Yesterday morning, I stood outside for 17 minutes. Per the instructions of my administration to maintain the opportunity for all students to learn without interruption should they choose, after a moment of silence in our school for the victims of the Parkland shooting, if students chose to participate in the national walkout, teachers were to follow only if every student in his/her class left the building. After a few seconds of looking around at one another, one by one my sophomores stood up and filed quietly out of the room.
Outside, a small group of students had prepared statements to lead the several hundred students gathered in the chilly March sunshine through 17 minutes of reflection, support, and silence. The group was large, diverse, respectful, and unified, if not in purpose (likely a few students were carried out more by curiosity than conviction), then in the experience itself. A hush I’m not used to experiencing in the company of several hundred high school students quickly fell on the chilly March morning and the group stood in near silence, listening to their peers eloquently unite the crowd in peaceful purpose.
Teaching in time when I feel that I must often couch statements with a reminder that logic and facts should not be considered political, I must again come to you today and suggest that the overwhelming pride I felt in the students gathered in front of our school yesterday, and at the student-led debrief/discussion held during our resource period afterwards, had nothing to do with the politics of their statements. It has everything to do with the way I saw students, our students, standing together in support of one another to promote safety, unity, and empathy, not only for our schools but for our communities.
Several weeks ago, after the tragedy unfolded at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, 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, process such violence and uncertainty as a constant shadow to their educations. Little did I know that our school too would need to process an alleged threat to safety, a school day where several hundred students stayed home out of fear, social media-fed rumors of possible violence, and countless discussions with students who said time after time that even though this particular brand of violence has been taking place for the entirety of their educations, they didn’t know what to do. They didn’t know how to feel. They didn’t know how to cope.
They just want it to stop.
I looked at their faces and saw fear, anger, and pain that frankly frightened me, and for the millionth time this year, I knew I needed to figure out what we could do.
Discussion, writing, reflecting, sharing, and hugging was working, but much like this past month, something felt different.
These kids needed to DO something.
My colleague Sarah and I decided to have our AP Language students write letters to their representatives, expressing their researched opinions on how to end the violence of mass shootings. Their arguments would be their own, bolstered by research to better understand the issue, their own positions, and their audience.
We were clear with students from the very beginning that this was not an assignment in support of any particular political agenda. Instead, it was an exercise in better understanding our preconceived ideas and more deeply, and diplomatically, developing our rationale for how to bring about change As long as their research came from credible sources, students could argue for changes to gun laws, support of the 2nd amendment, mental health considerations, school security, or any other defensible position to end mass gun violence. They could write to state or local representatives, as long as they researched that representatives current position on related issues, providing students with key insights to audience consideration we’ve previously only talked about or tried to emulate through blogging.
Supported with ideas from Kelly Gallagher’s incredible argument unit published over the course of 12 days on his personal blog, Sarah and I helped students through pointed research to build letters rich in ethos, persuasive argument, and pathos that could only be provided by the very students whose passions for activism have been flamed because they are so heavily and personally burdened with the threat of this particular brand of violence.
Over the course of the past two weeks, I have:
- Seen students come in more for help/feedback with this assignment than any other throughout the year. When I asked a student after school yesterday, what had him so dedicated to crafting this particular summative he said, “Because my school work matters, but this assignment is going outside of the school. It matters outside of these walls.”
- Watched young people who before could not identify who their state or federal representatives even are, research these people and their positions on key issues, and write directly in response to those issues in order to argue to an authentic audience.
- Helped students channel their feelings of helplessness into purpose, simply by picking up a pen.
What these kids have produced is incredible. I am so proud of the way they have positively focused their overwhelming emotions into powerfully convincing letters to the men and women with means and opportunity to make changes to protect our students from further disaster.
Here are a few excerpts from letters that have started rolling in. In the coming days, we will get the letters printed, addressed, and mailed to Madison and Washington.
I am a firm believer that addressing issues in a constructive manner is a significant step toward positive change. We owe it to our students to provide them with, encourage them around, and support their efforts in making positive changes in their own communities. Though unequivocally necessary as a foundation to an informed electorate, we will not raise the citizens this nation so desperately needs on standards, skills, and summative assessments alone. A new reality is built on the combined knowledge and passions of the humans willing to take risks in support of that reality.
I will certainly never stop teaching my students that deconstructing a prompt is the best way to dig into a timed writing task or that commas don’t occur only where you would naturally take a breath, but I will also never stop supporting them in all they have to teach to us. Our students deserve our help in amplifying their voices to bring about a better world. In this, our jobs have never been so important.
Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum.