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BC students promote, teach advocacy

Filed in Archive, BCHS, Student Spotlight by on June 27, 2019

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Do you remember what you did on your last day of high school?

For a group of BC students, including a handful of seniors, their plans didn’t involve peeling out of the parking lot to get a jump on summer. Though they had every right to celebrate when the last bell rang on June 17, nine members of the afterschool club known as Students for Peace and Survival (SPAS) headed to two elementary schools where they had spent every Monday afternoon in June, helping students learn about the power of advocacy.

It was a collaboration that began in 2017-18 in Maria Rogers’ fifth-grade class at Slingerlands Elementary School.

“As an extension of our unit on argument reading and writing, we decided to have students from SPAS help teach students about advocacy and activism,” said Mrs. Rogers. “It was such a success we had SPAS come back again this year.”

According to Rogers, the fifth graders each began by each writing an argument essay on a topic of their choosing. The students used research and conducted interviews to gather facts and evidence to support their argument. Then, Mrs. Rogers invited SPAS to teach the students how they might go about turning their school work into real-life change by creating impactful messages and writing to elected officials and other people who could influence change.

SPAS members began with a brief history lesson about the power of using your voice to speak up and effect change. They outlined a five-step action plan to help the fifth graders understand how to be lifelong successful advocates by:

  • Picking an Issue
  • Taking a Stand
  • Making a Goal
  • Creating a Plan
  • Making a Difference

In small groups, the high schoolers worked with the students to create letters, posters, commercial messages and websites, all aimed at bringing attention to issues the fifth graders care passionately about, from saving the elephants to having more time for recess.

Fifth-grader Daniel Sokolowski’s project reflected his concerns about the environment.

“People need to stop polluting the ocean,” said Daniel who was working on a letter to Congressman Paul Tonko with the help of BCHS senior Connor Chung. “I just don’t like it and we can stop it.”

“We’ve been blown away by their level of commitment to their topics,” said Chung, who is president of SPAS. “It was important to us that the students chose issues on their own. It is inspiring to see their work.”

Other SPAS members working with Slingerlands students included Olivia Namkoong, Trystan Melas, Kaitlyn Coffey and Maggie Reynolds. A similar program was introduced this year to younger students at Glenmont. The SPAS volunteers at Glenmont included Dahlia Earleywine, Talia Sanders, Emma VanLuven, and Jasmine Facchetti.

Mrs. Rogers said many of the students also picked topics of global or national interest from curbing food waste to stricter gun control laws.

Others chose issues that hit closer to home. More than one were advocating for longer lunch periods and recess, and two students wanted to see changes to iReady, the online assessments students take throughout the year. Some of the students addressed their school concerns to BC Superintendent Jody Monroe, while one took their iReady issues straight to the CEO of the company that owns the product and distributes the software.

In addition to letters, the students created websites using Google Sites, produced 30-second commercial messages using Adobe Spark and created both handmade and digital posters.

“The posters will be distributed throughout the community, the commercials and websites will be shared via Twitter, and all letters will be mailed,” said senior Olivia Namkoong.

Bringing the lesson on advocacy and activism to elementary students was just one highlight of an exciting end of the school year for SPAS. The group has been successful in engaging well-known activists and policymakers in discussions on hot topics with BC high school students.

On May 29, the group welcomed Harvard Law School professor and copyright expert Lawrence Lessig to the high school to discuss “How Digital Destroyed Democracy.” More than 60 students attended the afterschool session where Professor Lessig spoke with the high schoolers about his views on how the internet has been “great for culture, but not great for democracy.”

The legal scholar, who was once portrayed on an episode of The West Wing by actor Christopher Lloyd, made the six-hour round trip from Cambridge, Massachusetts just to talk with BC students. Lessig spent more than an hour sharing his presentation and engaging in dialogue with students on a number of topics, including how society can combat forces that are driving political polarization in the United States.

Two days later, SPAS hosted an afternoon session via Skype with Ezra Levin, a former congressional staffer who founded the grassroots Indivisible movement. Levin discussed his pathway to activism and organizing, things he has learned along the way, and shared his own advice for young activists.

In turn, BC students asked insightful questions of Levin, including how an organization, as it gets larger and more powerful, can avoid becoming part of the system it is fighting against and how a national movement can be organized to maintain both consistency and genuine grassroots involvement.

Thank you to SPAS for creating opportunities to help students be strong advocates for themselves and for the BC community.