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.

Social Activism in the Olympic Games

In the 9th century BCE, the “Ekecheiria”, or the Olympic truce, was a time period when the  ancient Greeks created a temporary peace; they put down their weapons and allowed athletes, families and spectators to have safe travel to and from the site of the Olympic games. The Olympics were to be a time to celebrate sport, and a time to have peace between warring city-states.

Over two thousand years later, some Olympic spectators believe that there is no room for politics at the games– that the athletes should show allegiance only to their sport, and leave their political and personal opinions our of the arena. The IOC themselves in rule number 50, state that “No form of advertising or other publicity shall be allowed in and above the stadia, venues and other competition areas which are considered as part of the Olympic sites. Commercial installations and advertising signs shall not be allowed in the stadia, venues or other sports grounds.” This rule is an attempt “to prevent the Games from being used as a platform for protests, demonstrations or the promotion of political, religious or racial propaganda.”

Yet throughout history, the Olympics have set an international platform for political activism.   18 Times Politics Trumped Sport in the Olympic Games History includes a timeline of politics in the Olympic arena, and   A Not So Brief History of Politics and the Olympics explores a history of social issues such  gender, race, and LGBTQ, as well as the issues surrounding the geography of the games themselves, and boycotts.

In the article 7 Of the Most Memorable Olympic Protests in History we see a wide range of political activity, ranging from 1906, when Peter O’Connor, an Irish long jumper, wanted only to wave an independent Irish flag, to Jewish athletes boycotting Hitler’s 1936 games, to the Cold War Boycotts in 1980 when the US persuaded more than 60 countries to boycott the games.

In her recent article, Athletes Don’t Have to Win Gold To Make a Statement, Amy Bass, author and history Professor, explores contemporary protests in sports such as the “Take a Knee” movement in the NFL, openly gay US skier Gus Kenworthy critiquing Pence, Lindsay Vonn’s politically charged words against Trump, and concludes that, “Rather than worry about who may or may not take a proverbial knee with a medal around their neck, maybe we need to understand that protest is the best of us and US — taking a stand, expressing an opinion and bringing home the gold.”

The history of protest and activism in sports allows for many engaging questions with youth:

What is the role of sports in a society?

Should athletes be involved in protest, or should they only perform in their sport?

Are athletes change makers in society?

Should athletes be sensitive to the views of their paying fans?

How does the nationalism of the Olympics both divide and connect people?

 

Syria: Teaching about the Civil War and Refugee Crisis

“This is happening right now?” a student blurted out and smacked the table with her hand. “Yes, while we are all sitting here, this is happening,” I responded. “How could anyone allow this to go on?” she continued. And she was not alone–this level of engagement was classroom-wide.

“What was Syria like before the war?” another student asked.

“How many refugees do we have in America?”

“What about in our town or school?”

The conversation and engagement continued for three days.

Syria is a hard topic to teach, as the war itself is complicated and the outlook is bleak. Yet there are also stories of hope, refugees who have survived and thrived, heroic actions by people such as the White Helmets, the International Rescue Committee, and Doctors without Borders. So while there is a lot of heaviness to wade through, there are also stories of hope, selflessness and humanity that can be used to teach empathy and activism.

A great starting point is the website I Am Syria which offers a curriculum and page for educators which can be modified to fit the needs and structure of a classroom. Start with their background resources for an overview.

For my lesson, I followed much of the video tour. I created a reflection sheet based on the videos. We viewed a clip together, students had an opportunity to write, and then we had a discussion. While initially I was planning for students to watch the videos at their own pace, I decided to watch all together using my projector and screen and I am happy that I did. The videos provided good detail and were great conversation starters, and the sequence walked my classroom through the start of the war to the journey of refugees. The material was pretty heavy, and the camaraderie and community viewing allowed for us to process what we viewed.

For elementary students there are more basic resources and a page for activism after kids learn about the situation. As I told my students, your first responsibility to learn as much as you can, then you can teach others and make your voices heard. I ended the unit with opportunities to make change and an impact that varied from talking to others about the situation, teaching other students, writing letters or editorials, creating fundraisers for an organization, and learning about the refugees who live in our town and attend our school.

Holocaust Remembrance Day

In September, a novel I wrote called The Pirates of Cologne was published by Levellers Press. It is YA book that is based on the true story of the Edelweiss Pirates, over 5,000 working class German youth, who fought against the Hitler Youth and were part of the organized resistance. Many of the kids were imprisoned, beaten or killed for their involvement, and they were considered war criminals by the German government for sixty years after the war until they were finally recognized in 2005.

Unknown copy

I think of these heroic kids today,  on International Holocaust Remembrance day, and on most days.

On the first page of my novel there is a quote from Elie Wiesel: “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” How do we teach our youth how to recognize injustice and empower them to protest? How do we give them opportunities to develop a voice to speak out, and the skills to learn, research and build strong arguments?

In honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, here are some resources about the Holocaust for elementary, middle grade and YA readers.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

information on the Edelweiss Pirates

Middle Grade and YA titles

The Pirates of Cologne  The year is 1942, and thirteen-year-old Sebastian Jaeger has escaped from a Hitler Youth camp and returned to the city of Cologne. Five years earlier, his father, a Communist leader, was imprisoned, leaving Sebastian alone to care for his grandmother. Attracted by the possibility of true friendship, Sebastian joins a group of street kids called the Edelweiss Pirates who make a game out of their rebellion against the Hitler Youth and the Nazis. But their childish antics soon take a more serious and dangerous turn as they begin to work with the organized resistance.

The Book Thief Set during World War II in Germany, Markus Zusak’s novel is about Liesel Meminger, a foster girl living outside of Munich. Liesel scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist – books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement before he is marched to Dachau.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas When Bruno returns home from school one day, he discovers that his belongings are being packed in crates. His father has received a promotion and the family must move from their home to a new house far far away, where there is no one to play with and nothing to do. A tall fence running alongside stretches as far as the eye can see and cuts him off from the strange people he can see in the distance. But Bruno longs to be an explorer and decides that there must be more to this desolate new place than meets the eye. While exploring his new environment, he meets another boy whose life and circumstances are very different to his own, and their meeting results in a friendship that has devastating consequences.

Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl It is 1942 in Holland and the Germans have invaded. All Jewish people are frightened for their lives, so the Frank family hide. Life is dangerous but they hope for the best – until they are finally discovered. Anne Frank was a real person, and this is her diary.

Milkweed He’s a boy who lives in the streets of Warsaw. He’s a boy who steals food for himself and the other orphans. He’s a boy who believes in bread, and mothers, and angels. He’s a boy who wants to be a Nazi some day, with tall shiny jackboots and a gleaming Eagle hat of his own. Until the day that suddenly makes him change his mind. And when the trains come to empty the Jews from the ghetto of the damned, he’s a boy who realizes it’s safest of all to be nobody.

 

Self-Esteem and Helping Strangers

From NPR, Teen’s Self-Esteem Grows When Volunteering To Help Strangers

“While kids may bristle at the thought of posting fewer selfies, surveys indicate 55 percent of adolescents enjoy volunteering. And according to a recent study, when it comes to helping others, teens may benefit psychologically from spending time helping strangers.”

In the three-year study of 681 youth between the ages 11 and 14, researchers found that youth who assisted strangers reported higher self-esteem a year later. “Questions like “I help people I don’t know, even if it’s not easy for me,” and “I voluntarily help my neighbors,” helped researchers assess the various ways teens support others, while statements like, “I am satisfied with myself,” and “I feel useless at times,” helped the researchers evaluate the teens’ self-esteem.”

How can we incorporate helping strangers into our classroom curriculum? 

How can parents encourage children to commit to community service and helping strangers?

Some recent idea from my Social Studies classroom:

  • Study and support the organization Skateistan. Examine the political and cultural geography of the areas they serve, explore big issues such as equity, the rights of girls, the impacts of poverty
  • Examine food scarcity, watch the film A Place at the Table, and work with the local food bank to raise money, food or help at the facility
  • A unit on the issue of child labor globally with the reading of two texts Iqbal and Free the Children
  • An exploration into global terrorism and the way it impacts girls’ education by reading the young readers version of I Am Malala. Have students use their knowledge to educate others through writing editorials, creating bulletin boards, working with other classrooms, etc.
  • Create a Day of Service where the entire school-wide community helps local organizations and neighbors. Have students and faculty brainstorm things they can do in their local community to reach out and foster connections.

Democracy and Social Justice

“Democracy is not a state. It is not some high plateau that we struggle to reach so we can finally settle down to rest. Democracy is an act. It is an act that requires participation, organization and dedication to the highest principles. It is an act, and a series of actions that require us to continuously verify our commitment to civil rights and social justice at every challenge.”Rep. John Lewis Reflections on a Dream Deferred

It is 2018, and seemingly now more than ever, our nation is rediscovering the true meaning of our fragile democracy. It is the American classroom perhaps, that now finds itself at the center of the fight for social justice, for it is there that teachers find themselves inundated daily with the need to undo the social damage caused by the ignorant words and deeds of our current politicians. Our classrooms are at the front lines as our students try to make sense of things our political leaders say, and it is our collective responsibility to help our youth learn how to come to their own understandings, find the truth through research, and articulate their own political and social views. As Rep. John Lewis writes, “Democracy is an act…that requires participation, organization and dedication to the highest principles.”

Not just on Martin Luther King day, but everyday, our classrooms need to teach and model the connection between democracy and social justice.  We must ask the essential question: How  is standing up against racism and injustice a democratic obligation? And we must model this connection through our own actions, our treatment of those in our school-wide communities, and also in the curriculum we design for our youth.

“Now I realize that there are those all over who are telling us that we must slow up. … But we cannot afford to slow up. We have a moral obligation to press on. We have our self-respect to maintain. But even more we can’t afford to slow up because of our love for America and our love for the democratic way of life. … We must keep moving. We must keep going.”
–Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
From “The Montgomery Story,” an address to the 47th annual NAACP Convention, San Francisco, June 27, 1956

For resources on Martin Luther King, Jr. visit the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, where you can find  papers, documents and video, a liberation curriculum, as well as  a collection of lesson plans for teachers of all grade levels.

Or try one of the 8 extension activities from this lesson: Dr King and the Movement from Teaching Tolerance for a unique way to explore, celebrate and question the progress made since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

 

 

 

The Benefit of Helping Teens Find Their Purpose in Life

From KQED news, a story from Mind/Shift about a semester-long elective called the QUESTion Project designed to give adolescents a space in which to wrestle with big questions about who they are, where they are headed and what matters most in their journey through life. The project helps students answer the most difficult question: What is my purpose? What do I want to become in life? 

Welcome to Youth Activism 101

Welcome to Youth Activism 101, a place to find resources and ideas for empowering students and young people to make social change. We all know that youth activism is an essential part of any democratic and civil society, yet finding the resources to become active citizens can be difficult. This site will support youth, teachers and parents by providing tools, resources and a forum for cultivating youth-led social activism.

The blog was created as a tool for youth, teachers and parents to find valuable resources with a common theme: how can we make ideas and resources about activism and creating social change more accessible to youth? Tabs on the header will lead to book suggestions, podcasts, lesson ideas, and a detailed list of changemakers and organizations that youth might wish to contact to get involved. From building skateboards and skate parks in Afghanistan, to getting bicycles to girls so they can get to school safely, to working to eradicate child labor globally, there are so many opportunities for our youth to work with others to improve the state of our world today. Wander around the site, and if you have any suggestions, organizations that you would like to see featured, or successful lessons, please contact us.