Thursday, March 15, 2018

Respecting Student Free Speech Was Hard for Adults During Today’s School Walkout by Steven Singer

The kids are all right. It’s the adults you have to watch.

The walkout planned nationwide to protest gun violence today on the one-month anniversary of the Parkland shooting came to my western Pennsylvania school – and we weren’t ready for it.

In fact, up until today no one had mentioned a thing about it.

I had asked teachers if they wanted to do something and was told it was up to the students to lead.

I had asked the high school student council if they were interested in participating, but there wasn’t much of a response.

Then this morning in the middle school where I teach, there was an impromptu two minute meeting where we were told some kids might walk out and that we should just let them go.

Their right to free speech would be respected and there wouldn’t be any penalty for participating.

However, as a teacher, I was instructed not to bring up the subject, not to allow discussion and only to attend if all of my students decided to go.

That’s a hard position to be in.

It’s like being put in a metaphorical straight jacket.

But I tried.

When my 7th grade kids came in, they were all a buzz about something and I couldn’t really ask why.

The suspense was broken with a sledge hammer during second period when one of my most rambunctious students asked if he could use the restroom at 10 am. That was over an hour away.

I told him he couldn’t reserve an appointment for a bathroom break but he could go now if he wanted.

Then he explained himself. At 10 am he was walking out.

The room exploded.

They had heard about the nationwide walkout at 10 – the time of the Parkland shooting. They knew kids all across the land were leaving class for 17 minutes – 60 seconds for each life lost in the shooting.

But that was pretty much it.

They didn’t know what it was that kids were protesting. They didn’t know why they were protesting. They just knew it was something being done and they wanted to do it.

It was at this point I took off my metaphorical straight jacket.

I couldn’t simply suppress the talk and try to move on with the lesson – on propaganda, wouldn’t you believe!

We talked about the limits of gun laws – how some people wanted background checks for people wishing to purchase guns. We talked about regulating guns for people with severe mental illnesses, criminal backgrounds or suspected terrorists. We talked about how there used to be a ban on assault weapons sales and how that was the gun of choice for school shooters.

We even talked about what students might do once they walked out of the building.

They couldn’t just mill around for all that time.

Since we were in the middle of a unit on poetry, someone suggested reading poems about guns and gun violence.

Students quickly went on-line and found a site stocked with student-written poetry on the issue – many by students who had survived school shootings.

I admit I should have checked the site better – but we had literally minutes before the walkout was scheduled to take place.

Some of the poems contained inappropriate language and swear words. But they were generally well written and honest. And the kids liked them.

I let them print a few that they wanted to read aloud at the demonstration.

They were actually huddled around their desks reading poetry and practicing.

They were really excited about the prospect of standing up and being counted – of letting the world know how they felt.

One student even wrote her own poem.

She said I could publish it anonymously, so here it is:

“Pop! Pop! Pop!

Everyone crying, calling their parents, saying their last goodbyes.

Screams echo throughout the building.
Blood painting the white tiles.
Bodies laying limp on the ground
Screams of pain
Bullets piercing our skin.

Yelling and sobbing increase.
We are escorted out.

‘Is this what you wanted?’”

I barely had time to read it before the time came.

Students stood up and were confused by the lack of an announcement.

But this was not a sanctioned school event. If they took part, they were on their own.

It was my smallest class and several kids were already absent.

They all left and were immediately met by the principal and security. To their credit, the adults didn’t stop them, but they told them not to put their coats on until they were outside and to otherwise quiet down.

I made sure to emphasize that anyone who wanted was welcome to stay in class. But no one did.

After the last child left, I grabbed my coat and followed.

When I got to the front of the building I was surprised by the lack of high school students. There were only a handful. But there were maybe 50 middle school kids.

When the principal saw all my students had decided to participate, he asked me to stay in the lobby. He said it wasn’t necessary for me to attend.

That was hard.

I wanted to be there, but I didn’t want to be insubordinate, either.

My students were expecting me to be there. They were expecting me to help guide them.

So I stood in the doorway and watched.

Students did as I feared; they pretty much milled around.

A few of my students held their poems in hand and read them quietly together but there were no leaders, no organization.

After about 5 minutes, the adults pounced.

The resource officer criticized them since their safety was more at risk outside the building than in class. Administrators chastised the collective group for having no plan, for only wishing to get out of class, for not knowing why they were there and for not doing anything together to recognize the tragedy or the issue. They said that if the students had really wanted to show respect to those killed in Florida they would have a moment of silence.

The kids immediately got quiet, but you can’t have a 17-minute moment of silence. Not in middle school.

I saw some of my kids wanting to read their poems aloud but too afraid to call the group’s attention to themselves.

And then it was over.

The whole thing had taken about 10 minutes.

Administration herded the kids back into the building early and back through the metal detectors.

I can’t help feeling this was a missed opportunity.

I get it, being an administrator is tough. A situation like today is hard to stomach. Kids taking matters into their own hands and holding a demonstration!?

We, adults, don’t like that. We like our children to be seen and not heard.

We want them to do only things that will show us in a better light. We don’t like them taking action to fix problems that we couldn’t be bothered to fix, ourselves.

But what right do we have to curate their demonstration?

If they wanted to mill around for 17 minutes, we should have let them.

Better yet, we could have helped them organize themselves and express what many of them truly were thinking and feeling.

If I had been allowed out of the building, I could have called the assembly to order and had my kids read their poems.

But doing so would have been exceedingly dangerous for me, personally.

I can’t actively defy my boss in that way. It just didn’t seem worth it.

If we had had warning that this might happen and planned better how to handle it, that also might have been an improvement.

Imagine if the school had sanctioned it. We could have held an assembly or sent a letter home.

The teachers could have been encouraged to plan something with their students.

Obviously if the students wanted to go in another direction, they should have been allowed to do so.

But these are middle school kids. They don’t know how to organize. They barely know how to effectively express themselves.

Regardless of how we, adults, feel about the issue, isn’t it our responsibility to help our student self actualize?

Isn’t it our responsibility to help them achieve their goals?

I don’t know. Maybe I’m just a crazy hippie.

Maybe I’m some radical anarchist.

But I’m proud of my students for taking a stand.

It was unorganized and a mess.

Yet they stood up and did something we, the adults, really weren’t that keen on them doing.

Their message was a muddle.

But they had something to say.

They just haven’t figure out how to say it yet.

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