Youth Taking Charge!

Placing Student Activism in Historical Context

In the weeks following the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, students from Parkland have met with government leaders in Tallahassee and Washington, DC, taken to social media in a call for school safety and new gun control legislation, and met with students from Chicago who have been advocating for these same measures for years. After that meeting, Parkland student activist Emma González observed, “Those who face gun violence on a level that we have only just glimpsed from our gated communities have never had their voices heard in their entire lives the way that we have in these few weeks alone.” In addition to speaking with lawmakers and the media, Parkland student activists are taking to social media to involve youth nationwide in the National School Walkout (#NationalSchoolWalkout) on March 14 at 10:00 a.m. for 17 minutes and the March for Our Lives (#AMarch4OurLives) on March 24 in Washington, DC.

Parkland student activists now join a long tradition of youth around the world who have embraced activism to confront racism, human rights abuses, oppressive government regimes, and lack of inclusion in school curricula, to name just a few of the issues for which young people have taken a stand.

To start the conversation, use the New York Times article 7 Times in History When Students Turned to Activism as a basis for helping your students place into historical context the efforts of Parkland survivors and youth activists across the country to raise awareness and call for change in school safety measures and gun legislation. Teachers need not endorse any particular viewpoint or policy proposal in the current debate over the availability of firearms to help students explore the power of young people to galvanize public opinion and political support behind issues they care about.

Prepare Students to Engage in Hard Conversations about Controversial Issues

If before teaching one or more of the activities listed below you would like ideas for how to foster civil discourse and create a classroom environment where all of your students can develop and voice their ideas, read Facing History Associate Program Director for Staff Development Laura Tavares’ article Nine Ways to Help Students Discuss Guns and Violence.

Learn How Students around the World Have Turned to Activism in the Past

Ask students to read Maggie Astor’s New York Times article 7 Times in History When Students Turned to Activism. Consider using the Read Aloud and Annotating and Paraphrasing Sources teaching strategies to help students interact with the text in meaningful ways. Then discuss the following questions in groups or as a class:

  • Why do you think the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have succeeded in sustaining a conversation about gun control where others have failed? Why is their approach effective? How do you think their identities have influenced how they are received?
  • What stories of student activism from the article stand out to you and why?
  • What role does nonviolent protest play in the functioning of a democracy?
  • Reflect on the following quotation from civil rights movement activist Franklin McCain: “Inevitably, people ask me, ‘What can I do?’ What kind of question is that? Look around you. Once you identify what you want to do, don’t ask for the masses to help you, because they won’t come.”1 How do you interpret this quotation? How do the youth in this article embody McCain’s philosophy? What issues in your school or community would you like to address? What steps might you take to address this issue?

Explore the History of Student Activism in Greater Depth

If you would like your students to research one of the historical moments in greater depth, divide the class into eight groups of 2-4 students. Assign each group one historical case study from the New York Times article, 7 Times in History When Students Turned to Activism. (For example, one group will read about the Greensboro sit-ins, another will read about the university uprisings in 1968, etc.) The eighth group will read the Los Angeles Times article, Parkland student activists should study the East L.A. Blowouts that launched a movement in California. After reading aloud the introduction of the New York Times article with the class, guide groups through the following steps.

Note: Students will need to use a computer or be provided with printed copies of at least one article linked to their historical event in the New York Times.

  1. Ask students to examine the image for their historical event and then do a verbal See, Think, Wonder with their group.
  2. Next instruct groups to read aloud the short section of 7 Times in History When Students Turned to Activism that corresponds with their historical event and discuss the following questions with their group members. Depending on their event, students might not be able to answer all of the questions.

    • Who were the young people involved in this event?
    • What did the young people want to change?
    • What motivated the young people to take action?
    • What strategies did the young people use to press for change?
    • How successful were their efforts? What factors might have contributed to their success or lack of success?
  3. Then ask groups to choose one of the articles linked in their section of the text to read and discuss, adding any new information and insights about the role students played in demanding change. Students might revisit the five questions (above) to guide their discussion.
  4. Finally, have each group present its historical event to the class and discuss the following questions as a whole group:

    • What stories of student activism from the article stood out to you and why?
    • Why do you think young people are often at the forefront of social movements? Why does youth participation matter?
    • What do the examples from the article suggest about the potential challenges and opportunities of young people participating in activism? What lessons do you draw from these examples?
    • What role does nonviolent protest play in the functioning of a democracy?
  5. Time allowing, ask students to respond in their journals or on a graffiti board to the following quotation from civil rights movement activist Franklin McCain: “Inevitably, people ask me, ‘What can I do?’ What kind of question is that? Look around you. Once you identify what you want to do, don’t ask for the masses to help you, because they won’t come.”2

Introduce Students to Another Example of Student Activism

To introduce your students to a lesser known but no less significant moment when students turned to activism, read the Los Angeles Times article Parkland student activists should study the East L.A. Blowouts that launched a movement in California and choose from the questions and activities above to discuss the article and draw connections between this historical event, the seven moments from the New York Times article, and the efforts of the Parkland students activists.

Citations

  • 1 : Quoted in Felicia R. Lee, “Demanding Lunch, Sparking Action,” New York Times, February 1, 2005.
  • 2 : Quoted in Felicia R. Lee, “Demanding Lunch, Sparking Action,” New York Times, February 1, 2005.

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