Last weekend, I traveled to Washington D.C. to help chaperone the Students for Change Foundation’s summit on gun violence. It was an intense weekend, as you might imagine. I listened to students who survived the Feb. 14 attack on Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, met folks from Newtown, Connecticut (yes, the Sandy Hook Elementary kids are teenagers now), and heard kids talk about the loss of friends and family to street crime, domestic violence, and suicide.
I should know what to say to them, but I do not.
School shootings have been a distressing backdrop to my entire teaching career. It was the spring semester of my first year teaching, April 1999, when we learned about the attack on Columbine. In the two decades since, I’ve dealt with innumerable phone threats and bomb scares at my schools, routine and emergency evacuation/fire/earthquake drills, and even intruder simulations where I’ve stuffed dozens of gangly teenagers into a tiny corner of my classroom while SWAT members from the local police department jiggled our locked classroom door handle. An unlocked door, we were warned ahead of time, would be recorded by the clipboard people as a classroom of dead kids.
The latest disturbing twist in my neverending quest for preparedness? I now pause whenever I hear a fire alarm, lest my group becomes the first victims of a sniper’s snare. That’s messed up, I know. Yet that’s where I am. No smoke = Let’s not hurry out the door just yet
For many of the kids and teachers I met in D.C., a drill turned real and became the worst day of their lives. Like me, they are scared and angry. Unlike me, they’ve decided to do something. To wit, the kids (about 100 of them from a variety of urban, suburban, and rural communities) created a 14-point bill of rights for safer communities. Their document will certainly be refined and streamlined as communities decide whether to move forward with some of their proposals. These kids accomplished something meaningful – they participated in a difficult conversation, learned a lot about the issues surrounding gun violence, and actually compromised with each other to create something they all could support. Sounds like a good example for some grown-ups I know – including me.
You know I like to try to solve problems by building curriculum, so I spent several hours at the summit working with Nick Viscomi, an AP U.S. History teacher at Manhattan’s Urban Assembly Academy of Government and Law. We dug into articles and TED Talks and piles of statistics. He taught me the Supreme Court’s District of Columbia v. Heller case and we dissected the Second Amendment word by word. Once I arrived home, I continued to search and read, hopeful the perfect lesson idea would materialize. It hasn’t.
Instead, I have found a few resources that I’ll turn to
if… when…if another tragedy strikes and my teens need to talk about how they feel:
1. Student Voices
Friend-of-the-blog Melissa Falkowski is one of Stoneman Douglas’ amazing journalism teachers. (You want to see student journalism done right? Go here.) She worked with her colleague, video production teacher Eric Garner, to edit a collection of students’ stories about survival and activism. Their book, We Say #NeverAgain: Reporting by the Parkland Student Journalists, would be a useful tool for students who aspire to become journalists, want to research first-person accounts, or need to know how to take action when facing evil.
Another volume of voices, Parkland Speaks: Survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas Share Their Stories edited by fellow English and journalism teacher Sarah Lerner (also Melissa’s teacher-bestie), is set to be published in January and will include “poetry, eyewitness accounts, letters, speeches, journal entries, drawings, and photographs from the events of February 14 and its aftermath.” I’m looking forward to adding Lerner’s book to my library, too.
Personal note to Melissa and Sarah: I was honored to hang out with you two. You need to know that you’re both now my dear friends and role models. Thanks for being a soft place to land during difficult conversations.
2. Lesson Plan Building Blocks
If you’re interested in digging deep into the issues surrounding gun violence (team research project, perhaps?), the folks at the American Federation of Teachers have posted a treasure trove of sources on this ShareMyLesson page. You’ll need to sign up for a free account, but that’ll unlock a rich collection of articles and videos you can use to craft your own lessons. There are also plenty of high-quality sources there you could use as a curated collection to help increase the efficiency of students’ research.
3. Your Voice Matters, Too
Finally, the most obvious tool to help us take action was waiting on my kitchen table when I returned from D.C. – my local newspaper’s election guide. We’re just a few days away from the Nov. 6 general election and we must vote. Shout from the ballot box. Research your local issues and candidates, figure out which ones align with your beliefs, and then mark that ballot. It won’t be long before today’s generation of kids – the ones who’ve never known a world that didn’t include school shooters and intruder drills – will be the ones running for office. They’re mad and they have a LOT of energy, so get ready, y’all. Change will be here soon.
A few moments from my weekend with Students For Change:
Teach on, everyone.
All images and video used with permission of the Students For Change Foundation.