Students have protested a range of things at their public schools in recent years. Some have protested standardized tests, miserable building conditions — and now, some are acting in solidarity with players in the National Football League who are taking a knee during the national anthem to protest systemic racism in the United States.
Schools officials are reacting in different ways to the protests — some pressuring students not to do it, while others promise to protect their First Amendment rights — but this post suggests a reaction that is markedly different from most of what we see. What if schools actually encouraged and supported student engagement with challenging issues?
Below is a two-part argument for why schools should foster classroom discussions about the real world — no matter how uncomfortable — and prepare students to face vital issues and sound their voice. It was written by Jane Dimyan Ehrenfeld, a parent, educator and attorney who now serves as executive director of the Washington D.C.-based Center for Inspired Teaching, a nonprofit organization that trains teachers to use best practices and rethink their traditional roles in the classrooms.
She has been deeply involved in the D.C. education community, serving as chairwoman of the board of the Maya Angelou Public Charter School, and teaching in public schools in Prince George’s County. She also taught in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston. Her classroom was the focus of writer and educator Jonathan Kozol’s 2007 book, “Letters to a Young Teacher,” in which he reveals his views about the state of education. She has worked with him on advocacy projects related to public education.
By Jane Dimyan Ehrenfeld
Dozens of fourth graders marching up the Capitol steps, singing protest songs and waving handwritten call-to-action letters, is not something you witness very often. Maybe it should be.
My students in Oxon Hill, Md., had been studying the Civil Rights Movement. As part of the unit, students brainstormed the issue they felt was most pressing in their lives. After some debate, they settled on one: the lack of air conditioning at the school. Now this might not seem like a civil rights issue, but as this recent column in this space rightly shows, it is. In southern Maryland’s stifling heat, my students would suffer asthma attacks, nosebleeds, and overheating; teaching and learning in that environment was near impossible. So we scheduled a time to take a class picture with Al Wynn, who was then our U.S. representative, and sent out a press release and booked a bus to Washington.
I’m absolutely certain that when our representative set out to the Capitol steps to meet a group of fourth graders for a photo op, he was not expecting to hear us singing “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.” Nor was he expecting a crew from NBC News who came to capture our action. He handled the situation with aplomb though, listening seriously to the students as they expressed their concerns, and promising action. That night we were on the evening news. Two weeks later we had air conditioning.
I always saw it as a critical responsibility that I help my students understand the world around them, and we engaged with issues from air-conditioning to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Sometimes I got it right, sometimes I got it wrong.
But the only moments I truly regret were the times I tried to keep the real world — the world my students went home to every night — entirely out of the classroom. When we listen to students today, when we see them protest racial inequities by taking a knee during the national anthem, we are reminded that students need to learn to navigate our complex world. This does not only hold true when the issue, like air conditioning, is relatively straightforward. In fact, the more complex the topic, the more we need to make space in our classrooms and schools for active engagement and courageous conversations, and for teaching and learning that encompasses the world outside the school walls.
A couple of years ago I visited the classroom of an exceptional teacher named Michael Taylor, who was teaching high school history at McKinley Technology High School in the D.C. school district. He was masterfully leading a class on genocide, in which the students, acting as “advisers” to then President Obama on the situation in Darfur, each had to choose a stance from isolationism to full engagement and work in groups to develop arguments supporting their position.
In the middle of the discussion, one student asked why police killings of African Americans in the United States aren’t considered genocide. It was a powerful question, about a topic that no doubt felt personal to many — if not all — of the students in the class. Taylor handled the situation masterfully: He let the conversation spin off on this idea for a little while, then brought it back to Darfur, thus both allowing the students the space to talk about something important to them and also ensuring that his lesson could be completed.
What do we risk when we don’t let students grapple with issues of racism, poverty, and systemic inequities? Certainly, discomfort with having these discussions is not enough of a reason to avoid them.
Our responsibility as educators is to prepare children to thrive a world in which they are expected to understand and face these issues when the stakes are high. And this is not only true in high poverty, high trauma, highly segregated areas. It is just as true for privileged students; after all, these are the children who will inherit power and authority, and who will have many choices to make about how to wield both. From the student whose place in society has few privileges to the student whose place in society has infinite privileges, all of society benefits when schools teach the skills of civil discourse and democratic engagement.
Consider what can happen when teachers and schools don’t stop at the minimum threshold for allowing student free speech, but instead create spaces where students are encouraged and supported in their engagement with challenging issues that the world presents. Giving students this space to listen to each other and learn from diverse perspectives teaches them how to think, rather than doing the thinking for them. Giving students this space to think critically about social issues teaches them the skills needed to be change-makers, able to tackle complex problems and lead courageous conversations. These rewards will also unfold long past the time when students are in school. We can change the future if we start now.
When we lead students in courageous conversations and consider social justice issues in the classroom, we teach students how to lead courageous conversations of their own. In the next part of this piece, we explore how educators and community members can facilitate meaningful conversations with students and spark their passion for social justice.
“Thank you for bringing attention to this important topic!”
“I’m proud of you for standing up for your beliefs.”
“Tell me more about what makes you feel so passionately about this subject.”
Imagine if this were how schools responded to student protests, rather than by silencing students, changing the subject, or focusing on “time on task” to the exclusion of time spent meaningfully engaged in authentic learning experiences. While students have a constitutional right to protest, we need to push schools to go further than simply removing clearly unconstitutional barriers to student free speech. We need to support teachers in facilitating dialogues about social justice and systems of power, so that students learn how to discuss and unpack the issues they face in their daily lives.
I spoke with free-speech activist Mary Beth Tinker to learn about her experience as a student wearing a black armband to school in protest of the Vietnam War, an act that ultimately led to the 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District Supreme Court case. Tinker points out the missed opportunity when schools punish students for expressing themselves and standing up for their beliefs.
When a student protests, whether it’s wearing a black armband or taking the knee, “Is a good response … punitive? That doesn’t really help teach students how not to be racist. How are we going to respond? Punish and block speech? That doesn’t help even when it’s offensive speech.”
As Tinker argues, shutting students down, rather than tapping into their innate curiosity, stops teachers from helping students identify how they can comprehend their world, take action, and learn how to think.
Inspired Teaching’s Cosby Hunt explains that schools’ goals, whether they are geared toward test-prep or teaching students to be civic-minded, will determine the role of discussion in class. “I don’t know how many controversial discussions you need to have in an AP [Advanced Placement] class if your goal is to have the kids pass the test. But if your goal is something different, like preparing kids for citizenship, then you’re going to have to have different types of talks.”
Tinker asserts that the role of school stretches beyond test-prep and maintaining the status quo: “It’s not only the idea that schools have an obligation and a responsibility to create a space for protest, it’s also in their interest and it’s what they’re already promoting in civics.” But learning to be civic-minded critical thinkers isn’t only for civics class.
In Hunt’s class, Real World History, a credit-bearing course for D.C. high school public and public charter students, Hunt and his students discuss contemporary social justice issues spanning from race to mass incarceration to immigrant rights. Hunt also leads Interschool Seminars, in which students in the District lead Socratic dialogues with their peers about contemporary issues, and explore their beliefs and dispositions as they explore history.
Hunt recognizes that addressing social justice issues in the classroom requires trust and vulnerability, and the classroom needs to be a safe space for students. To create this environment, Hunt starts by sharing about himself. He curates a museum exhibit of significant artifacts from his life and gives students the chance to respectfully ask questions. Then each student does the same over the course of the first semester. Once the students know one another, they feel prepared to discuss real-world issues. Hunt said: “There are a lot of ways to get to a space where students can think about and talk about issues that are real to them; this is how we have done it. All of the paths lead back to some kind of relationship-building.”
Hunt’s work demonstrates that when students become comfortable with one another, they will eagerly delve into social justice issues — especially the issues that are playing out in their lives. Creating a safe space bounded by clear expectations gives students the freedom to thoughtfully participate in profound and courageous conversations. This type of discourse doesn’t simply encourage student action; it is action. It helps teach students that their voices matter, and that no matter what issues and challenges and questions they’re facing in their lives, civil discourse and respectful debate are powerful tools that they can use to truly change the world.
So when we think about the role of student action in schools, consider that merely allowing protest is not enough. The conversation we need to have goes beyond permitting student action; it is about pushing students to think about the importance of their actions, the power of their voices, and their ability — and responsibility — to stand up against the greatest injustices.
Our students grow up in a world with systemic racism, inequity, and oppression. These issues are a part of their daily lives, and we need to address them in classrooms and in schools. In order for students to thrive, we must teach them how to think, how to bravely question authority, and how to participate in and lead courageous conversations.