I’ve been out of the classroom for almost two years, but the last month of news media attention on the work of young people after the shootings at a high school in Parkland, Florida has brought my former students to mind again.
I’ve been reliving the moments when my students felt able to address key injustices that they lived firsthand. These moments dissolved the imaginary border between inside and outside of school and were powerful, impactful and purposeful civics teaching tools.
My 8th graders learned how local public transportation systems were governed. They testified before a local commission and met with public officials to improve safety on their routes to school.
I am reminded of one particular student, who had been with me through two years of a project-based civics curriculum and cared deeply about issues facing her community.
When her classmates chose to protest a decision the school had made by “sitting in” outside of the dean’s office, she pulled me aside. “Ms. Norris,” she said, “don’t they know that this sit-in isn’t addressing the root cause of the problem? If they were really upset, they could have gone to talk to the principal. She isn’t that hard to talk to.”
In that moment, as her civics teacher, I was so proud. She was thinking about advocacy through the lens of long-term change. She knew that marches, sit-ins, and walkouts matter, but that they’re not the end goal.
As I relive these memories in the light of the “Never Again” movement, I am reinvigorated in the belief that young people must be prepared to speak up effectively when the moment comes for them to be heard and they must know the long-term work that it will take to make lasting change. I’m again reminded that young people are listened to when they’re equipped with the skills and knowledge they need to address a problem as engaged citizens.
While I no longer step into a classroom to share these lessons with my students, I do have a message for the students I taught and the students who are coming after them.
To those who are afraid and those who are fired up, those who marched and walked out and those who stayed in class, to the students in our communities who are wondering if they have a voice and what to do with it when they find it, to the people who love and support them on this journey:
- Know that the work ahead will be incredibly tough.
- Know that, as a young person, you will be expected to be more informed and more eloquent than most of the adults you’re up against.
- Be informed and ready with the data to back up your ideas.
- Expect that there will be consequences for your actions, and participate anyway.
- Find the conversations going on in your community about policy change and understand how they fit into the bigger systems that shape our world.
- Vote (if and when you can).
- Talk to local decision-makers and to people who disagree with you. Have these conversations in the real world and not just on social media. Be civil.
- Learn how our institutions are supposed to work (and what prevents them from working) and work within and outside of those institutions to make change.
- Ask big questions about the role and purpose of government, but don’t stop there; make sure you know how to call your city council member and attend a local public hearing.
- Share your story. I have seen so many of you find your voices, share your experiences and change people’s minds. Spend some time figuring out why these issues matter to you personally and speak that truth.
- Advocate for better civics education. Not everyone gets to learn about how our government works when they are in middle or high school; let’s fix that. Every citizen has a right (and responsibility) to know how our government functions and to know what role they can play in it.
- Fight with everything you’ve got. Keep walking out. Keep speaking up. Keep marching. Keep calling. Keep writing. Keep going. The world is listening.
Forever your teacher and your biggest fan,