I was a community member and activist long before becoming a teacher at Santa Ana High School 17 years ago. The community where I serve and live is urban, inner city. It’s viewed as a place where crime is rampant. Eighty percent of the population speaks Spanish as their primary language. Nonetheless, I know this city—and school—as a place where students care deeply about each other and the community where they live.
Before my students could determine what action to take, they needed to grasp the current struggle to preserve Native lands and to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL)
I have always pushed to incorporate “real world” assignments for my students. In October 2016, the strong presence of Standing Rock on social media seemed like a perfect opportunity for students in my Ethnic Studies class to extend their learning to action—and to honor our class mission to build leaders and activists. However, before my students could determine what action to take, they needed to grasp the current struggle to preserve Native lands and to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).
I started by asking my students to create mini-lessons on aspects of Native American history and culture. Lessons ranged from genocide to the occupation of Alcatraz. I then shared mini-documentaries, newly created YouTube videos, and an article about the water protectors at Standing Rock.
In between the video clips and articles, students independently searched for Standing Rock stories on their phones. I wanted them to understand the environmental, economic, and cultural identity issues behind the protests, while also paying attention to media coverage of this epic standoff. Each discovery my students made exposed the reality that mainstream media was ignoring Standing Rock—and if there was coverage, the coverage was not only limited, but also often biased or inaccurate. The lack of exposure shocked my students. One student who either didn't understand the directions—or decided not to follow them—incredulously shouted, "Ms. Reed, there are no news stories about Standing Rock on any of my sites! I can't find anything reported on it." We also compared the interests of the water protectors to the interests of big businesses. We deconstructed where private interests influenced limited media coverage. What was media not telling us?
The takeaway I wanted for my students was that even though they were thousands of miles away, their voices had impact.
After gaining a great deal of knowledge about Standing Rock and #NoDAPL, it was time for my students to choose how they were going to inform the public about the protests, and to create an action plan to support the water protectors. They created posters, Instagram posts, brochures, and flyers. Their proposed actions ranged from calling the White House, to writing to elected officials, to participating in a local protest. The takeaway I wanted for my students was that even though they were thousands of miles away, their voices had impact. I wanted them to believe in the power of solutions and people working together. I wanted them to fight the status quo, to make right what history has made wrong for so many years.
As is the nature of the classroom, some students took more interest than others. Isaiah decided to call the White House to declare his opinion about the government's lack of response at Standing Rock. The day Isaiah called happened to be the day after President Trump was elected. After many attempts, Isaiah couldn't get through. He was outraged. This was a learning lesson; we talked about how many people were upset about the state of our country, and that he was not alone in calling the White House.
The most positive change came from students who joined a local protest against the DAPL. They saw a segregated Santa Ana bring down its walls that afternoon, and immediately felt a movement of voices. Brown folks, white folks, Latinos, Mexican-Americans, Chicanos, Native people were together for justice. Passing cars honked their horns. People cheered for us as we walked downtown and held our homemade signs. One of my students looked up at me with her big, brown eyes filled with amazement and said, “These people are passionate about change! They really care about the issues at Standing Rock.”
When these student protestors returned to school that Monday, they were different people.
When these student protesters returned to school that Monday, they were different people. They were now invested in a struggle that they didn’t care about last October. There was a feeling of wholeness, bravery, unity—a shared experience and a sense of accomplishment that they enthusiastically shared with their family groups of 4-desk pods. They now see themselves as part of a global movement.
What I would share with any teacher who wishes to create lessons like these for their students is to start from a place of action. Students want to be involved. They want to believe that their voice—their point of view—is important. Action-based lessons shake the foundation of their education. Young people are not used to choosing for themselves. They rarely get to have real-life experiences when learning. However, when all is said and done— when eyes and hearts are opened to what is possible— these experiences are what create a democracy. These are the lessons that cause my students—and yours—to see themselves as part of the solution. These are the lessons they remember.