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Parkland’s Student Activists Are Getting a Powerful Civics Lesson


Lobbyists and attorneys listen as student survivors from the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School interrupt a house legislative committee hearing in the hope to challenge lawmakers on gun control reform in Tallahassee, Fla., on Feb. 21.

—Gerald Herbert/AP

For students, a tragedy sparks political action


Jennifer L.M. Gunn

In a typical high school civics class, students learn about local and federal government and media literacy, as well as citizenship and participation. They might learn how to contact their local representative, use social media for advancing a cause, or debate an issue they feel strongly about. But few students—and only a small fraction of adult citizens for that matter—participate in a highly contentious national debate.

Mere weeks after the Parkland, Fla., high school shooting that killed 17 students and educators, the news cycle would normally be winding down. But this tragedy doesn’t seem to be fading from memory quite as fast as previous school shootings. The reason is obvious: Parkland’s teenage students aren’t staying quiet.

As mass shootings become a disturbing cultural norm, the country’s reaction seems to follow a familiar pattern. America collectively gasps. We watch footage of children filing out of a school, arms raised. We rage on Twitter. We share political memes, shaming or congratulating the nation’s lawmakers for their “thoughts and prayers” refrain. We make donations to whichever side we’re on. And then we move on. Until more bullets fly.

Of course, for the victims of these tragedies and their communities, the healing process is slower. Communities retreat into grief, as the name of the town slips away from those unaffected. (Can you name all the school shooting locations this year alone?) There are funerals and candlelight vigils, where families mourn in isolation.

But last month’s shooting feels different. The now-recognizable Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students and their young supporters have not retreated, but rather advanced on politicians in Washington in one hell of a real-life civics lesson. They’ve engaged in national speeches, lie-ins, walk-outs, interviews, and are planning the March for Our Lives gun-control rally in the nation’s capital this month. With the battle cry “Not One More,” the students are demanding “that a comprehensive and effective bill be immediately brought before Congress to address these gun issues.”

“This is a generation rising up and doing what we’ve taught them to do in the face of perceived injustice.”

Stoneman Douglas high school senior Chris Grady, 19, told reporters in the days after the shooting, “If you’re not with us, you’re against us, and you’re against saving the lives of innocent children. And we’re going to be voting you out,” he said. He seems to understand a civics lesson educators want all students to embrace: Voting matters. And when our representatives fail to represent us, we can use our votes for change.

What’s disturbing is that a simple online search of #Parkland reveals some pretty harsh words from adults hiding behind computers, aimed at grieving children. Last week, Twitter did a sweep to get rid of the pro-gun messages Russian trolls have reportedly pumped out. But others on social media have accused the victims of being “actors” or “coached by the left.” Some have derided the students as immature, emotional, uninformed, and incapable of being the voice of this debate.

What these people fail to acknowledge, political differences aside, is that these are teenagers. Teenagers, who just last week were learning about civics in a classroom, only to be thrust upon the national stage in a political fight for their lives. These aren’t practiced politicians debating issues with an earpiece full of statistics and background facts. Sure, the recent speeches by Parkland students may lack some polish, but these students have gone from regular high school students to insta-famous voices of a contentious movement. Those who discount students’ voices as too young or too naïve underestimate the power of young people with strong ideas.

This is a generation rising up and doing what we’ve taught them to do in the face of perceived injustice: Fight back. We should be proud of students who are putting their understanding of local and federal government, media literacy, citizenship, and participation into action. As a teacher in New York City’s public schools, I hope my students, who have learned about great thinkers and writers and use tools like Twitter to make their voices heard, will follow suit.

This millennial landslide represents a possible tectonic shift in stagnant ground. And at the epicenter of it all are teenagers just old enough to bear witness to our last election, Ferguson, the Women’s March, Charlottesville, and the president’s Twitter account. They’re doing what we as adults are not doing very effectively—cutting through the crap with direct action.

Educators, don’t miss the opportunity to make this a teachable moment in your classroom. Read articles with your students. Watch CNN’s February Town Hall meeting with lawmakers, educators, and students. Have students examine all sides through discussion and debate. Guide students to form well-informed opinions, and encourage them to write to their representatives and community leaders.

Witnessing our nation’s young people lead any national conversation is significant. I’m devastated that they have to fight in the first place, and yet so proud to see that they are.

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