One of my primary goals as a high school social studies teacher was to empower young people so that they could become active citizens and agents for democratic social change. I encouraged them to think about issues and to learn how to collect, organize, analyze, and present information and their own ideas.
This approach requires that teachers be part of - but not dominate - classroom discourse, and it means being willing to express views on controversial issues. Everyone has a point of view, and it is much more honest to present it than to try to keep it hidden below the surface. Rather than neutrality, our goal should be open, honest, and respectful dialogue.
Many new teachers without tenure are afraid that if they involve students as political activists, they will jeopardize their positions. While I do not want to minimize this concern, I want to present a model I was able to use effectively to engage students as activists.
The Forum Club was an independent student group chartered by the student government. It sponsored studentled forums on controversial issues, prepared testimony for public hearings, wrote position papers for publication in local newspapers, and organized student and community support for a school-based public health clinic. Usually, the students who joined the club were from my classes, but they also involved their friends. In addition, as the club gained a reputation in the school, new students would come to meetings to raise their own issues. As a result, one year the Forum Club sponsored a bulletin board display on gays and lesbians in history and, on another occasion, helped Islamic students organize a meeting to address stereotypes about their religion.
In general, the Forum Club provided students who were excited by classroom discussions of social justice and democratic rights - or who were upset by events in our school - with a place where they could further explore their questions and act based on their beliefs. As the club's faculty advisor, I was able to both encourage students to see themselves as activists and to help them learn through experience how to organize for social change.