Teaching Students Responsible Activism

Teaching Students About Activism

Social change is often born, at least in part, from student activism. Civil rights, women’s rights, and other significant movements received greater attention and gained momentum as a result of student involvement.

Today’s students are speaking out about causes and participating in rallies, protests and other events in response to social injustice. These include students protesting changes to the AP American History curriculum and young people expressing collective frustration and outrage about the deaths of young African-American men at the hands of law enforcement officials.

While many student-involved protests have been peaceful, a handful of them turned violent, creating terrible outcomes and reducing the overall efficacy of their messages. Many educators have arrived at a conclusion: Students must be encouraged to participate in social justice movements in a responsible manner.

Exploring the history of student activism

In order to help students understand their role as activists, it’s important to know the history of student activism at different times in the United States. While many students undoubtedly learn about the civil rights movement in history class, it’s likely that student activism was only a footnote.

Short research projects and presentations can fill in the gaps. There are many examples in the U.S. and around the world that students learn more about to understand their role as activists, including:

  • Vietnam War protests
  • Tiananmen Square
  • Arab Spring
  • Occupy Wall Street

However, teachers have a responsibility to do more than introduce the events and causes that student protests were centered around. They must lead discussions about protests that brought forth change and those that ended in violence.

Types of protests and the legal rights of a student activist

Once students have learned about the history of activism and protests, they should learn about their rights. For their voices to be heard in an effective manner, students should have a basic understanding of what they can do or say to protest peacefully, and how the police are allowed to treat them.

In order to better understand their own roles, students can learn what they can do to help promote a cause and make their voices heard while still maintaining their own and others’ safety. Furthermore, students should receive instruction regarding what can get them into legal trouble as well as what rights are protected under the blanket of free speech. Teachers can lead discussions or give writing assignments on different forms of protest, including:

  • Boycotts
  • Teach-ins
  • Walkouts
  • Guerrilla theater
  • Picketing
  • Marches
  • Vigils

In addition to teaching students about their right to protest and participate in other forms of activism, it is important that students are aware of the wide variety of ways to make their voices heard or voice their displeasure.

Because students will probably feel passionate about the topics they choose to write about and promote, this will help them to write more persuasive pieces. Teachers can combine units on activism with units on letter writing, editorial writing or argumentative writing in order to help students learn how to write persuasively in specific genres.

Activism helps students connect learning to the real world and make an impact

While adults may question the passion behind student participation in causes, student protests continue to be a part of many social change movements. Students who are aware of and concerned about the wrongs they see in society — and view activism as a multifaceted way to ensure their voices are heard — illustrate their desire to make an impact. In order to push toward progress, students need to be aware of the history they are participating in as well as how they can safely support causes they believe in.

Caitrin Blake has a BA in English and Sociology from the University of Vermont and a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Colorado Denver. She teaches composition at Arapahoe Community College.

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