By Sam Piha
Since the school shooting in Parkland, FL and the response of young people to gun violence, we have all become more aware of youth activism and civic engagement. We were curious about how youth have been involved historically in social movements, and the effect of social media on social movements. Thus, we interviewed Gordon Alexandre, a historian and activist about these questions. You can see below some of his responses.
Q: In the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, FL, there has been a spotlight on youth activism. Are there other contemporary social movements that have attracted the participation of young people?
A: When one looks at political activism right now, young people are not the primary movers. The #MeToo movement has eclipsed all other, for the moment, and it is not primarily youth driven. The labor movement has also had a resurgence lately and it, too, is not youth driven. In addition, much emphasis was placed on getting young people to vote in the 2018 mid-terms and neither those getting young people to vote nor young people voting is, in and of itself, a sign of social activism.
Voting is an institutional response within the bounds of expected behavior and not an ‘outsiders’ response of social activism. This is not to say that the spotlight won’t return to youth activism. It’s just not there right now.
Q: There has been much discussion on the role of technology and social media in contemporary social movements. What do you believe are the pros and cons of technology-driven social movements?
A: I do not believe social media drives social justice movements. Technology can assist social movements - spreading the word, capturing events in real time, encouraging folks to get out and protest, and the like. What drives social movements are causes themselves being fought for and the personal relationships developed between those involved.
Technology is not a substitute for the bonds developed during political struggle and the movement culture that results from that. To do this, people need to be brought together whether it be the union halls of the 1930’s, the black churches of the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s, and the anti-Vietnam War movement on college campuses in the 1960’s. Also in the 1960’s we saw the importance of gay night clubs of the gay rights movement and women’s consciousness raising groups of the women’s empowerment movement. More recently, we have seen activism around the issues of gun control and “get out the vote” efforts on high school campuses.
Some would say that today’s social media is the equivalent to yesterday’s black churches or college campuses. It is not. Communicating with someone on social media is ‘virtual’ and you cannot have a ‘virtual’ social movement and movement culture.
Q: Looking back in our history, are there other social movements that have attracted the participation of young people?
A. Young people have been the main participants in social justice movements since, but not before, the 1960’s. Most of the activists in the civil rights movement were young. MLK was in his mid-twenties when he burst onto the scene in 1955.
The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) initiated many non-violent acts of civil disobedience that was the ‘bread and butter’ of the civil rights movement. Students For A Democratic Society (SDS) was the main anti-Vietnam War organization on college campuses in the 1960’s.
The feminist movement and gay empowerment movement were also led by young people. Later on, the environmental movement of the 1970’s and after, the anti-World Trade Organization movement of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, and Occupy Wall Street of 2011 were all youth driven, with varying degrees of success.
Q: What do you believe are the pros and cons of young people participating in social movements? Does it matter what age the young people are?
A: The advantages of youth driven social protest movements are varied and many. Young people have passion, energy, time, and not much to lose. They often possess the idealism and optimism that often accompanies youthful inexperience. They can take more risks with fewer consequences.
On the other hand, they often lack the virtue of patience, wisdom, and experience, all of which are necessary for success in the long run. Obviously, the best recipe for a social movement is to combine the advantages of youth with the advantages of those who have engaged in social movements in the past. But this much easier said than done.
Gordon Alexandre taught U.S. history and political science at Glendale Community College (outside Los Angeles) from 1985 to 2015. His main area of interest was on social reform movements of the Twentieth Century. While at GCC, Gordon was either chief negotiator or president of their American Federation of Teachers chapter for twenty years. Prior to his teaching, Gordon was a labor organizer and activist. Since retiring in 2015, Gordon has delivered several lectures to graduate students at Antioch University on “Trumpism: A Historical Perspective” and “Student Protest Movements: 1968 to 2018". Gordon is also featured in the video documentary, the History of Afterschool in America.
By Sam Piha
It is important that young people develop the skills and have opportunities to practice working collaboratively with diverse groups, other youth, and community members. Business leaders tell us that the ability to work collaboratively with others and in teams is a primary skill for 21st Century workers.
We concede that teaching these skills and having kids work in teams takes more planning and group management than having kids work independently. Thus, it is important that youth workers believe that working in teams allow young people to form a stronger sense of belonging, understand the value they can bring to a common goal, and work “smarter” than when working alone.
What COLLABORATIVE learning looks like:
Important Experiences and Skills
Successful collaborative learning takes skills and practice, and requires that the group members are able to engage in activities in a teamwork setting. Also important are establishing an environment where participants feel safe, but challenged and keeping the groups small enough so that all can contribute.
Social skills for effective cooperative work do not magically appear when cooperative lessons are employed. Instead, social skills must be taught to students just as purposefully and precisely as academic skills. Leadership, decision-making, trust-building, communication, and conflict-management skills empower students to manage both teamwork and taskwork successfully.
Seven things you can do right now to begin promoting collaborative learning:
1. Explore and assess: It is important that you take the time with your staff to explore and assess your alignment with this learning principle.
2. Building a sense of emotional safety: If we expect young people to work positively with one another, there needs to be a sense of trust and safety between them. It is helpful if the group can contribute to a set of group agreements of how they want to be treated by each other. It is important that one of these agreements is “no put-downs” – that when young people disagree or express their opinions, this does not include calling a person a name or any interaction that would cause a person to close down. Promise that you will help them remember and let them know that they can remind each other as well.
3. Active listening through “check-in circles”: You can develop the listening skills of your youth by conducting “check-in circles” at the beginning of your program. This is the time when every participant has the opportunity to briefly share something with the group or respond to a question posed by the group leader. When you first start instituting the check-in circle, it helps to plan a safe and interesting check-in question, such as, “What is your favorite thing to do on the weekend?” or “If you could go anywhere in the world for one day, where would you go?”. Later on, after some practice, you might have each person share one thing about their day or say how the group is working together. You can make use of a “talking” stick or other objects that the speaker holds and only the person holding the object has permission to talk. Everyone else practices active listening by giving eye contact and not distracting the speaker in any way. People with comments or questions can then raise their hands, only when the speaker is finished.
4. Team-building games: In order for young people to work collaboratively with their peers, it is important that they form a positive sense of belonging with the group. This can be built over time using team-building games to foster a positive sense of group and help kids become accustomed to working positively in small groups and working on a common goal. Program staff can draw upon printed curriculum or activity books and begin by leading group games in the beginning of the year.
5. Resolving conflicts: Teach a specific protocol that all children can demonstrate and use when they have a difference with a peer that is problematic. When young people have the skills to resolve conflict in healthy and respectful ways, they are kinder and happier, and require less adult intervention. They also feel safer in the after-school program knowing that they can solve problems together and that they can get help if they need it. You can also train “conflict managers” to help peers or younger children resolve conflict. They also feel safer in the after-school program knowing that they can solve problems together and that they can get help if they need it.
6. Building collaborative skills – brainstorming, prioritizing, and forging agreements: These are things you can teach during your check-in circle. Involve your youth in decision-making, such as the kind of snacks to be served or things to do on “free Fridays”. Allow all the youth to share their idea. “Every idea is a good idea” – let them know in brainstorming that all ideas are to be respectfully accepted. A good brainstorm session collects more ideas than can be used. To prioritize, youth can vote using colored stickers, with each youth having three stickers to place alongside their favorite ideas. The ideas that have received the greatest number of stickers are the ones that will be used.
7. Begin slowly: Begin with simple collaborative projects that can be completed within one session before moving on to more complex projects.
By Sam Piha
Dr. Judy Willis is a board certified neurologist, who turned her attention to becoming a classroom teacher. Her goal was to apply what she knew about the brain and learning to strategies that could be developed for the classroom. She is now an educational consultant who speaks to groups of people from around the world about the interface between the new knowledge of neuroscience and learning. We were particularly interested in her work regarding why collaborative learning works.
What does new brain science tell us about collaborative learning?
“When youth participate in engaging learning activities in well-designed, supportive cooperative groups, their affective filters are not blocking the flow of knowledge. When you plan your group such that each member’s strengths have authentic importance to the ultimate success of the group’s activity, you have created a situation where individual learning styles, skills, and talents are valued and youth shine in their fortes and learn from each other in the areas where they are not as expert. They call on each other's guidance to solve pertinent and compelling problems and develop their interpersonal skills by communicating their ideas to partners.
The brain scans of subjects learning in this type of supportive and social learning situation show facilitated passage of information from the intake areas into the memory storage regions of the brain. This is consistent with the original cognitive psychology research and theories of Steven Krashen about the affective filter - that learning associated with positive emotion is retained longer and visa versa.
Many of the motivating factors that have been found to release dopamine are intrinsic to successful cooperative or collaborative group work such as social collaboration, motivation, and expectation of success or authentic praise from peers. Because dopamine is also the neurotransmitter associated with attention, memory, learning, and executive function, it follows that when the brain releases dopamine during or in expectation of a pleasurable experience or reward, that this dopamine will be available to increase the processing of new information. That is what occurs when a young person enjoys a positive cooperative learning experience, and even when s/he anticipates participation in that type of activity sometime during the class or program.
Successfully planned group work can help to support adolescent youth by reducing a fear of failure that can cause them to avoid academic challenges. Well-structured cooperative group activities build supportive peer communities, which in turn increase self-esteem and academic performance.”
– Dr. Judy Willis, Neurologist and Classroom Teacher
Sam Piha is the founder and principal of Temescal Associates, a consulting group dedicated to building the capacity of leaders and organizations in education and youth development.