I recently posted what was probably my most widely viewed tweet ever. I was contemplating the impact of Greta Thunberg, a youth climate activist from Sweden. In considering how I will support any student of mine who chooses to join Greta’s weekly climate strike, I added a number of links to New Zealand’s curriculum. I was really just putting my own thinking out in front of me, but as over 8,00o people have viewed that tweet, presumably mostly teachers, I may have been meeting a need. I have decided to do a bit more thinking about youth activism and climate strikes, and share it in a series of blog posts. I begin below.
The enthusiasm of youth is compelling and beautiful. If we teach teenagers, this electrifying enthusiasm probably plays a big part in why we continue to teach. Seeing it in action is one of the rewards of our job, and it often works its magic on us whether it is about our lessons or not. We know, therefore, that many students who choose to take part in a climate strike will be deeply committed to the cause. This commitment will power the success of those who capture the spotlight or sense that they are making a difference. However, combined with the adolescent personal fable, this same commitment and enthusiasm may lead some of our students into harm’s way. If we choose to support students’ climate strikes with relevant learning opportunities when they are at school, let’s send them on that journey forewarned and somewhat equipped.
Our students have a right to know that change agents and people who call the powerful to account are taking a risk. New Zealand teachers will be familiar with this proverb:
Whāia te iti kahurangi ki te tūohu koe me he maunga teitei.
Seek the treasure you value most dearly: if you bow your head, let it be to a lofty mountain.
The kids need to know that the mountain of authority faced by change-makers is not necessarily a small one, but that some knowledge and strategy can help them to manage risks.
The risk of arrest
There is likely to be someone in your school community who has been arrested, or who thought they were about to be arrested, while protesting. It may even be a teacher. Try to arrange to have that person speak to the school at assembly, or to the class, especially if numbers of students are likely to protest. I teach online, so I would probably have an organiser from a group which stages a lot of protests to join us in a chatroom to talk about protestors rights and what happens when they get arrested. Here is what I would want students to find out:
- If I choose to join in public protest action, what are my rights?
- How can I stay safe?
- How do police respond to protest actions?
- Are some forms of protest action safer than others?
- Is ethnicity or youth a risk magnifier when protesting?
- Why do some activist groups stay within the law while others seek arrest as a publicity measure? How do they decide which is best?
- Do activists who get arrested regret it? How would arrest impact on my family, my well-being and my future?
The social studies curriculum offers inquiry questions which can also contribute to our understanding of why some activists choose to risk arrest.
Using a social inquiry approach, students:
- ask questions, gather information and background ideas, and examine relevant current issues
- explore and analyse people’s values and perspectives
- consider the ways in which people make decisions and participate in social action
- reflect on and evaluate the understandings they have developed and the responses that may be required.
Exploring historical and contemporary figures who were arrested in the course of their activism may be interesting for some students. Examples include:
- Te Whiti-o-Rongomai and many of his followers at Parihaka. (Be careful to recommend age-appropriate resources due to the nature of the Parihaka atrocities, and consider providing tissues. Tears are an appropriate response to the Parihaka tragedy.)
- Strikers and those who fed them or their families during the 1951 waterfront dispute.
- Bastion Point protestors.
- Greenpeace protestors including Russel Norman and Sara Howell.
Yes. I am that kind of teacher. I have a friend whose arm was broken by police while protesting. I know all the right people!
Clearly, the police don’t usually break people’s arms, and they do have knowledge of first aid. However, I think it is wise to encourage students who go on climate strikes to explore conflict escalation and de-escalation, learn first aid, and do mundane things like carrying a water bottle and wearing sunscreen. Show them your RAMS forms and speak honestly about how risk management is not usually fun, but it is usually helpful. Make links with the safety management objectives in the health and physical education curriculum.
If students choose to participate in collective rather than individual climate action, they may be asked for financial contributions by the groups organising events. For some of the families I teach, donating would mean going without food. The section on spending within financial capability offers a curricular context for exploring priorities with money. If you are part of the Sorted in Schools pilot, you will have access to relevant resources.
Staying safe online
Many students will consider building a social media campaign as part of their personal climate activism platform. They should be aware that they need to be 13 years old to legally hold most social media accounts. They need to consider how they will handle trolls and cyberbullies. Students should also consider what kind of digital footprint they are creating, and to what extent it is safe for them to reveal their real name and their present and future locations online.
Falling behind academically
A student who really understands the true extent of climate threat is going to be worried. This worry will hold them back in their studies if they have no way to act on it. This is reason enough, all on its own, for teachers to support students in going on climate strike. However, in any areas of curricular weakness, students should have a plan to keep up, and teachers who care should have a plan to help them. Put your homework and your lesson plans somewhere online where kids can access them. Remind anyone who is absent, for any reason, that this resource exists.
I see this as another risk for teachers to help manage. Most students on climate strike around the world are absent from school each Friday. If your school has an absence policy which means that a weekly absence will cause difficulties for a student who is genuinely on climate strike, such as requiring attendance during the school holidays to make up for lost tuition, there are two ways around this if your principal is on board. If enough students are striking, and enough learning is connected with activism, the climate strike could become a school trip. Alternatively, the principal’s right to exempt attendance could be invoked to cover some of the days. These options do detract from the strike-i-ness of the protest, but they still provide students with an opportunity to put their message to the public.
This has been a long post, but it has been a good place for me to collect my thoughts. I hope it helps you and your students, too. I will look at what student climate strikers can learn from role models in my next post.