Supporting Student Activism: Tips for Teachers and Parents
From making TikToK and YouTube videos to creating podcasts and SnapChat stories, today’s youth draw on humor and pop culture to write their stories into existence through social media. And beyond the details of their own lives, they often use their platforms to raise awareness for issues like climate change, gun control, and sexual assault.
Sharing stories through social media and engaging online are the first steps toward fostering civic exchanges—but to create broad social change, students must also participate in traditional civic activities such as voting and getting involved in community organizations.
Creating justice and equity in today’s oppressive world requires more than mere participation. It requires active, purposeful, and critical action.
Historically, student-led protests—like the anti-apartheid Soweto Uprising of 1976 and Tiananmen Square in 1989—have been instrumental in their ability to effect real social change. This tradition has continued as students have organized events to raise awareness for gun control, racism and inequality, and faith and politics.
One prominent example is the effort by student activists to combat gun violence. A year after 17 people were killed in a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the US continues to suffer more school shootings—on average, one every 12 days. Student activists continue to voice their concerns through protests, such as the demonstration by hundreds of students in Washington on March 14 to put a spotlight on federal legislation that would require background checks for firearm sales.
Perhaps the largest coordinated protest effort by students so far this year surrounds climate change. On March 15, student activists in more than 100 countries walked out of school in a global climate strike to raise awareness for climate change. And in the months since, students in the UK, India, Turkey, Finland, and France have participated in additional climate change protests.
Sir David Attenborough, who hosts a new BBC documentary on climate change, was asked by The Washington Post about these strikes led by young people and what he sees as a member of an older generation. “I mean, strikes are a way of expressing a strong feeling that you have, but they don’t solve it,” he responded. “You don’t solve anything by striking. But you do change opinion, and you do change politicians’ opinions. And that’s why strikes are worthwhile.”
Educators and parents can support students in this worthwhile pursuit—changing opinions, and ultimately, bringing about institutional change—by helping them focus their energy and connecting them with levers of power.
Here are some ways you can help:
• Facilitate discussions about real-world issues at home and in the classroom. Ask students what concerns them in their own communities. Invite them to investigate the issue and encourage students to explain why they believe change is necessary.
• Help students understand and develop a sense of their own agency. Assist students in framing their community concerns as an issue that they can work to solve.
• Together, review the ways that other young people use social media as an avenue for activism. Think aloud about the strategies that the activists use to effect change. Allow the students to identify the ways that other young people use humor, images, memes, hashtags, and video to create a community of activists and tell the stories of their causes.
• Connect students with other people and institutions that can help make change. Encourage students to seek out local community organizations that work for justice. Teach students tactics for making change in a democracy, including traditional paths to change (like voting, calling their congressperson or city councilperson) as well as tactics often harnessed by disempowered or disenfranchised groups (like boycotts, sit-ins, and leveraging social media to share their story).
• Teach and model tools for critical thinking, thoughtful dialogue, and persuasive communication. Use lateral reading to check the veracity of media sources.
• Communicate with students to make sure they share their plans ahead of time.
• Protests should be well organized and not come as a surprise.
• Ensure all students are treated equally regardless of viewpoint. It’s okay to defend a student’s right to protest without taking a side, and it’s imperative that adults do not condone bullying or allow the creation of a hostile environment for students with opposing views.
Dr. Marie K. Heath is an assistant professor in the Master’s in Educational Technology program in Loyola University Maryland’s School of Education.