Why We Must Elevate Voice & Choice
The Curricular Implications of Student-Led Movements.
Nearly every time I eat spinach in front of my mom, she expresses surprise.
Some context: I am thirty years old. My mom and I are close. Spinach has been a staple of my diet for the last decade. For the two decades before that, I wouldn’t let spinach get within a mile of my plate.
It’s not that my mom doesn’t know my eating habits, or me, and it’s not that my mom isn’t observant. What it comes down to is this: to my mom, I will always be her child – and her child did not eat spinach.
That feeling I get – a complex mixture of slight irritation, followed immediately by deep sympathy – every time my mom asks, “You eat spinach?” is the best analog I have for describing how I’ve felt for the last two weeks as I’ve watched coverage of the student-led movement coming out of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. There’s a kind of awe and shock that permeates articles and TV spots about the remarkable young people who have led the nation in a chorus of outcries against politicians who have been ineffective in fighting the scourge of gun violence that has invaded our schools.
“Look at them,” journalists seem to say, “Imagine teenagers – doing something!”
It is as though the entire country is my mom, looking at me through the single lens of mother and child. These teenagers, similarly, are being viewed through a single lens – the lens people apply to teenagers – one that dictates that they are somehow unprepared to have well informed opinions, clearly stated. Neither my mom, nor the nation at large should be blamed for not knowing what they could not have possibly known before, but now the nation is learning.
To be clear: I, too, am impressed by Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, Cameron Kasky and their classmates – it’s just that I’m not shocked. I am not shocked that students are mobilizing. I am not shocked that they are speaking out. I am certainly not shocked that they are doing these things well. I will not be shocked when change is effected at their behest.
I don’t quite know what non-teachers see when they look at teenagers – it would be impossible for me to know because I have spent my entire career teaching. I know that they are passionate, and that they can be moved to action when something strikes them as unfair or unjust. I know, too, that they are compassionate, and that they feel things deeply. I know that I feel safe with the future in their hands.
Consider this: the seniors at my high school walked out of class, walked into the superintendent’s office, and would not leave until they were granted a conversation with administrators over parking. There aren’t enough spaces. Students were ticketed for parking improperly. They found the situation unfair. When the school could not give them satisfactory solutions – there’s simply not enough space for the number of cars – they went to the mayor and council. They spoke during the public comment period. They prepared statements, they offered alternatives, and they pled their case.
We found more spaces for them.
Not enough, but some. The students asked for change, and then implored, and then insisted. That’s how they got what they needed: by organizing and insisting and using every tool available to the citizens of our nation. If my students could be moved to begin an organized movement over parking spaces, it is hardly surprising that students in Parkland, Florida are demanding a national conversation when fourteen of their classmates and three of their teachers were gunned down in front of them.
For teachers, all of this has curricular implications – because, of course it does. We talk a lot about “student voice and choice”, a phrase that has officially risen to the status of “educational buzzword” in recent years. The danger with these buzzwords is that they turn into platitudes – nice ideas, things we all say we do, but that are nebulous, and hard to pin down, and, when pressed, are difficult to provide examples of in our practice.
What the students in Parkland should be reminding us of is the utter necessity – the duty that we have as educators – of not allowing that to happen. We are supposed to be preparing our students for the “real world,” but we must remember that they are already living in it. That Emma, and David and Cameron have been so successful is not only a credit to them and to teenagers more broadly, but quite obviously to their teachers – something Emma herself acknowledged in her now famous, “We call BS” speech – who gave them the confidence, and the skills to give voice to their movement. Their teachers have made them feel that their opinions and voices matter, and have let them know that young people are worthy of being heard.
We can and we must allow our students not only to participate in, but to chart their own courses in our classrooms. Their voices must be listened to, and the choices we offer must be meaningful.
If you are already doing it, keep going. Embed student agency more deeply into your day-to-day practice. And, if you’re having trouble getting started, find help. Start by asking the kids in your class.
Shari Krapels is a high school English teacher in New Jersey, and a member of ASCD’s Emerging Leaders Class of 2017. Connect with Shari on Twitter at @mrs_krapels.