Student Activists and Authors: Contemporary Youth Voices as Classroom Texts

By Kissel, Brian T.; Whittingham, Colleen E. et al. | English Journal, March 2019 | Go to article overview

Student Activists and Authors: Contemporary Youth Voices as Classroom Texts


Kissel, Brian T., Whittingham, Colleen E., Laman, Tasha Tropp, Miller, Erin T., English Journal


On February 14, 2018, a nineteen-year-old gunman entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, with an AR-15 assault rifle and killed seventeen students and teachers and wounded seventeen more. It was the 208th school shooting since student gunmen opened fire on their classmates and teachers at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999 (Roberts). Despite the familiar American scene of lined-up students being ushered out of school buildings while their classmates lay wounded or dead inside, and despite repeated calls for restrictions on the guns used in such shootings, nearly twenty years after Columbine, the gun lobby retains a powerful grip on the nation's politicians-using money and political pressure to maintain the status quo. After Parkland, however, a unique revolution unfolded. Led by the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, adolescents challenged the powerful gun lobby and special interest groups through their advocacy for new legislation related to gun ownership. They redefined the fight, equipping themselves with weapons of their own: pencils, keyboards, microphones, newspapers, and social media. With this arsenal, they wrote. They wrote to inform the world about their own terrifying experiences as survivors. And they wrote to ignite systemic change in our nation's gun laws. In doing so, they crafted contemporary mentor texts-modern exemplars that have the potential to provide students relevant companions for the canonical texts prevalent in their classrooms.

Writing artifacts that advocate for social change (e.g., speeches) have a rich tradition in our nation's history-and our English language arts classrooms (Bomer; Singer). Consider Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, Sojourner's Truth's "Ain't I a Woman" speech given at the 1851 Women's Convention, and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech delivered on the National Mall during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. Although these speeches were written decades ago, contemporary students study them as demonstrations of historical impact and to learn how the rhetorical features of such writing can serve as effective tools to push a nation toward change.

We believe these to be important artifacts worthy of study; yet, we maintain that contemporary texts that respond to issues that concern K-12 students today, particularly those authored by students, can serve as equally powerful instructional tools. Because these texts provide an opportunity for conversations about relevant, pressing social issues, centering studentauthored texts in classrooms allows teachers to facilitate meaningful dialogue within the context of writing instruction. The use of student-authored texts as mentor texts demonstrates the use of "old tricks" (the rhetorical devices taught) with "new tools" (e.g., the use of Twitter as a communicative platform and the use of YouTube to reach national and international audiences). But perhaps more importantly, we believe that the incorporation of student expression communicates a message to other young people: "We see you."

This article examines ways three students from Parkland, Florida, who survived the massacre, used their experiences as witnesses to gun violence in their school community to write their way into our nation's consciousness and how English teachers can bring their writing into the classroom. We annotate the students' texts to highlight the rhetorical moves the student-authors used to communicate their messages. We recognize that these texts reflect-in part-the cumulative knowledge learned from committed teachers who, somewhere along the way, may have taught the authors the rhetorical tools necessary to write convincingly. However, we centralize the words of the students and highlight the ways they use their voices-and their writing-to incite change all the way from a small Florida town to the streets of our nation's capital.

We begin with Emma Gonzalez's impassioned speech, "We call BS," delivered in front of the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, at an antigun rally just three days after the shootings ("Florida Student"). …

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