Critical Literacy: How To Encourage Students To Change Their World

Critical Literacy: How To Encourage Students To Change Their World

contributed by Dana E. Wright, Associate Professor of Education in the School of Education at Mills College

California wildfires have caused more deaths and destruction this year than in all of 2019, and two of the current wildfires rank as the second and third largest in the state’s history.

A record series of over 30 wildfires have burned over one million acres, resulting in at least six deaths and the destruction of over 1,500 homes or buildings, forcing over 100,000 to flee their homes under evacuation orders and threatening tens of thousands more people with evacuation.

California Governor Galvin Newsom has declared a state of emergency and recently said, during the Democratic National Convention, “If you are in denial about climate change, come to California.” Climate scientists observe that the climate-change driven wildfires are caused in part by increasingly frequent, more severe, and longer heatwaves, caused by the rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. 

In many places across the state, air pollution from wildfire smoke has become unsafe, reaching the “very unhealthy” level, which is considered dangerous, and in other places, it has risen to the ‘hazardous’ level. The air pollution caused by wildfires accounts for most of the negative health impacts of air pollution in the United States, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). One report cited by the NIH warns that more frequent and severe wildfires caused by climate change may result in unsafe air quality levels, increased respiratory illnesses, and other health risks to tens of millions of Americans.

The increasingly hazardous air pollution coupled with the now expected annual wildfires causing widespread destruction and displacement have prompted a marked increase in student activism and engagement in the social movement for climate justice. What’s more, the age of these student activists seems to be getting noticeably younger. 

How Educators Can Encourage Students To Engage With Issues Affecting Their Lives

Last September, I expected to see college students participating in the Global Climate Strike inspired by teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg. But when I saw elementary students from the Mills College Children’s School campus participating as I stepped out of my office, I was surprised.

One of their teachers would tell me later that two fourth- and fifth-grade classes had asked to be part of the strike following a multiple-week curriculum learning about the environment, solar energy models and peaceful changemakers. They had come up with their own messages on the signs I saw bobbing above their heads, and had studied YouTube videos to learn the chants I heard them shouting. I was struck with how they marched with the conviction of committed protesters — of any age.

And I knew that to grow into thoughtful adults, youth – even very young children—need to engage in and learn from decisions that directly impact their lives.

Later, I wondered at my own surprise. After all, these students attend school on the Mills College campus, where poor air quality from climate change-fueled fires had forced campus administrators to close the campus.

Why should any of us be surprised that these students feel a need to channel their legitimate concerns into action? As an educator and former youth organizer, I know that figuring out how to support young people in their desire to drive change can be challenging.

For one thing, it can be easy to ignore that many young people yearn to participate around the most urgent issues of our time.

For another, creating age-appropriate opportunities for young people to engage and lead on big issues isn’t as clear-cut as other school activities. That said, educators and other adults can learn how to promote a sense of agency and empower young people rather than stand in their way. Here’s how:

1. Help youth organizers strategize. Encourage students to take on a big issue by starting with a defined and specific goal. Could a campaign target a specific policy, corporation, or politician, or is the aim to build community knowledge and power to address an issue through a collective plan for direct action?

Youth vs. Apocalypse, for example, is an active group of young Bay Area climate justice activists that initially formed to protest a plan to build a coal terminal in West Oakland, home to many working-class Black families and other communities of color. Their climate justice efforts now encapsulate various campaigns, mostly organized around pressuring politicians to make environmentally conscious policy decisions.

2. Ask young people to analyze who touches their lives. Who are the lobbyists who’ve managed to get local politicians in their pockets? Who is directly affected by climate justice issues? Which corporations are successfully pushing back against environmental regulations and polluting the environment without any accountability? Who should be at the decision-making table about new environmental policies?

Helping young people educate themselves on these topics doesn’t have to take the form of a one-sided lecture or reading. Creating skits, songs, paintings, poetry, art exhibits and interactive research activities to explore the root causes of social issues can allow young people to analyze their everyday experiences to yield new ways of thinking about their world.

3. Build skills. Effectively organizing may require new skills — talking to journalists, publicizing campaign events, conducting research, understanding how to negotiate with stakeholders and navigate institutions, drafting petitions or letters to elected officials or other collective action to change policies and institutional practices. Educators are well placed to assist with these activities.

4. Forge mentoring and youth-adult partnerships. Educators can help youth contribute their viewpoints and ideas by providing structured, supportive spaces. They should also resist assuming that youth are inferior to adults in terms of their needs, concerns, and abilities. Teachers can engage young people in planning and advocacy work as important stakeholders with both agency and real-world experiences.

5. Help them identify and truly understand the issues

Young climate justice activists are acutely aware of the destruction, deaths, and evacuations resulting from wildfires — indeed, over the past two years in California, several dozen homes have been destroyed, more than 100 people have died, and over 180,000 people have been evacuated. Many students know of families who have hosted relatives in their homes because of mandatory fire evacuations and related power outages. Educators can be advocates and allies with young people by ensuring that youth perspectives, analysis, and ideas are integrated into intergenerational partnerships for change.

In addition to the youth movement for climate change, students have been at the forefront of social movements on a range of issues such as the youth movement to prevent gun violence following the Parkland school shooting in Florida, which planned over 800 March for Our Lives protests in every state in the U.S. and on nearly every continent and executed a national school walkout to push politicians to be more accountable. 

Within a year, this youth movement prompted gun law reform that included Florida and eight other states passing gun control laws and state legislatures passing 76 distinct gun control laws. The movement’s Peace Plan draws connections between mass shootings, domestic violence, urban gun violence, and police violence. The March for Our Lives platform addresses the intersectional dimensions of gun violence and calls for racial and economic justice and solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement as well as support for LGBTQ rights and immigrant rights.

In the current context of the COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis, which have exposed the lack of social safety nets in healthcare, employment, food security, education, and housing coupled with the global uprisings in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd, many young people are taking action to demand that local leaders address structural racism and economic and racial inequities.

In collaboration with Latino Decisions, Power California recently released its findings from their 2020 Youth Poll, a survey of over 1500 youth across California, which found that young people of color and their families were hit hardest by both the COVID-19 pandemic and the current economic crisis along the lines of healthcare, employment, food security, and housing. Rather than cutting social infrastructure spending to address budget crises, over 80% of young people polled support an increase in commercial property taxes on large corporations or redirecting police overfunding to reinvest in community programs.

Over two-thirds of young people surveyed in the poll are involved in the Black Lives Matter movement and participate in social movements pushing for immigrant rights, LGBTQ rights, and climate justice. Educators can support students like these to engage with issues directly impacting their lives through collaborative inquiry projects for change and beyond the classroom by supporting young people’s participation and leadership in social movements to create a more just world.

In the U.S., children under 18 constitute 74.2 million people, a sizable number to say the least. Great strides can be made when this many people raise their voices to be heard. Our society needs young people’s contributions to continue to better itself — to counter our deeply ingrained complacency, blind spots, and habitual thinking.

Fortunately, there are specific, actionable ways that adults and educators can encourage and cultivate students’ desire to engage with the public issues that affect them and to support them in taking collective action.  

Dana E. Wright is the author of Active Learning: Social Justice Education and Participatory Action Research. She is an associate professor of education in the School of Education at Mills College.  Her forthcoming co-edited book is entitled, Engaging Youth in Critical Arts Pedagogies and Creative Research for Social Justice: Opportunities and Challenges of Arts-based Work and Research with Young People.