Let The Students Speak

As we are all aware, the current news cycle is exhausting. Each day we are showered with stories about corruption, dishonesty, violence, sexism, natural disasters, and racism among many others. Social media provides a medium for individuals to respond immediately to any news story in real time. At first glance, it appears that the internet equally provides the opportunity for every individual to express h/er opinion about any given situation.  However, a few weeks ago during my American History survey course, I learned that many individuals and groups feel ignored by the broader public. I also discovered that my college students are eager to find solutions to the issues that our country faces; if only people will listen.

It all started when I woke one morning to find myself suffering from a cold complete with a scratchy voice.  I did not want to cancel class, so I designed an activity that provided my students with the opportunity to voice their ideas about contemporary events and their application to the past.  After a rough forty-five-minute lecture and class discussion that covered post-Revolutionary War America, I handed each of my students a transcript of the Bill of Rights and instructed them to “edit and revise.”

I will be honest; I was unprepared for their reaction.  By that point of the semester my students know the routine and are quick to form groups to complete in-class activities so I expected them to move into formation. This time was different. After my instruction, they excitedly formed groups as they enthusiastically chatted about the assignment. Recognizing that it could be overwhelming to consider revising all ten amendments, I told the class that they could choose one as a group. One student raised his hand and asked, “Is it okay if we revise all ten?” “Sure!” I exclaimed.  That morning I had figured that the majority would focus on just one to “get it over with” as they do with other projects. For this activity, this was not the case. The discussion among group members was lively.  Students pulled out phones, laptops, tablets, highlighters, and pens and began to jot down notes and ideas.  Several times different groups asked me to clarify wording or contextualize the events that inspired a specific amendment. As the minutes ticked by I considered ending the activity but my students were so absorbed I allowed them to proceed until the end of class. I told the students we would convene next time to discuss the findings.

At the beginning of the next class, a student raised his hand to ask if his group could finish their work before we discussed the conclusions.  I asked if others wanted this opportunity and several nodded in response. As I listened to their conversations, I heard comments such as, “So do we all agree on the wording of this amendment now?” and “are we ready to move on to the next one or does someone else want to share their ideas?”  After stretching this activity for another forty minutes—and sacrificing the majority of the lecture/class discussion I had prepared for that day–I called the class together and asked each group to share their findings. One-by-one they read their revisions and explained their reasoning behind any changes. Two groups focused on a specific amendment. I will admit when one student raised his hand and said he wanted to discuss the Second Amendment I hesitated.  In the past, I have found that unlike other controversial issues, the gun debate is difficult to monitor.  Unwilling to silence this group, I nodded while reminding the class to respect their classmates and to keep an open mind about the suggestions presented.

Dear readers, the conversation that transpired was terrific.  The spokesperson for the group read their revisions. I did not agree with the group’s initial proposal and responded by asking a series of questions.  Other students weighed in and presented alternatives to the stipulations that the group had set regarding gun ownership. By the end of the conversation, the class had found a compromise. They proposed an amendment that allows for gun ownership only after extensive background checks and intensive weapons training for each type of gun owned. After roughly ten minutes I asked if anyone wanted to add a counterpoint to the compromise.  Several individuals shook their head, and one student said, “I don’t have a problem with this.” Several nodded in agreement.  Then another person raised her hand and said, “Can we discuss the Ninth Amendment next?” That was it, folks!  No fighting or arguing; just a respectful resolution.

I learned from this activity that my students are ready to make a difference.  They are interested and eager to participate, but I suspect that the loud voices, critiquing commentary, and harsh judgments that each side of every issue spews each day has made it almost impossible for those of the younger generations to speak.  At the same time, the students in both of my classes are kinder and willing to consider the perspective of others and to respect different viewpoints.  I concluded the activity by encouraging the students to vote in the midterm election.  One student stated, “I don’t think that my vote will make a difference.” I replied, “there is no guarantee that your one vote will ensure that your candidate will win, but I promise that your voice can make a difference.” I continued, “the more people that vote, the more that politicians will work to maintain their power; this includes a compromise on issues that would normally be overlooked or ignored.” After class, several individuals asked how they can find out voting information.  I promised to send a link to a website to check their registration status and to locate voting locations.

Since this class, I have created new activities that provide my student’s with opportunities to consider solutions for current matters and to relate them to past events. My hope is that we can all seek out and amplify the voices of the silenced and remember that all individuals deserve the right to speak for themselves.

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