Photo by Rux Centea on Unsplash

Student Protests Must be a First Step; Teachers Can Help Students Take the Next Ones

By Gina Caneva

In March, I watched my students with pride as they walked out in protest of gun violence. They joined many others across our nation who walked out against violence and even against backlash from adults who believed that students should remain in class. This protest, however, was definitely theirs to own.

Contrary to opponents of the student protests, kids did not walk out simply to get out of class. For my students at Lindblom Math and Science Academy in Chicago, the march acted as a display of unity with the Parkland students whom they’ve never met but who they fully identify with because of their age, tragedy, and presence in the media.

At my school, a student group called KOI (Kindness over Ignorance) took the lead. Students formed KOI at the beginning of the year shortly after white supremacy showed its ugly face in Charlottesville, Virginia; they had many questions and terrible feelings about their place in this world. KOI began by having tough conversations about race. Slowly, their focus shifted to include more issues that they believed teens should have a voice in including gun control.

KOI’s peer leaders recognized that students might be afraid as they walked around in Englewood, a neighborhood often in the news for gun violence. Peer leaders gave them the choice to stand outside in solidarity or walk around our school for seventeen minutes.

Students chose to walk around the block for seventeen minutes, and during those seventeen minutes, perhaps an even tougher feat for teenagers, they remained silent. At the end of the protest, student leaders read the names of the fallen Parkland students. They used the hashtag: #thiscouldhavebeenus to show they understood that their country’s lack of gun control could very well make them the next victims. After this, they walked back into the school and went to class.

I spoke with one of my students, 17-year-old Nia Khan who took part in the protest, about what should be done now. She asked for more information about what students can do: “The protests have showed that we have a voice, but we just don’t know how to get it to people in charge.”

Although Nia felt like the protest wasn’t enough, I told her that the student protests were a sign of change in and of themselves. After all, I was a senior in a suburban Illinois high school when the Columbine school shooting happened. There was outrage, but there were no nationwide protests or even local ones in Colorado that I can recall. Nearly twenty years later school shootings have become the norm and our children are standing up against them.

As educators, we must help our students take the next step. Groups like KOI can form in every school. Teachers can invite local lawmakers from both parties into their schools so that they can listen to students and understand their thoughts and needs. Last year, Illinois state representative Theresa Mah visited my students to hear why Illinois needs equitable funding in our schools. I had met Mah at a librarian advocacy luncheon and asked her to come. A swift handshake, a couple of words exchanged, and a follow-up email was all it took for my students to meet with her and learn from her how to make legislative change.

Teachers can also help organize letter writing or op-ed writing campaigns for students to share their voices with community leaders, influencers, and the general public. PBS NewsHour recently gave students the opportunity to write about their thoughts on school shootings, and I brought that opportunity to students in my writing center. Three students penned their opinions, and they were published on the site.

We can also ask students to come up with ways to solve gun violence that are similar to campaigns in our country that once seemed impossible — such as securing equal voting rights for all Americans over the age of 18 or taking down Big Tobacco which didn’t take an alternate amendment to become a reality.

On the day of the march, civil rights activist and Congressman John Lewis wrote on Twitter: “Sometimes you have to get in trouble — good trouble, necessary trouble — to make a way out of no way.” American students are making their way through protests and by becoming a prominent voice in the media in order to make it a safer place for all of us. And they’re going to need our help in overcoming this seemingly insurmountable feat.

Gina Caneva is a 14-year Chicago Public Schools veteran who works as a teacher-librarian and Writing Center Director at Lindblom Math and Science Academy. She is a National Board Certified teacher and Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alum.

Follow her on Twitter @GinaCaneva