve school culture in a huge way.

Giving students the power and teaching them how to use it can spread kindness, curb bullying and fights, decrease usage of profanity, support school-wide expectations, and encourage student involvement regarding course offerings and other activities that they want to see happen.

Once students are able to recognize the impact they can have, supporting their activism can be beneficial in many ways. Students can gain a perspective on global issues and current events when they are introduced to causes that others are taking a stance on. These topics can also be interdisciplinary. For example, studying the impact of the carbon footprint combines math and science. Using their voices to make real impact can teach them the power of their words and also how to construct a persuasive argument.

Lastly, when students learn about and take an interest in a cause, they will likely become passionate about something larger than themselves. This develops a sense of empathy, compassion, and care for others and has the ability to transfer and blossom in them for the rest of their lives!

So, please teach your students about activism and support them in adopting a cause or starting a movement! You could be helping create the future’s next big change maker.

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