Everyday Activism: Enacting Change in Your Classroom

I’ve waged a war between sadness and hope this week in my teaching life. Sadness that yet again, another mass shooter took the lives of students and teachers. Hope that this time, the response would be different.

This is the first mass shooting I’ve followed news coverage of since becoming a mother, and accordingly, my sadness is magnified a thousandfold. I cannot imagine losing one of my precious children; I could imagine it even less before I had them.

But, my hope is greater after this tragedy, too. I’ve been so warmed by stories of students who survived the shooting mobilizing to enact change, like this one from NPR. “This kind of activism feels really different, compared with past mass shootings,” says journalist Brian Mann.

These passionate students-turned-survivors have spurred me toward activism, too. I don’t think there’s a simple solution to this complex, multilayered problem–and I don’t think our national conversation should attempt to polarize the issues of gun control and mental illness. I don’t know the right way to deal with either of those issues, but I do know a place where we, as teachers, can begin to enact change.

That place is in our classrooms, where students like Nikolas Cruz can sometimes go unseen for so long that they transform from lonely teenagers to angry gunmen before our eyes.

Our classrooms, where so often we have students so busy working toward meeting standards that they barely have time to meet our eyes, or one another’s.

Our classrooms, where, yes, great learning happens–but where teen realities like bullying, rejection, and failure happen, too.

Are you seeing these layers to your students’ identities? Seeing beyond who they are as readers and writers, and into who they are as friends, sons, daughters, boyfriends, and girlfriends? Who they are as social beings outside our classrooms?

We must see our students this way. We must make every effort to foster conditions of inclusivity, to teach in culturally responsive ways, to, simply, see our students as people and not just learners. When we do, we transform from spectators to activists.

Desiring to build community is no longer just a nice goal to have in addition to covering content standards. The ramifications of leaving students alienated are becoming more and more significant.

Inclusivity is no longer just a buzzword–it has become a matter of life and death.

Our teens are unhappier than ever, bombarded by apps that promise connection but in reality deliver isolation. They feel so lonely that they are spurred toward violence–toward themselves or others–in alarmingly increasing numbers. Nikolas Cruz is just the most visible product of this horrific trend.

There is so much we can do to see our students, to help them feel seen. Glennon Doyle writes here about a way her son’s teacher thoughtfully fosters inclusivity and interaction in her classroom by “breaking the codes of disconnection” she unravels when she really sees her students.


I must have felt that message keenly when I planned my classes this week, since I packed in as many small-group or partner talk- and feedback-filled activities I could. My students wrote to one another–about having patience with and faith in our students–in their notebooks. They got into groups to talk about ways to individualize curriculum, and created anchor charts with their takeaways. They formed different groups to devise a list of creative alternatives to traditional tests, so every student could feel successful, on a Google doc.

My students also wrote their autobiographies this week, and workshopped them with a partner they don’t usually talk to. As I scanned through their comments on one another’s work, I was filled with joy:

“This makes my heart happy!” one student wrote in her response to a classmate’s heartfelt description of his fiancee.

“I feel sorry for anyone who will be Alex’s colleague–in a good way! She’ll be one of the best teachers at her school and will push her colleagues to be the best that they can be.”

“I’d love to work with a teacher like you.”

I watched my students read their peers’ comments, and little smiles stole over their faces.

A huge, happy grin stole over mine.

In response to violence, I drew my students closer–to one another, to our subject, to me. I wanted them to have the chance to see one another, to feel seen, and for me to see them more clearly as people and not just students. Workshops like these bring students together. They work, and if you’re skeptical, here are five reasons you’re wrong. When we teach into our students’ needs–both academic and personal–we make a difference. We enact change–every day.

And maybe, we save lives.

Please comment and share ways you help your students see one another and feel seen. We’d love to know how you do this important work.

Shana Karnes loves her work with preservice teachers at West Virginia University, with practicing teachers through the National Writing Project at WVU, and with her amazing thinking partners here at Three Teachers Talk. She is hopeful that this generation of students and teachers will be better, kinder, more open–and she will never stop trying to make that hope a reality. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.


6 thoughts on “Everyday Activism: Enacting Change in Your Classroom

  1. […] walkouts on the 17th (both topics dealt with beautifully by Lisa Dennis here and Shana Karnes here) and wanting to give our own students a place to both discuss current events and practice their […]


  2. […] I was compelled to write about how we can help our students (Shana too wrote beautifully about positive activism in the classroom), those young people who were not even alive when the shooting took place at Columbine in 1999, […]


  3. mrsmendoza3 February 25, 2018 at 4:11 pm Reply

    I love this. Getting to the “why does this matter?’ part of each lesson is so essential no matter the grade level. Like you, I feel that the most important part of our job is teaching kids how to navigate through life’s difficult situations. We don’t have to solve everything in one class period, but the skills they build in our classrooms will transcend into their daily lives. Exposure to multiple perspectives helps students become TRULY educated.


  4. mrsturnerblog February 21, 2018 at 7:29 pm Reply

    I love this. I’ve been saying that we need to do more to help people really SEE each other. Yes, there are some laws and things that need to be changed, but our job as teachers is to guide students to see each other—to work to keep people from being marginalized or feeling isolated. I think that’s the only way that can can stop sad or angry from becoming violent.


  5. Julie Nariman February 21, 2018 at 8:38 am Reply

    This piece is so inspiring and takes the conversation to the classroom, the place where kids can start to silently feel alienated if we don’t pay attention. We started a peer tutoring program at our school to support our struggling students, but as my school is a high school for newcomer English Language Learners, we also made an effort to match up kids from different cultures who normally might not collaborate. It made a difference in our school tone and kids started to care about one another more. Thanks for this piece, your description of your classroom is inspiring.


  6. kseed03 February 21, 2018 at 7:38 am Reply

    This! I love that in our work we can easily bring change in our own classrooms while we fight for change outside of it. When we get back from winter break, I want to make it my goal to include more opportunities for students to just write in their notebooks (to get whatever is on their mind into paper), get them talking to others (especially with people they haven’t had a chance to work with) and most importantly, for me to take more of those small moments to connect more deeply with my students (because that is the change I can make in my own room with my students).


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