Monday, April 17, 2006

Student Protesters - A Teachable Moment

Last month, when students from high schools in California and Houston started skipping school to protest immigration reform, I asked some of my co-workers at lunch, “Where are our students?” Over 50% of our students are Hispanic, but they were not protesting, and many didn’t even seem to know that protests were occurring. Too many of them don’t seem to know what’s going on in the world outside their community. Much to my delight, on Thursday of that week, a group of them did walk out. I’m not sure how many, but it was somewhere between 50 and 60 , mostly sophomores and freshmen. I was glad to see them get involved, even if many of them didn’t really know what they were protesting. I figured that if enough people asked them why they were protesting then they would be motivated to find out to keep themselves from continuing to seem ignorant.

Apparently, the principal and the local police chief had prepared for the possibility of a walkout, so the reaction was reasonable and calm. The principal at first said students would be punished for skipping school, and their punishment would depend on their current status in the discipline plan. Later in the day, it was revealed that the principal and the superintendent had decided to educate rather than punish our protesters. After the protest, the superintendent had met with the students and promised to spend a day with them in ISS (in school suspension). On Wednesday, of the following week, the students were assigned to spend the day in the Large Group Instruction room. They began the day with the government teacher explaining to them how laws are enacted as well as helping to understand why some people desire immigration reform. A LULAC representative followed. From what I understand, he spoke to them about positive ways to get their voices heard such as joining organizations like LULAC. He also told them his story, the moral of which was apparently that education and voting are a must if they truly want a better life.

After all the talk, I instructed the students on how to write a letter to their senators. I hate to miss my classes, ever, but I felt like I couldn’t say no when the department chair asked me to do help. I really didn’t have much time to prepare, and the only letters that I write to my representative are action alerts from TFT or the ACLU. I felt kind of fraudulent. Anyway, I gave them a quickly created handout, which consisted some general writing tips, and a model letter, copied from the ACLU action alert on the same topic (I'm sure some of the conservative members of our faculty & staff, which means most of them, would disaprove of my choice, but it's too late now.) and talked just a few minutes about the proper tone of such a letter. Then the students got to work. I was pleasantly surprised at the diligence of some of these students. Some of them were really trying hard to write a good letter; some of them had a real immigrant, legal and illegal, story to tell. They had to write a rough draft, get assistance with editing/revising, then write a final draft. The school district promised to mail all of the letters.

At the end of the day, the superintendent spoke to the students. He applauded their good behavior for the day, appreciated their concerns on this issue, patted himself on the back for keeping his promise to them (not surprising, of course), and encouraged them to stay in school. He told them that if they walked out of school again that the punishment would be the usual punishment for skipping school. He assured them that they would not be prevented from participating in protests, but they must do so with the knowledge that consequences would follow.

I must admit that I didn’t follow up to see that the letters were mailed, but I do feel good for helping the students. That day, I actually felt proud to teach in this district, something that I haven’t felt for a long time. I was so glad to see our campus and district administrators turn this experience into an educational one instead of a punitive one. The cynic in me knows that the choice was made for political reasons--positive public relations are always desired especially when your district is no longer the shining star of state testing. Still, I felt good about the decision to handle the situation in this way and about being a part of the educational process for these students.

1 comment:

SassyFemme said...

I like the way your school handled that, rather than just throwing the kids into a meaningless ISS for the day, or out of school suspension.