How Schools Can Support Student Activism

Student activists often stand on the front lines of social justice movements.

To many adults, that can be scary. We worry about our kids’ safety as they engage in activism, wonder whether they will be taken seriously, and, whether we want to admit it or not, fear what consequences their rebellion may have on our authority.

But as I wrote yesterday, our students are fired up, and they are unstoppable.

Right now, we’re living in a time of increased student engagement with activism. In response to a 2015 survey, 8.5% of college freshmen reported that there was a “very good chance” they would participate in student protests during their college career. That may not seem like an impressive figure, but it represents the highest number of students planning to engage in activism at college since 1967.

And research shows that activism correlates positively with students’ political participation, civic engagement, and commitment to their communities later in life.

In other words, students are telling us that activism is important to them, and researchers are telling us it helps students learn. Now it’s up to us to listen.

We shouldn’t see kids choosing to engage in activism as detracting from the work we’re doing in schools. We should see it as them taking what we’re teaching them and making it real. When our kids are fired up about an issue, that’s an opportunity for us to help them see connections between the curriculum and real life.

So how do we do that? How can we support student activism from within our schools? How can we change our own mindsets about student activism, reframing it as a positive force for social change and an authentic learning opportunity?

Here are some resources that may help.

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Social Justice Belongs in Our Schools
Sydney Chaffee
“Social justice should be a part of the mission of every school and every teacher in America if we want ‘liberty and justice for all’ to be more than just a slogan. Schools are crucial places for young people to become active citizens and learn skills to work towards a more equitable society.”

Children have changed America before, braving fire hoses and police dogs for civil rights
Steven Levingston
“But the Douglas high school students who survived a mass shooting last week are motivated by the same idealism and hope that inspired Birmingham’s school kids. When the Florida teens lead a nationwide walkout from classrooms on March 14 and march in Washington and other cities on March 24, they will be following in the footsteps of children who were willing to risk their lives to change the country — and succeeded.”

Celebrating ‘Builders’ and ‘Burners’ in Student Activism
Chris Purcell
“In any case, it is wrong to narrowly reward and uplift activism that makes administration most comfortable or serves solely their needs. Such a narrowing of activism for our students stifles their creativity and inhibits their ability to imagine a campus and indeed a world that is more inclusive and equitable. Students are drawing upon historical movements and infusing their own energy and passions toward creating a more just society. It is our job to encourage this quest for justice, even if it challenges our power and our comfort.”

Embracing Student Activism
Cassie Barnhardt and Kimberly Reyes 
“…campuses derive their legitimacy in part on their commitment to developing excellence, integrity and a sense of community among their students. Student activism provides a space for institutions to be thoughtful about enacting those very commitments.”

Walkouts, Marches and the Desire to ‘Do Something’: What You Need to Know About Stoneman Douglas Activism
Cory Collins
“After the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, courageous survivors have inspired a groundswell of activism and advocacy. Here’s what you need to know—and what you can do, no matter your situation.”

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Do Something
Teaching Tolerance
“Do Something performance tasks ask students to demonstrate their anti-bias awareness and civic competency by applying their literacy and social justice knowledge in an authentic real-world context.”
Note: In considering these resources, it’s important that teachers let our students’ interests drive the learning.

One way we can build on the momentum of young people’s activism is by facilitating class discussions where students can engage with one another in conversation about complex, controversial topics. This is a perfect opportunity for us to help kids learn how to talk to one another in a way that will lead to a stronger society, rather than a divided one. The following resources all deal with class discussions:

Community Inquiry
Teaching Tolerance
“Nurture students’ speaking and listening skills with strategies that ask them to draw upon texts during meaningful—and respectful—classroom discussions.”

Lesson Plan: Preparing Your Class to Discuss Controversial Issues
Close Up
“…the reasons to take on the study of controversial issues in the classroom far outweigh the objections against them. Recent research from the Civic Mission of Schools shows that when ‘schools incorporate discussion of current local, national, and international issues and events in to the classroom, particularly those that young people view as important to their lives. When students have an opportunity to discuss current issues in a classroom setting, they tend to have a greater interest in civic life and politics as well as improved critical thinking and communication skills.’”

Structured Academic Controversy Protocol and Materials
“By the time students reach adolescence, many believe that every issue comes neatly packaged in a pro/con format, and that the goal of classroom discussion, rather than to understand your opponent, is to defeat him. The SAC method provides an alternative to the ‘debate mindset’ by shifting the goal from winning classroom discussions to understanding alternative positions and formulating historical syntheses. The SAC’s structure demands students listen to each other in new ways and guides them into a world of complex and controversial ideas.”

Strengthening Whole Class Discussions (Grades 3-5)
John DePasquale
“…when they are thoughtfully and deliberately facilitated, whole class discussions have tremendous potential to build a communal understanding and knowledge base in a classroom while, at the same time, promoting student autonomy and voice.”

Guidelines for Discussing Difficult or Controversial Topics
University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching
“Whatever the context, it is helpful to structure such discussions in a way that defines boundaries for the process and provides some degree of closure within the classroom. Such discussions are an especially important time to explicitly discuss expectations for respecting a range of perspectives and experiences in the room.”

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The last thing it’s important to note is that, if we want this work to happen in our classrooms, it’s important for school leaders to facilitate professional development opportunities where teachers can collaborate and share best practices for embracing student activism. This might mean trying out some of the discussion protocols as a staff,  giving teachers time to work with one another in smaller teams, or doing some shared reading as a staff.