Empowering Students to Change the World

Empowering Students to Change the World explores creating student-led projects with real world implications to raise empathy and develop altruism. The article explores areas to consider, such as group size, teaching creative problem solving and allowing for creative freedom to ensure that students feel ownership and find success.

“If an end goal of education is to create skilled, altruistic citizens, why wait until after a student’s post-secondary training? Whether it’s an after-school community service group, project-based unit, or team-building event, allowing students the time, support, and freedom to create a positivity project is a direct route to building better thinkers and doers.”

In Classroom Activists: How Service-Learning Challenges Prejudices, teacher Lisa Weinbaum explores the ways in which middle-schoolers are naturally drawn to social activism. And while some students are reluctant to write, when given the opportunity to write for an authentic audience and see that their words can effect change, they are excited by the opportunity and delve more deeply into their topics.

In her article, At Risk of Greatness in Teaching Tolerance, Weinbaum describes a unit on the societal causes of homelessness that she taught to her students, 70 percent of whom were living in poverty. In this unit, the students discovered that poverty even impacted death, dismayed to find that the cemetery where people were buried was littered and uncared for.

“Rough, weather-worn crosses lay haphazardly on the ground, nails protruding. Remnants of windblown Wal-Mart bags, broken Budweiser bottles and faded pink plastic roses littered the landscape. But the final disgrace was the presence of tiny American flags, obviously planted decades ago, perhaps to honor fallen veterans. Tattered and torn, they were threadbare and colorless.  Clearly, the souls buried within the cemetery had long since been abandoned by our community.”

Weinbaum’s students vowed to clean the cemetery and were able, through protest letter writing and political activism and media coverage, to convince the local government to hold a community cleanup.

“My students were so proud of themselves. Through the strength of their collective speech, they learned their voices are valued. They learned they have political power, the ability to help eradicate injustice. Through their passion, perseverance and eloquence, they captured our attention. And perhaps for the first time in their educational lives, they were taken seriously. No longer were they labeled as “at-risk” kids relegated to remedial reading; they were the kids who forced our community to look. They were the kids who forced our community to act.”



Lower the Voting Age to 16?

Want to get your students to pay attention to politics and civics? Debate the voting age. Debating the current voting age, and questioning whether 16-year-olds should have the right to vote is a surefire way to get your students excited to explore this issue.

The organization Vote16 USA is a national campaign, organized by Generation Citizen, that supports efforts to obtain voting rights for 16- and 17-year-old youth on the local level, also works to promote the issue on a national level. Their campaign Vote16DC is a coalition of DC youth, adult allies, and local organizations, working to extend voting rights to 16- and 17-year-olds in Washington, D.C.

In the article Meet the DC Teenagers Campaigning for the Right to Vote,  one of the group’s founders, Alik Schier, states, “When I heard the bill was being introduced, I thought this is the perfect time to do this. The attention’s on young people, the spotlight’s on us—we have the nation’s attention,” Schier says. “I was really excited to finally let my voice be heard for real.”

While many believed this bill had a chance to pass, the historic event was delayed today with a 7-6 vote to table the bill.  DC Council Declines to Take Up Bill to Lower Voting Age to 16 explains the lawmakers’ decision to hold their vote.

Charles Allen, the D.C. Council member who wrote the legislation, said, “it was time to expand political power to young people, whose lives are affected by issues including climate change, education and gun safety, [but] they have no power, because they cannot vote.”  These 16 year olds will have to wait.

The 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to vote for people 18 and older but does not prohibit states from setting a lower age

Good Kids, Mad City @GKMC18

The Chicago-based Good Kids, Mad City describes themselves as, “Black and Brown young people united in fighting to end violence in our cities. We call for more resources to underserved communities.” As youth groups nationwide are working hard to get gun legislation passed, these youth are looking to eradicate the underlying causes of gun violence such as poverty, mental health issues and a lack of resources.

Good Kids Mad City: A New Student Movement is Born out of the Streets of Chicago, Baltimore and D.C. writes that the group began to organize after Parkland to create a model of youth safety that calls for:

Investment in Youth Employment– Many youth in communities of color have complicated living conditions and have to provide for our families, but there aren’t enough resources. Gun violence is a symptom of poverty.
Investment in Schools– Schools should provide mental health support and other wrap-around services to help students heal from trauma and to address non-academic barriers to learning.
Investment in Communities– Communities hardest hit by violence need sustained investment in health, education, employment, and housing.

These Chicago Teens are Fighting the Underlying Causes of Gun Violence states, “Chicago’s punitive stance on gun violations has contributed to high incarceration rates, particularly in low-income neighborhoods of color, according to a 2016 report from Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law. The students behind Good Kids Mad City say this approach contributes to a cycle of violence and poverty — and that it doesn’t address why people feel the need to carry guns in the first place.”

Follow the group on Twitter @GKMC18

The group also started a Go Fund Me to raise money for their work. 


NewseumED: resources for teaching the 1st Amendment

If you are looking for resources to teach youth about the 1st Amendment, take some time to explore the free website NewseumED, produced by the Newseum, a museum dedicated to news in Washington DC. Once registered, a user has complete access to a library of primary sources, artifacts, videos, over two hundred lesson plans,  historic front pages of newspapers, timelines, and maps. Resources can be shared with a url, and lessons, which are aligned to the NCSS, NCTE and the Common Core, can be downloaded and copied.

The NewseumED website states, “Our approach begins with using the First Amendment as a springboard to illuminate the challenges and ideals of our democracy and to cultivate the skills needed to make informed decisions in a diverse and demanding world.”

If you are looking for units to teach on freedom of the press and interpreting the news, try their Media Literacy Booster Pack. Or perhaps you are you looking for a teaching unit to explore how the suffragists embraced the First Amendment as a tool to help achieve passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920.

If you are looking for MLK and Black History month resources, or how to identify and navigate “Fake News” , or you want to teach about the Supreme Court case that protected student speech in public schools, there is truly more exceptional material than you could ever use on the NewseumED website.

For an in-depth tutorial on the NewseumED website, watch the video below.


Empathy is a Muscle

I have been thinking a great deal about empathy recently: the ability to step into the shoes of another person, to aspire to understand their feelings and perspectives, and to use those understandings to lead our actions. I have been thinking about whether it is innate or learned, and how to design curriculum in my classroom that allows for it to be strengthened, like a muscle, or discovered and pulled out, a seed in a child that hasn’t received enough light.

I recently taught a 3 day unit on Syria, the civil war and refugee crisis, and throughout the lesson, all students were engaged. “This is going on right now?!” one student asked, incredulously. “I need to help!” other students wrote on their final reflection. “How could the world allow this to go on?” other students demanded to know. Paper after paper, 7th grade students remarked on how important they felt it was to learn this material, how astonished that this was happening in their world, what could they do to help in such a situation?

Listening to their questions and comments in our discussions reminded me that empathy is a muscle. It needs a consistent workout, especially now, when we can all become overwhelmed with the many problems in our world and when we are inundated through social media. For me as a teacher, many questions arise, such as:

How much exposure should I give to my students?

How do I choose what to cover?

How do I create a balance between lessons?

How do I create opportunities for students to feel empathy?

In Edutopia’s article, Empathy in Action: How Teachers Prepare Future Citizens, author Marilyn Price- Mitchell rightly states, “Teachers are uniquely positioned to teach empathy, which will help children not only discover personal success, but also contribute to the betterment of society.”

She links to an article, Six Habits of Highly Empathetic People, which states that highly empathetic people:

Cultivate curiosity about strangers
Challenge prejudices and discover commonalities
Gain direct experience of other people’s lives
Listen and open themselves to others
Inspire mass action and social change
Develop an ambitious imagination

What better aspirations for our students and youth?

As teachers and parents, we must create global and local opportunities in our classrooms and homes where youth can work their empathy muscles- both in researching and learning about an issue, critical thinking and sharing their ideas with others, and developing projects that allow for them to connect themselves to the other. Empathy allows us to examine who we are in relationship to others, where we stand, and what we should do with our knowledge.  From teaching empathy through our choices of literature, to connecting our 8-10 year olds to other kids around the world through the use of Empatico, to connecting with organizations that are change makers, to designing local project based lessons, such as an urban community garden, allowing for our youth to practice and feel empathy will make them stronger, more resilient and capable humans.



Change the Ref: Manuel Oliver

I was truly honored to meet Manuel Oliver from Change the Ref on Thursday as I went to support students from @50milesmore who were marching from Worcester to Springfield to protest at Smith & Wesson for gun reform. Oliver lost his son, Joaquin, in the Parkland tragedy, and turned to his art as a form of activism. Founded in the memory of their son Joaquin who was one of the 17 victims, Manuel and Patricia Oliver are committed to making sure that their son’s life and the lives of the other 16 victims are never forgotten and that real change happens to prevent future tragedies like this from happening ever again. Change the Ref uses urban art and nonviolent creative confrontation to expose the disastrous effects of the mass shooting pandemic and to help push for gun reform. IMG_8257

WALLS OF DEMAND is a nationwide art project, and a way for Manuel Oliver’s son, Joaquin, to have a voice. These murals have a very powerful image so it’s hard to look away, and hard to ignore. These walls trigger people to think about gun violence, and the need for change.

Follow their powerful work by visiting their website or on twitter at @changetheref



Register to Vote!

“The pace of new voter registrations among young people in crucial states is accelerating,” writes Michael Tackett and Rachel Shorey in Young People Keep Marching After Parkland, This Time to Register to Vote.  And, they write, “[Youth]  could even help shape the outcome of the midterm elections. If voters in their teens and 20s vote in greater numbers than usual… the groundswell could affect close races in key states like Arizona and Florida, where there will be competitive races for governor, the Senate and a number of House districts in November.”

It is essential that we teach our youth not only the importance of voting to uphold a democracy, but also how to register and how to vote.

There are many resources available to help educate and register our youth to vote. The youth activist group March For Our Lives has an online toolkit.  USA.gov offers information about laws and registration as well as information on how to vote. And even sites like Wikihow have information on how to vote in the United States. There is no shortage of information.

According to PBS, Only 58% of all eligible voters voted in the 2016 election, yet voting is one of the foundations of a strong democracy. We need to teach our youth the importance of voting and the process.




“Youth In Front”

Educators from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Teaching Systems Lab, and the instructional design firm Fresh Cognate have created “Youth in Front”, a new hub of learning-oriented resources and multimedia assets for young activists and the educators and adult allies interested making their voices heard — particularly those who are stepping into activism for the first time, and for the educators who are responding to action in their schools and communities.

Net Neutrality: Teaching Our Youth to Save the Internet

In 2015, Net Neutrality regulations were put into place by President Obama to protect an open internet and to stop large broadband companies such as AT&T, Comcast and Verizon from controlling, blocking or slowing down what consumers could see on the internet, as well as prohibiting companies from charging more money for certain content. Under the laws, companies could not block access to any websites or apps, and could not impact loading speeds. On December 14, 2017, in an effort to overturn these regulations, The FCC’s five-member commission, with its Republican majority, voted 3-2 along party lines to end the regulations.

While supporters suggest that lifting the ban could allow broadband providers to provide customers with a wider range of services, critics feel that the lack of regulation could spur higher prices and slower internet. And one group of internet users, teachers and students, are perhaps the group that could be impacted the most. Costs could rise, speeds could slow, and websites could be restricted. Therefore, this is a very important topic for schools to explore, and because it directly impacts students, it is an issue that promotes student engagement. Free Press’s guide “Net Neutrality: What You Need to Know”  provides a clear overview of the issue, and their website “Saving the Internet” explores the many issues Net Neutrality brings up and offers action steps students can take.

NPR’a story Teachers and Educators Weigh In On Net Neutrality explores how deregulation can impact students, classrooms and libraries. Teachers rely on the internet to create enriching and engaging lessons to reach their students. Having broad and unlimited access to the internet provides classrooms and teachers with resources that they simply could not otherwise have.

At this time, 94 percent of school districts in the U.S. have access to high-speed internet. However, not all students have this access. A recent Pew Research study found that 5 million, most low income, school-aged children do not have access to broadband internet connection. And some Senate Democrats feel that deregulation of net neutrality will widen inequity.

According to  a 2015 Pew Research Center report, around 5 million households with school-age children lack high-speed internet service. The net neutrality repeal could worsen this digital divide that creates inequity. In addition, according to a Pew study, millions of students rely on library computers and internet connections to complete research and homework. If net neutrality is repealed, another area to explore is that rural schools could suffer more because three-quarters of schools that lack high-speed internet are located in remote communities.

Accessing information is crucial to our nation’s democracy and a free and available internet is an important part of this access. The loss of Net Neutrality threatens academic freedom, and equity. We need to teach our youth and students that their reliance on the internet and their access to information is at stake, and we need to give them the knowledge and resources to get involved.

The Kids Are Alright

I have been a middle school Social Studies teacher for almost 20 years, and during that time I have not seen youth galvanized around an issue like that of gun reform. In fact, recently, after viewing Teaching Tolerance’s film A Children’s March with my students, I asked my students what issues they would personally take a stand for. While they held strong opinions on many topics, most of them struggled to find an issue that would propel them to action like the students they watched in the film, marching in the civil rights movement and creating social change where adults could not. They agreed that the issue would have to be really important and really impact their own lives for them to take an active stance.

Then came another school shooting, and now we see the youth of America rising up. And why wouldn’t these students want to become active in this issue? In 2018 alone (and it is only February), there have already been eight school shootings by some reports, and the nation’s youth (and teachers) have been the target. And suddenly, the vast social media communities that youth have created around themselves on twitter, snapchat, Facebook and Instagram, become the perfect fuel to spread this spark of social activism quickly. “How the Survivors of Parkland Began the #NeverAgain Movement” explores how the activism was ignited and has spread rapidly using the technology that the youth have mastered.

When Emma Gonzalez, a Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School senior whose face has since become a symbol for this quickly growing youth-led political campaign, screamed “We Call B.S”,  her words resounded like a rallying cry.  And clearly, the Parkland students are not going away. Cameron Kasky, another survivor of the shooting wrote My Generation Will Not Stand for This, and grilled Senator Marco Rubio in a recent CNN Town Hall on Gun Policy.  At the event where CNN hosted survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting along with law enforcement, congressmen, and a representative of the NRA in a town hall on gun policy in America, there were some very emotional moments, including Kasky asking Senator Rubio if he would stop taking donations from the NRA.

“Young people have helped lead all our great movements,” President Obama recently said on Twitter. “How inspiring to see it again in so many smart, fearless students standing up for their right to be safe; marching and organizing to remake the world as it should be.”


One of the biggest events these youth activists are planning is the March For Our Lives on March 24th in Washington DC and in cities and towns around the nation. The march’s website states that the mission and focus of March For Our Lives is “to demand that a comprehensive and effective bill be immediately brought before Congress to address these gun issues. No special interest group, no political agenda is more critical than timely passage of legislation to effectively address the gun violence issues that are rampant in our country.”

Perhaps the most powerful aspect of the event is that it is being coordinated by students themselves. The organizers state that the march is being “created by, inspired by, and led by students across the country who will no longer risk their lives waiting for someone else to take action to stop the epidemic of mass school shootings that has become all too familiar. ” Activists Seek to Keep Gun Movement Student-Led explores how a movement started by youth can continue in this way, with adult support and funding, but with the control in the hands of youth activists.

As a classroom teacher, I will be marching behind and alongside these youth to demand that their lives (and my life) and safety become a priority. School safety  should not a political issue, it should be a guarantee. I am inspired by the activism I am witnessing, and also intrigued and excited by the use of social media to help spread their movement. #NeverAgain

“Do Something Instead of Sending Prayers”

When I was a student in the 80s we debated gun control– the gun homicide rate in the United States had grown rapidly since the 1960s, and was 6.6-7 per 100,000. The 80s were a crime-heavy time in this nation– politicians often ran for office by promising to be tough on crime. We used the issue of gun control to learn the art of debate, arguing the controversial sides of handgun ownership, along with others issues such as abortion rights, euthanasia, and pesticide use in agriculture– we were taught to research, create arguments for both sides, and be able to deliver regardless of one’s own personal viewpoint. While there were many points to argue about gun ownership, the guns we argued about were handguns and rifles, and the idea of a mass shooting as we have started to see unfold in our nation did not hover over our minds, classrooms, or teachers as a ‘what if’.

I look out into my seventh grade classroom today, and  I am overwhelmed when I think about all that my students need to filter on a daily basis. I started teaching before smart phones and 9/11, and I have seen anxiety levels steadily rise in my students every year since. The accelerated growth of mass shootings since Sandy Hook, and the inundation of media imagery has placed my students in a world where they ask each other when will such a shooting occur in our school, instead of if.  And as a teacher, I am now instructed to stand by the door should I need to act against an active shooter, as if my pencil cans or milk crate file cabinet is any match for an AR-15. The policeman tells us it is really a last resort, and shakes his head while he speaks as if saying, “Yeah, good luck with that.” So we practice crouching in the dark and pretending we are not really there, which feels as futile as when we see images of the drills for the drop of a nuclear bomb, children tucked under tiny desks and holding their heads, waiting.

There are so many debatable questions:

How do we approach a topic that already creates heightened anxiety with or without speaking it? How can a teacher or parent discuss the issue while at the same time promote a sense of well-being? Should we discuss mass shootings at all, or plan and practice for the improbable, or should we focus instead on building the deep connections needed to help prevent such tragedies in the first place? Or is there a shade of gray, somewhere in between?  And, since crime in the United States has actually decreased over the last quarter of a century, why do we feel things are so dangerous and uncertain?

One way to explore the issue in the United States is to examine gun violence and ownership as compared to other nations. Here are 17 charts that explore America’s unique problem in relationship to other nations.  “America is an exceptional country when it comes to guns. It’s one of the few countries in which the right to bear arms is constitutionally protected. But America’s relationship with guns is unique in another crucial way: Among developed nations, the US is far and away the most violent — in large part due to the easy access many Americans have to firearms.” What about the constitutional right to bear arms in other nations? Do other nations allow gun ownership protected by law? What does the 2nd amendment really mean, anyway? 

According to a study by the Pew Research the rate of US gun violence had actually fallen 49% from 1993 to 2013.  Yet since Sandy Hook, there have been 1,500 mass shootings. (Defined by the Gun Violence Archive as all shootings in which four or more people were shot but not necessarily killed, excluding the shooter.)

“So many people die annually from gunfire in the US that the death toll between 1968 and 2011 eclipses all wars ever fought by the country. According to research by Politifact, there were about 1.4 million firearm deaths in that period, compared with 1.2 million US deaths in every conflict from the War of Independence to Iraq.” According to the Gun Violence Archive, America’s firearm deaths total more than 32,000 each year.

And it is a hard fact that the more guns there are in an area, the more gun deaths will result. Not only do guns kill people, but so do people with guns. “States with higher gun ownership rates have higher gun murder rates—as much as 114 percent higher than states with lower gun ownership rates.” Fewer guns in a state or more legislation, lead to fewer gun homicides.  Mother Jones magazine’s 10 Pro-Gun Myths, Shot Down, uses infographics and data to fact-check and explore the pro-gun myths that the NRA uses to argue their stance.

Perhaps the latest mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida will be the tipping point this nation needs to make positive change. Many students are using their experiences and survival as a platform to promote social change and call for tougher gun laws.  These brave youth are calling for politicians to take a stand, planning walkouts, and asking our government and citizens to do something instead of sending prayers. It is time we all listen.