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Five Steps to Transform Student Protests into Learning Moments

I know high school and college educators who penalized students for participating in the “walkout” on March 14th. I also have teacher-friends who walked out with those students and then discussed the implications of such protests and demonstrations in a civics class. Both of these educators have reasons for their choices. Some gave suspensions or detentions to high school students, but privately supported those students. I do not fault any of these teachers or administrators for their leadership.

Today, however, I’d like to offer an idea on how we can transform a protest into much, much more.

Good educators always seize the day. They come to campus with a lesson plan, ready to teach. However, they also come with their antennas up—ready to leverage any teachable moment that surfaces serendipitously.

Today, we have such a moment.

Case in Point

Journalist Autumn A. Arnett reminds us of one school that seized the day we live in, and it has created a way for students to redeem it for credit. She writes:

At Governors State University in Illinois, for example, students complete a service learning project as part of their first-year experience in which they research an issue close to them, raise funds to support and plan and execute an awareness campaign to help generate additional support. Not only does this provide teachable moments in organizing, researching, fundraising, marketing and other skills that will serve the students well post-graduation, it allows students to be engaged around something they really care about, making the material relevant to them.”

Pause and reflect for a moment. We endorse these kinds of extra-curricular activities when they are OUR idea, but often we don’t endorse them when they come straight from the heart of students. I am not sure that’s always a good idea. If we want them to practice metacognition (meaning they do the thinking and own the project and outcomes), why wouldn’t we support it—as long as it meets educational criteria?

Ms. Arnett writes that the very research supporting extracurricular involvement seems to also suggest that “students who are passionate about something and organize movements would be more successful students and citizens. It’s the job of educators from K-16 to teach them how to organize, research their cause and demands, and exercise their civic rights. Whether or not those educators agree with the cause… is far less relevant than what students learn in the process.”

Talking Points to Seize the Day

If we’re to capitalize on today’s moment, I suggest we include the following steps:

1. Always talk about outcomes, not just inputs.

Often, students want to jump into protests, just because it’s different and looks fun. Some do it just to post pics on social media. They’re not passionate, they’re “fashionate” (it is fashionable). Be sure you discuss with students the hard work of such projects (protests or demonstrations) and the outcomes as well. Have they counted the cost? Do they have the people and resources? Is it worth it?

2. Guide them to consider the unintended consequences of any protest.

As I study movements in history (from the abolitionists in the 19th century to women’s rights and the civil rights movements in the 20th century), there are always unintended consequences. Usually students don’t recognize these until later. Make this part of the discussion: what good AND bad things could result from our actions?

3. Talk about the price tag, but don’t remove it.

Dr. Martin Luther King went to prison twice during the civil rights protests of the 1960s. Not once do I recall him screaming, “Hey, this is not supposed to happen.” He knew there was a price to pay for change. Students who want to protest should be reminded that sometimes they will get suspended or penalized for their actions. Life is full of equations—and the sooner they learn this, the better.

4. Study historical models of people who led change through civil disobedience.

To make today’s protests a teachable moment, research similar demonstrations from the past and talk about them. Women’s Suffrage and Voting Rights are both vivid examples of positive change that required hard work, in order to improve society. Protestors have to determine what would change the paradigms of citizens.

5. Help them progress toward a tangible, real life assignment.

Research has shown that when applicable materials are used in instruction (known in the K-12 space as culturally relevant pedagogy), students are more successful. Not only that, but it communicates to students that faculty members care about them and their interests, fostering a sense of community, which has also been proven to increase persistence. Not a bad outcome.

It appears that all signs indicate today’s demonstrations are not going to evaporate any time soon. These protests can either divide teachers and students or they can become an incredible teaching opportunity—one that reinforces the skills, grit and emotional intelligence students will need in adult life. Let’s do this.


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Five Steps to Transform Student Protests into Learning Moments