Student Activists: Peace-seekers or Troublemakers?

Last month Malala Yousafzai, the young girl from Pakistan who was shot by the Taliban, shared a win of the Nobel Peace Prize. Malala’s proclamation that girls deserve an education was heard around the world. This month a private school federation in her home country has proclaimed an “I am Not Malala Day.”

How can a young woman be seen as a peacemaker and a troublemaker at the same time?

In my middle school literacy class, we discussed Malala’s Nobel Peace Prize last month and read aloud the letter the Obamas wrote to her in Time Magazine. Now it was time to discuss how some people in her home country have been less than supportive of Malala’s stance on education.

According to the Common Core Standards that mandate what must be taught in our Colorado classrooms, teachers are expected to teach students to see both sides of an issue so they can learn to develop their own opinions:

When my students learned about Malala’s win, they were excited for her. When they heard about the public opposition for her ideas, they were confused. How could the same girl be seen as a peacemaker and a troublemaker?

“How could people be mad at her for standing up for herself?” one seventh-grade girl asked.

An eighth-grade boy added, “If she knew her own people would turn on her, do you think she would have kept quiet?”

“There must be a bad side to her or people wouldn’t be mad at her,” a seventh-grade boy said.

We have a strong lesson to teach our children. Malala isn’t a politician; she wasn’t looking for fame or attention or a popular vote when she became a champion for educating girls. When you stand up for what you believe, there will always be those who disagree with you. If you find a peaceful way of sharing your peaceful message, you will be heard.

Colorado has its own movement of youth protest. Students around the state are voicing concerns over education reform and standardized testing.

Many high school seniors are staging protests, collecting signatures, and skipping classes to make a point: they refuse to be a silent witness to reforms to their education.

Kyle Ferris, a student at the Columbine High School, has led protests at his school. Success to him would mean the Jefferson County school board is acting in the interests of teachers and students and not changing the history curriculum to reflect conservative politicians.

A large percentage of high school seniors in the Boulder Valley School District, Cherry Creek and Douglas County School Districts have refused to take the new seven-hour Senior CMAS test this year.  Students from Fairview High school staged a protest on November 13th. Inside the building only seven students sat for the test. Others showed their determination by standing outside in the bitter cold protesting a required exam that included skills and information that were not part of their degrees. Why should they give a full day of their education to a test that will not help them learn anything new or prepare them for college?

2014 will be remembered as the year students in Colorado learned that in a democratic society, they have a voice and we will listen. Changes will have to be made so that districts that insist on “mining data” results for 95% of their students can continue to get funding.

An education must be a value to all. Let’s celebrate all students — here and abroad — who find ways to peacefully stand up for their educational rights. Though some grown-ups might grumble when kids force us to look at our policies and make changes, they are in fact peace-makers, all of them.