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How students become influencers and advocates

By Nicole Krueger
December 20, 2017
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Teen filmmaker Laney Blair knows better than anyone how the media can influence the way girls feel about themselves.

Making films has taught her some intense lessons about self-love. About how unreal the images we see everyday are. About how important it is to be honest and true. About how powerful a girl can be when she finds her voice.

As someone who has found both her confidence and her voice, the 17-year-old student at Lakeland High School in Florida wants to help other girls do the same. That desire led her to join the United Nations’ Girl Up Movement and co-launch the successful #IAmMyBeautiful body positivity campaign on social media last year.

“We’re trying to show people, especially teens, that it’s important to learn to love yourself,” she says. “There’s no one way to look or feel beautiful. Beauty doesn’t come in a particular shape, size or color. The problem is the media is incredibly biased, and it can make or break someone at any moment. Celebrities can use Photoshop so we’re never actually seeing them for themselves.

“You have to find the beauty that’s inside of you.”

It’s just one example of the new digital citizenship at work. When students like Laney channel their passions into social advocacy, they become empowered. They learn to use technology to stand up for what they believe in, to influence social norms and to effect real change — all crucial qualities for today’s digital citizens.

The past year has been a turbulent one for students throughout the world, full of frightening headlines and social turmoil. To solve the myriad problems shadowing humanity’s future, it’s absolutely critical that we don’t let kids sink into hopelessness and despair, says Angela Maiers, founder of the Genius Hour and Choose2Matter movements.

“It is pandemic, the occurrence of individuals feeling like they don’t matter. And the impact is profound,” she says. “I think there’s no teacher who wakes up every morning and says, ‘I want my students to leave this classroom feeling like they don’t matter.’ But that happens every single day at a pandemic scale. They feel helpless. They don’t know what to do.”

What educators can do is help students transform their feelings of fear and frustration into action by becoming digital advocates and influencers. But where do they start? How can educators teach mindful advocacy in the classroom?

For starters, they can:

Have difficult conversations.

Teachers aren’t afraid to tackle controversial topics at Holy Family Academy in Pittsburgh, Pa., where most students come from disadvantaged communities. Students routinely discuss issues such as hatred, white privilege, police brutality and racial identity.

“In most schools, people are afraid of controversy, but we definitely don’t shy away from these topics,” says Lisa Abel-Palmieri, head of school and chief learning officer. “When you give students the space and time to talk about social justice, that’s where the sweet stuff happens. That’s where change can happen.

“We want our students to be part of the change and have the confidence to speak out in the face of injustice.”

Fostering these types of discussions requires dynamic and careful teaching skills, says educator and advocate Katie Schellenberg. By establishing a normative surrounding argument, laying ground rules about when and how to present counterarguments, and enforcing “the necessity of evidence and rationality with a side of humor and flexibility,” teachers can impart valuable lessons about how to be a respectful advocate.

Translate feelings into action.

As students learn and converse about social issues, strong feelings such as sadness or anger often arise. Teachers can help them learn to channel these emotions into effective action.

“Educators often feel a responsibility to provide students with the structure, opportunity and tools to do something about the injustice they see in the world,” says the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). “Transforming students’ feelings of anger, sadness and hopelessness into concrete actions that can make the world better is a vital teaching opportunity.”

Within any community, there are endless opportunities for making a difference. By adding an online component to their efforts, students can broaden their reach as well as their sense of efficacy. For example, they can:

  • Demonstrate with posters, songs, chants or symbolic enactments that express their feelings about an issue, and post a video or blog about the experience.
  • Conduct a survey about the issue and share the results online.
  • Raise money for a cause through a combination of local fundraising and online crowd funding efforts.

Spread the word.

When students explore issues they’re passionate about, they have a natural instinct to share what they’ve learned with others. Teachers can encourage this practice by cultivating both live and online opportunities to express their insights.

Exhibition fairs, for example, aren’t just for science projects. They can also help highlight students’ social advocacy efforts and provide a forum for kids to share the issues they’re passionate about with their broader school community. Students at Park Avenue Elementary School and Waukee Prairieview School in Des Moines, Iowa, worked on a variety of advocacy projects — from addressing their city’s refugee crisis to discussing gender inequality in the workplace with Iowa Cubs baseball employees — before offering insights back to the community during their exhibition fairs.

Students can also:

  • Launch a public awareness campaign with a social media component.
  • Create and share a persuasive video that both informs and entertains.
  • Lead a discussion about the issue in an online forum, such as a live Twitter chat.

Throughout U.S. history, youth-led movements have driven significant social change. There’s no reason why today’s generation of students can’t do the same. In fact, Maiers and many others are counting on it.

“I mean this with every fiber of my being: They are our only hope,” she says. “This generation, specifically, is our only hope.”

Nicole Krueger is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for finding out what makes learners tick.

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