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Youth Political Engagement Depends on Teachers

Students who have a voice in classrooms are more likely to become activists and engaged citizens.


FROM STAGING BLACK Lives Matter die-ins in high school auditoriums to marching for their lives in the nation's capital, from school strikes to protest climate inaction to occupying school buildings and superintendent's offices to demand policy change, high school students have become visibly engaged in youth-led activism in the past five years.
Unlike student activists of just 10 years ago, who were seen as radically unpolitical because of their outright rejection of the political system, the new generation of activists is heavily involved in electoral politics. They are working to register new voters, mobilize voter turnout and keep their issues top of mind for voters on Election Day.

Their efforts seem to be working: youth turnout in the 2018 midterms was higher than that of 2014. These trends bode well for democracy. But if these historic levels of student activism and engagement are to be sustained and scaled, it is important to understand what might be behind them.
Social movements, including Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, and cultural shifts have undoubtedly helped fuel the current moment of student activism. Activism has become trendy. Youth organizing groups have also gained national prominence in the past several years, winning key victories and building powerful coalitions.
The last decade has seen important advances in civics education, but it remains uneven across the country and several states do not require students to take civics classes at all. And while it certainly can't hurt, a civics education doesn't seem to translate to activism. In my research with self-identifying student activists from across the country, I found that exposure to civics and service-learning courses did not significantly affect students' sociopolitical development. Instead, those students who turned to activism before entering college were more likely than their peers to report three types of experiences in high school:
  1. being involved in an activist-oriented club,
  2. reading a powerful text, and
  3. having a voice at the classroom level.
The role of clubs in supporting activists' identity development is not surprising. Clubs provide the space not only to develop a deeper understanding of an issue, but also to translate interest into collective action. Isra Hirsi, a co-executive director for the U.S. Youth Climate Strike, has attributed her activism to her involvement in her school's "Green Team." And many of the student leaders of the 2018 March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., were active in extracurricular programs at their schools.
In my study, the most frequently named clubs that activists cited as influential to their development included gay-straight alliances or LGBTQ clubs; diversity or multicultural clubs; feminist clubs; environmental clubs; and service or volunteer-oriented groups, such as Key Club, National Honor Society and Interact.
In addition to having formative experiences in clubs, high school student activists were more likely than their peers to report having read a text during their high school years that inspired them to shift their thinking and behavior. Although nearly one quarter indicated that they read these texts on their own, most student activists encountered the text as required reading in their high school English courses. There was little overlap in the titles the students named, and the works included fiction and non-fiction, contemporary and older books, suggesting that exposure to a range of provocative books can be important.
In our sample of student activists, nearly half indicated that few, if any, of their teachers gave them a voice in their high school classrooms. Close to one-third felt that they had a voice in most of their classes. The more they felt they had a voice in class, the more likely students were to report identifying as an activist before they went to college. Sharing decision-making authority with their teachers can be a transformative experience that helps young people to discover their agency and power.
practices" that foster civic learning. As leading civic experts Peter Levine and Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg explain, "Young people develop into more effective, skilled, and knowledgeable citizens when they feel that students influence the climate and policies of their schools and that all students' voices are respected and valued."
High schools that take seriously their missions to promote actively engaged citizens should support extracurricular programs, engage students in reading influential texts and enhance opportunities for student voice. While student activists will likely continue to work hard to drive youth voter turnout, teachers, too, can help catalyze youth engagement in our collective democratic project.
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