How student activism guides future citizenship

Educators can inform students about powerful forms of activism beyond walkouts
By: | January 27, 2020
In Texas' Round Rock ISD, student activism is centered on the student advisory board, which has mounted suicide awareness and anti-vaping campaigns in recent years.In Texas' Round Rock ISD, student activism is centered on the student advisory board, which has mounted suicide awareness and anti-vaping campaigns in recent years.

Outsiders may sometimes grumble that school leaders who encourage student activism are indoctrinating young people with certain political beliefs.

While it’s true that students are more likely to take action around liberal causes such as gun control or confronting climate change, administrators deliver valuable lessons when they let students promote their beliefs, says Meira Levinson, a Harvard Graduate School of Education professor and co-author of Democratic Discord in Schools (Harvard Education Press, 2019).

“The complaint will be that these schools are inappropriately using public funds to promote partisan ends,” says Levinson, who researches civic education and educational ethics. “But it is developmentally appropriate for young people to be civically engaged and active, and it is a powerful form of learning.”

Yet, many educators tend to be nervous about student activism active. And while walkouts may get the most media attention, they, of course, can also disrupt instruction.

Administrators and teachers should therefore make sure young people are fully aware of the many other powerful forms of student activism, such as speaking in public meetings, doing advocacy research and forming community alliances around an issue, says Levinson, who helped create Youth in Front, a online resource for student activists.

“We tend to treat civic education as learning about how others do citizenship, but in almost every other discipline we know the best way to teach kids is for them to do it themselves,” Levinson says. “We teach them to do math, we don’t have them read about how other people do math.”

Student activism leaves a legacy

In Texas’ Round Rock ISD, the student advisory board, which comprises representatives from the system’s five high schools and 11 middle schools, takes on an annual service project.

This year, students are mounting an educational campaign about the dangers of vaping, and in the past, the board organized a community walk to raise awareness of teen suicide.

“When the’re had been a tragedy, they felt adults were fearful to talk about suicide, but the kids needed to talk about it,” says Kristina Snow, the board’s sponsor and district director of talent development.

Snow says her role in student activism is to help students “navigate the system” by connecting them with district staff who can, for instance, get the students on agendas for certain meetings or help arrange parent forums.

“These students really want to have a legacy,” snow says. “They’re very worried about there being better paths for those who come after them at their schools.”

In Virginia, Fairfax County Public Schools, near Washington, D.C., now allows students in grades 7-12 a partial absence each school year to participate in civic engagement activities such as meeting with elected officials or volunteering for a campaign.

“Civic engagement is something that is emphasized in our government classes and the new regulation recognizes that our students are offered multiple opportunities to participate because of our location,” Fairfax County Public Schools School Board Chair Karen Corbett Sanders said in a news release.

Benefits of student activism

In the wake of the 2018 Parkland school shooting, some administrators allowed students to leave class to participate in protests. Other leaders told students they could be punished for walking out—which presents a lesson in itself: Activists of all ages sometimes face consequences for civil disobedience, and students can learn to make that choice, says Lata Nott, executive director of the First Amendment Center at the Freedom Forum Institute, Nott says.

NewseumEd’s website has plenty of resources educators can use to teach the First Amendment, a law that many people don’t fully understand, Nott says.

“It protects your speech and it protects everybody’s speech,” Nott says. “If somebody you hate is talking about something you hate and you take away their rights, that’s making policy that could take away your own rights.”

Student activism can also support interdisciplinary learning. For instance, researching carbon footprints requires math and science skills to analyze climate data and a knowledge of government to know how and where to begin impacting policy, says Alan Singer, a professor of education at Hofstra University in New York.

Student activism and productive political discourse will become more pressing issues during the 2020 presidential and Congressional elections. It’s an opportunity for students to get involved in campaigns locally, and learn to listen and base their positions on evidence as they debate the election and the impeachment hearings, Singer says.

Administrators can minimize the potential for disruption by maintaining open lines of communications with students, he says.

“Students should feel administrators are on the same team as they are and on the same team as the teachers,” Singers says. “Students should be able to walk into a principal’s office and say ‘These are the things we are concerned about.”

Matt Zalaznick is senior writer.