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Students write about NFL anthem protests: ‘Just because we are fourth graders doesn’t mean we don’t think about serious things’

San Francisco 49ers back-up quarterback Colin Kaepernick (C), San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Eli Harold (L), and San Francisco 49ers free safety Eric Reid (R) take a knee during the U.S. national anthem before the NFL game between the Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, on Oct. 2, 2016. (EPA/JOHN G MABANGLO)

We heard a lot during the National Football League regular season about players who kneeled during the national anthem to protest killings of unarmed blacks by police officials as well as racism in America — but the people we heard from were adults (including President Trump, who attacked the protesters). Missing from much of the discussion was the voice of kids to whom many of these protesting NFL players are heroes.

Below is an essay that was written collectively by a class of fourth-grade students at  Friends Seminary in New York City.

The essay was facilitated by Lauren Sandler of the OpEd Project, an effort to increase the range of voices and quality of ideas in the public square. Sandler, whose daughter attends Friends Seminary, said she used the same group Op-Ed exercise with the fourth graders as she has used with OpEd Project faculty fellows at Yale and Columbia universities — and the kids did at least as well!

“What this class has written gets to the heart of why these protests matter so much: the very issues about what it means to take a stand in public for justice in America,” Sandler said.

Father and son football referees in anthem protest resign

This is how the class worked together to write it, as described by Sandler:

Students in the class decided together that they wanted to write an  Op-Ed about the NFL protests. They’d done some reading—some Op-Eds, some news stories. I came into to the class with some flip chart pages, and we spent an hour brainstorming their argument. Every kid in the class said what they thought about the protests, and I wrote their thoughts on one series of pages. Where they had examples to back up their thoughts, I wrote those under evidence. When someone offered a perspective outside of the main thrust of the classes’ thinking, we discussed whether it should be on the ‘To Be Sure; page. I sent them home with the assignment to gather evidence on either: poll data, the Constitution (which they’re studying), clarifications about certain games they’d referenced, veterans’ testimony, and previous sports protests. That night I typed up everything at home, cut some things that felt extraneous or reparative, and reordered things a bit.
Later that week I came into class with flip pages for the lede, evidence and the conclusion. We talked about what would grab the reader (that they’re fourth graders) and why anyone should listen to them….Then we went around to present evidence, and I wrote up their language there, and asked them to explicitly connect their evidence to what they had to say. Then we talked about the possibility of their Quaker framing as a conclusion, and they brainstormed some language, which I scribed. That night, I typed up their language and organized it with the earlier writing. Then I sent the draft to the teacher who read it aloud to the class to see if they had any amendments, second thoughts, etc. Each time a student heard his or her language, they’d stand up. And they all signed on and felt extremely proud.


And here’s the oped written by the class:

We’re a fourth-grade class with something to say about the NFL protests. Why would you listen to a bunch of fourth graders? Well, we’re interested in sports — maybe even more than lots of grownups. We have stacks of football cards on the sharing shelf in our classroom. We know all about the stats, the teams, the players. Plus, the players protesting are role models to a lot of children like us; we look up to them and really care about what they’re doing. We believe that different perspectives matter, and that you might want to hear ours. (Just because we are fourth graders doesn’t mean we don’t think about serious things. We like politics and football.)
There’s a reason sports players are heroes. They help us learn who we want to be. And not just how they play the game. Or, it’s both: Like how on September 1, 2016, just a week after he began his protest, Colin Kaepernick made one of his best touchdowns after kneeling. It gave his touchdown even more power. People could be proud of him for both his touchdown and for acting against racism — two things he’s done as a role model. Both were done with confidence, and with bravery. There’s a burst of pride when you see a touchdown by a player who has kneeled. It’s different. It changes the game. It can make you want to be more like that player.
The majority of Americans support these players. But you know what? Even more younger people than older people do. We believe this is because they are inspiring us by showing us their passion, and fighting for what’s right.
Playing football is their job. We know people believe — and some of us agree with them — that they were hired to play, and if they want to stand up for themselves they can get another job. Or they could use the money they earn to raise awareness in another way. But when they kneel on television, everyone sees it. It’s one thing to just talk about how the country should be, it’s another thing to take an action in front of millions of people on TV, to get the message out. Some people say they just want to watch a good game, not a protest, but we believe should use their fame for a good cause.
The players are standing up — or kneeling down — to bring awareness to the problem of how African-Americans are treated in this country. Some police are not treating black people right — and there’s a long history to this. And it’s still happening now. To famous athletes, too. Like recently when James Blake was handcuffed, slammed to a Manhattan street, and held for 15 minutes by a white policeman who thought he was a robber. It was mistaken identity, and the first cop didn’t even apologize. So, this is about the community of black players, and they should get to protest it. But also black people — and other people who aren’t black, because this is about our whole country, and who has rights.
Football players are expressing themselves through the First Amendment’s protection of the freedom of speech. They’re saying something with their bodies, whether they’re kneeling or locking arms.
They have the right to protest — but they’re still hurting some people’s feelings, like the veterans who fought for their freedom. Some veterans say the protests are disrespecting them and all their hard work. Other veterans say the players are just standing up for innocent lives. Veterans fought for the flag, but the flag is just a symbol of our country of freedom. And the flag doesn’t protect our freedom: the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are what protect our freedom. Just like veterans fought for freedom with dignity and pride, players are fighting for the same thing, also with dignity and pride.
Still, the players should have said to the military, you say this is offensive to you, but will you stand with me? They should have joined together with veterans and held a rally to really show that their protest isn’t against the military, it’s about police killing and hurting innocent black people, it’s about racism in our country.
There’s something else you might want to know about the fourth graders writing this: We are a class in a Quaker School. That means we think a lot about core Quaker principles, like integrity and equality. We also think about peace and believe we can make an impact through peace. These players are protesting violence in a nonviolent way, with integrity, for equality. Their protest is what they’re doing for our country.
They’re not trying to hurt the flag, they’re just standing for what they believe in. They have to step up. We’re watching them.
They are standing up by kneeling down.