Student protests offer real-time civics lesson

On Friday, students around the country are planning a second National School Walkout to commemorate the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado, which left 13 dead, and to highlight support for gun-control legislation. The first student walk-out, in March, was organized in response to the shooting deaths of 17 students and educators at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

Responses in Maryland to this nascent student-lead protest movement have been mixed. Harford County students were prohibited from actively walking out for the March protest. And Carroll County is on record prohibiting students from walking out this Friday. The ACLU of Maryland has been swift to frame the clamp-down on student protests as a First Amendment issue. Public school students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” the ACLU wrote last month, citing a Supreme Court ruling dating from the days of widespread student protests over the Vietnam War.

Missing from the debate over student protests, however, is an acknowledgment that this real-time historical movement could, with a little academic imagination, play straight into the hands of Maryland’s own state education standards requiring high school students to study civics as part of the government curriculum. The state standard for civics is explicit: “Students will understand the historical development and current status of the fundamental concepts and processes of authority, power and influence, with particular emphasis on the democratic skills and attitudes necessary to become responsible citizens.” The standard further states that one of the key expectations is that “the student will demonstrate understanding of the structure and function of government and politics in the United States.”

Maryland high school students are also required to study U.S. history in order to “examine significant ideas, beliefs and themes; organize patterns and events; analyze how individuals and societies have changed over time in Maryland and the United States.” They are required to fulfill this standard by, among other things, analyzing political and social influences on American society from 1981 to the present.

If ever there were a teachable moment to bring these state standards to life, and help students understand at a gut level that American civics and history are not just words in books, this is it. Student activism, even in the mildest form, is a critically important gateway to becoming a responsible adult steward of our democracy. And that goal is already in jeopardy. The Center for American Progress reports that civic knowledge and public engagement is at “an all-time low.” Not a single state has an experiential learning or local problem-solving component in its civics requirements, the center reports. Moreover, “State civics curricula are heavy on knowledge but light on building skills and agency for civic engagement.” Why not tap the low-hanging fruit by incorporating active student-led protests, whether over gun control or some other issue, into the civics curriculum? Why not afford students every opportunity to make history, instead of just studying it? As the center puts it, “Educators and schools have a unique opportunity and responsibility to ensure that young people become engaged and knowledgeable citizens.”

The March for Our Lives movement is a gift to educators — should they choose to see it that way. In lieu of allowing students to participate in the 17-minute protest last month, Harford County Superintendent Barbara Canavan instead promised to disseminate a “learning module.” Perhaps that facilitated lively, valuable classroom discussions about free speech, protest movements and so forth. But isn’t this a bit like Plato’s Cave, where students are forced to examine shadows on the wall instead of reality itself? There is no substitute for a real-time, kinesthetic experience: putting your body in an environment less controlled — and controlling — than a classroom, for the purpose of vocally expressing a point of view (on either side of an issue) or sharing a moment of silence and joining with others in doing so.

A generation ago, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee emerged as an important agent of change at the dawn of the modern Civil Rights movement. Its college-age members organized student sit-ins and voter registration drives, and they supported the 1963 March on Washington. In July 1961, the meeting minutes of this committee, recorded in Baltimore, noted that “the only group that could do a complete voter registration program southwide was a student group.” What a shame it would be to confine our high school students exclusively to the classroom and deny them the opportunity to learn first-hand how to practice true citizenship.

Amy Bernstein is an independent consultant, trainer and writer in Baltimore. She can be reached at alb457@gmail.com and on Twitter @BraveNotYoung.

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