Getting into Some Good Trouble: Student Activism and Well-Being
This week began with the joy that accompanies the final days of a school year for both students and teachers: those sweet series of “lasts” and those dreamy lists about the future: summer activities like book stacks, Netflix queues, travel adventures, professional development opportunities, camp journeys, course planning, and lots and lots of sleep. Today, however, we are grieving. Again. Maybe because I am sleep-deprived from two years of pandemic teaching or maybe because I am just getting old or maybe because I have elementary-age children or maybe, really, because I have hit my wall: I am angry. Pissed. Undone. I am a classic enneagram 9—the peacemaker—and today that doesn’t feel like the right fit. How do I make peace with the fact that there have been nearly 300 school shootings since I began teaching at my current high school a little over a decade ago? Where do I seek compromise? Middle ground? What are the next steps?
Thankfully, I am always surrounded by students, young people who are curious, empathetic, and who have a deeply innate desire to serve their communities. As a teacher, I have spaces where, alongside my students, I can explore and interrogate my world: seeking answers, understanding, and, ultimately, peace, shepherded by a wee bit of hope.
One of those spaces of exploration has been a new course: a co-taught, half-English, half-History semester course on U.S. Protest Culture, imagined into life by my Social Studies colleague and dear friend Olivia Ide. We have been talking about sharing the story of this course for several months, and in fact Olivia drafted a version of this article in early April. But because of well, teaching, it sat in a lonely Word document. But now, with a little more free time and a whole lot of motivation, we are ready to share.
What follows is the story of our U.S. Protest course: its origins, its structure, and its purpose. Storytelling is one of the many ways we can process grief, and the telling of this story—how my activist-minded friend cajoled me into this endeavor—is one that has begun to settle our minds and spirits because in writing this story, we had to reflect on those students who inspire us every day with their kindness, their empathy, and their genuine desire to live in a better world. It is because of them that we teach. It is because of them that we work each day to imagine the spaces necessary to develop their voices. It is because of them that we can move forward.
The Class: Origins and Structure by Olivia
The creation of Act, Advocate, Question, Challenge: U.S. Protest Culture has been several years in the making. A considerable influence on how I teach comes from what I was scared of doing in high school and college: writing, creating a research question, research in general, handling failure, etc. How do I make these parts of learning less scary for my students? Similarly, my fear and feelings of utter helplessness as a teen in the face of current events motivate me today to find ways to support and create pathways for my students to navigate the world—to be empowered to change it. Some additional background in the path to the class coming to fruition was in the wake of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School four years ago; my students wondered if they could participate in the nationwide walkout protesting the lack of regulations to prevent such horrors. And if they couldn’t, how could they voice and process their fear and frustration? I was struck by their innocence of wanting someone to say, “It is OK to push back and demand change,” and maybe a more profound understanding that part of protest is not asking for approval for your actions.
My initial response to their questioning was to create the Afternoons of Activism, regular gatherings after school designed to clarify and support students demanding change at the ballot box. At these meetings, I answered questions like: How do I register to vote? Where do I find out who is running and what they stand for? Where do I go to vote, and what do I do once I get there? This approach had limited success, but from these meetings, I was able to tap into a larger network of teachers at my school who also wanted to help students with these questions. The school now provides a variety of opportunities to register students to vote and learn about why their vote matters.
But what really intrigued me was the possibility of a class that helped students find their own paths to activism. Understanding what this protest class could look like in practice became clearer in my mind after attending a 2019 Gilder Lehrman summer seminar on U.S. Protest Culture taught by John Stauffer. This course was hands down one of the best I have ever taken. Professor Stauffer balanced his considerable knowledge of the topic with a genuine interest and curiosity in what his students brought to the discussion. Discussions included how to navigate differing opinions, specifically when one side is calling for continuing with the status quo or arguing for oppression and exclusion. The key difference–which is good to keep in mind in a time of continual tragedies like mass shootings–is protest is rooted in empathy and equality and is at odds with anything that suppresses either. In a call for change, how are we demonstrating and engendering empathy for the issue and its victims? How are we seeking to expand equality?
Delving into key protest texts in American history like Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Slave Is the 4th of July?” brought the energy and emotion of 1776 and 1852 into the present. There are many lessons to be learned from Paine: how he presents his arguments as common sense and conveys them in accessible language to help his reader understand the urgency of the issue. Even 170 years later Douglass’s power as a writer and orator come through, giving me goosebumps and pushing me to action on any number of issues. The way he puts his audience at ease only to cut them down with unvarnished anger and truth but builds them back up with hope is masterful. Megan and I ask our students what motivates them to act–kind cajoling or anger? I definitely fall into the anger camp probably because of Douglass’s skill. He is not spewing lies and insults like many in today’s media but laying out the facts and their impact without apology so the only options are to be on the side of the oppressor or to take action for change.
We hope by exposing the students to a variety of mediums and styles that they find one that fits their needs and the issues they care about.
The Class Details by Olivia and Megan
Our U.S. Protest course structure has two parallel paths – one: as a whole class, our students explore different themes in American protest, beginning with the American revolution and moving in a loose chronological fashion into abolition, labor and class, women’s rights, the environment, civil rights, etc. and in our exploration of each area, we focus on a medium of protest: the pamphlet, speeches, photography, poetry, installation art, sit-ins, walkouts, marches, etc. The second path asks students to choose an issue important to them, one where they want to advocate for change.
For each unit, our students try the medium of protest that the unit focuses on for their own topic. For example, a student interested in sexual harassment will spend the semester reading articles about this issue and researching the advocacy work connected to it; for our first unit, they will write a pamphlet about sexual harassment, reflecting the direct, accessible language of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. Then, after studying the speeches of powerful abolitionist rhetors like Frederick Douglass, they try their hand at a speech on their issue. We then move into photography as a mode of protest and how labor and class advocates like Jacob Riis, Lewis Hines, and Dorothea Lange used it as their platform; students, too, experiment with ways photographs might inspire their audiences to act on behalf of their issue.
As we shift into the women’s movement, we turn to poetry, reading a portion of Audrey Lorde’s “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” a beautiful essay that reminds us that “for women, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of [their] existence. . . . Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.” As a class, we “speed date” a wide variety of feminist poets and their poems, getting to know how form and content work together to “name the nameless” and compel us to act: Marge Piercy, Amanda Gorman, Lucille Clifton, Maya Angelou, Sarah Kay, Amanda Lovelace, to name only a few. At our school, we are lucky to have a Visual Arts department with some stellar teachers, so, when we begin our environmental unit with a focus on installation art, our students are gifted with an interactive lecture on contemporary installation art by Jocelyn Holmes, the chair of the department. She walks them through pieces like Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, Kara Walker’s The Katastwóf Karavan, and Lorenzo Quinn’s Support, showing them the ways in which they can purposefully use space and materials to communicate truths about their issue.
For the penultimate assignment, we ask students to theoretically design a protest: sit-in, rally, march, boycott, etc. They have to move through this process as if their protest were to actually happen: completing city forms, reaching out to school administration, etc. When they present to the class, And finally, for our final project, students select the medium of their choice—one that we have already done or a new one: a social media campaign, a song, another poem, another photography installation, a series of stickers, buttons, etc.
The purpose behind this pedagogy is that there are many ways to advocate for change, and we want our students to determine which methods work or don’t work for them. What are their skills? What are their gifts? The end goal is to empower our students to demand and advocate for change, perhaps relying on the medium most impactful to them, and to build confidence in their voices. They don’t have to wait to be a grown-up to create meaningful change.
Activism and Well-Being by Megan
I have always intuitively believed that being socially aware and actively engaged likely had mental and emotional health benefits. Like Olivia, I too was motivated by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shootings to make changes in my English curriculum, changes that I document in “Lifting Her Voice.” In brief, I, with the help of my English colleagues, revamped a research unit into one that builds student voice and empathy on contemporary issues in the American public conversation. What I often share with my U.S. literature students during our reading of the Declaration of Independence is that the U.S. founders’ understanding of the phrase “pursuit of happiness” was one rooted in a definition of happiness from which we have perhaps strayed. For these men, happiness had a close relationship with the Aristotelian concept of eudaemonia: eu (good) and daimon (spirit). In short, a happy life was a purpose-filled life. And a purpose-filled life is, as I have written, “one that is not harried, anxious, or persistently uncertain. It is also not one rooted in a superficial experience of happiness but rather in the development of a sustainable life that cultivates trust in our own agency, even in the face of a seemingly chaotic world beset by a pandemic and marked by both peaceful protests and violent insurrections.” In other words, actively seeking change does a body good.
Research, though, supports this intuition about the powers of activism, especially for young people. A January 2018 article in the research journal Child Development found a correlation between well-being and activist work. In school psychologist Lisa Damour’s analysis of this research she notes, “Remarkably, [researchers] found that civic activity linked to better academic and financial outcomes regardless of early school performance and parental education levels, two factors that usually drive later success.” When students, then, are presented with opportunities to be civically engaged through volunteer work and/or activism, they build a sense of personal agency in conjunction with a stronger sense of community. Through participation in activism, they can look around and see that they are not isolated in their anger or desire for change–and they can recognize that they too have a role in this process.
Concluding Thoughts by Olivia and Megan
It is funny, huh? How violence may beget violence but it can also be a pathway to change, growth, progress. And so it has been with the curriculum of many of our colleagues: in the face of tragedy, we as teachers grieve for our students and for our communities, but we also have the opportunity to channel that grief, that fear, that anxiety into healthy, productive action.
On NPR’s afternoon drivetime show All Things Considered this week, journalist Sacha Pfeiffer spoke with Jaclyn Corin, a Parkland shooting survivor and co-founder of March for Our Lives about her response to the Uvalde attack. In response to Pfeiffer’s question about how Corin decided to turn her experience into activism, Corin reflects, “In this cycle of mass gun violence, people are interested in hearing about it for a couple of days to a couple of weeks after it happens and then people forget. And that’s why I knew I had to jump in immediately in my advocacy.” She adds that she doesn’t feel a sense of futility because she is motivated by the local changes that have occurred as a result of her work, and she firmly believes that change can happen: “It is just a matter of time.”
Olivia Ide is in her 12th year teaching at an all-girls independent school in Dallas. She currently teaches AP United States History and co-teaches U.S. Protest Culture. Before coming to Texas, Olivia coached rowing in Boston and briefly lived in Italy. She has a bachelor’s in Architectural Studies and a Master’s of Humanities with a concentration in History. Inspired by her dad’s example as a teacher, she seeks to empower her students with knowledge, engender a love of learning, and be a perpetual student herself. When she is not teaching, Olivia is chasing after her young children, trying to start running again, and dreaming up travels abroad.
Megan Griffin is a found poet who finds herself poetically searching.