This unit, developed in collaboration with the Democratic Knowledge Project at Harvard University, focuses on two cases of student activism: the 1963 Chicago Public Schools Boycott and the movement against gun violence launched by Parkland high school students in 2018.
The two cases differ in terms of social and historical context, organization and strategy, and the consequences faced by student participants. Parkland students’ activism greatly benefited from the use of social media, marking a new high point for young people’s civic-political participation in the digital age. The Chicago school boycott, relatively less well known and of a different time, also reveals critical elements of young people’s civic-political participation.
Both cases offer students the opportunity to reflect on and gain insight into their own civic participation in the world today. When examining each, we can ask, for example: What did the students want to achieve? What were the risks? Was it worth it? What counts as success? And what can we learn from their example?
The following essential questions provide a framework for exploring this unit’s main ideas and themes:
How can young people change the world?
How can we use digital media effectively and safely when we "choose to participate?"
This unit supports a one week exploration of democracy and civic engagement. It includes:
Videos, readings, and handouts that correspond with activities
The digital age has given rise to dramatic changes in political practices and media consumption. Social networks and partisan websites serve increasingly as the central place for people to get news and express their political beliefs. These also operate as platforms for individuals and groups to raise funds, mobilize others to vote, protest, and work on public issues. Young people, in particular, are among those who are most affected by these changes. Having come of age surrounded by digital technology, young people today are often at the center of digital participation.
In partnership with the MacArthur Research Network on Youth and Participatory Politics (YPP), Harvard professor Danielle Allen developed a framework for civic participation, “The 10 Questions for Young Changemakers.” Rather than a to-do list, the 10 Questions Framework asks students to respond to a series of open-ended questions geared toward helping changemakers become smarter about the best use of digital tools and platforms. By proposing a method of reflection, rather than a specific course of action, the framework cultivates in students the capacity to adjust and pivot as circumstances change, which they always do.
One key insight students can gain from the 10 Questions Framework concerns the difference between voice and influence. Voice represents self-expression with the goal of attracting public attention or changing values. Influence reflects efforts to drive change through policymaking. Voice is important in its own right—expressing who someone is and showing what they care about is key to civic life. It can change minds and inspire others to take part. But if the ultimate aim includes policy change, then people need to know how to pull different institutional “levers of power” to get policymakers to act on their voice. Converting voice to influence requires a degree of tactical knowledge—for instance, knowing how a bill becomes a law and how to use the tools of government effectively.
Before teaching this unit, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process.
This unit investigates a student-led movement against gun violence in Parkland, Florida. While it is an important case study, it is not an easy one to discuss in the classroom: the movement began with horrific violence, and it centers around school safety and gun control policy, topics that divide the nation along partisan lines.
For this reason, we recommend that you be proactive in creating a foundation for reflective and respectful discussion of these events in the classroom. Fostering Civil Discourse: A Guide to Classroom Conversations provides specific and detailed guidelines and strategies for setting the stage for your work with current events. We especially recommend creating a classroom contract with your students.
Essential Questions: This unit’s essential questions challenge students to make important connections between the historical and contemporary case studies they examine and their own civic participation. We do not expect students to determine a single, “correct” answer. Essential questions are rich and open-ended; they are designed to be revisited over time, and as students explore the content in greater depth, they may find themselves emerging with new ideas, understandings, and questions.
Guiding Questions: Each lesson in this unit includes one or more guiding questions. Unlike the unit’s essential questions, which are broad and open-ended, guiding questions help to direct student inquiry at the lesson level and are aligned with its specific learning objectives. Answering guiding questions requires deep thinking and textual interpretation. Unlike essential questions, guiding questions might have clear answers, which students should be able to support with specific evidence from the lesson to demonstrate their understanding of the content.
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This unit was created in partnership with the Democratic Knowledge Project, a distributed research and action lab based in the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, identifies, strengthens, and disseminates the knowledge and capacities that civic actors need in order to sustain healthy democratic life. The lab currently has three projects underway: the Declaration Resources Project, the Humanities and Liberal Arts Assessment (HULA) Project, and the Ten Questions for Young Changemakers Framework. Danielle Allen, James Bryant Conant University Professor and Director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, is the principal investigator of the Democratic Knowledge Project.
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