Real Education is Relevant: Lessons from Occupy Wall Street
“…Making history class into ‘NOW’ class.” Laura Rubin, high school history teacher, New Design High School, New York City
This past Monday I had an amazing opportunity: I visited the school I previously worked for in San Diego and taught a guest lesson on Occupy Wall Street in my former teaching partner’s twelfth grade government class. As a bonus, many of the students had been previous students of mine when I taught them as eighth graders.
The class began with the question: “What does it mean to be an active participant in a democratic society?” Students brainstormed ideas in answer to the question. After we shared out, I introduced the topic for the day: the civic action of Occupy Wall Street protesters and the Occupy movement as a whole.
Next, in small groups, students analyzed photo essays, which included pictures of protest signs and posters from various Occupy sites and the Occupy Wall Street website, to determine the messages of the movement and discuss the significance of the “99%.” After compiling the groups’ collective ideas, we watched a video of Keith Olberman reading the first official statement of Occupy Wall Street, which outlined their purpose for demonstrating; students observed that it read like a list of grievances not too dissimilar to the ones in the Declaration of Independence.
A discussion followed in which students shared their thoughts on the statement we read, strategies utilized by OWS, and their agreement or critiques of the movement. We then returned to the original question posed, and I shared a few examples of local and regional efforts, briefly showing the websites for the New Jersey Teacher Activist Group (njtag.org), a student activist group, NJ Youth United (njyouthunited.org) and Occupy Education (www.occupyedu.tumblr.com), which features statements from youth, educators, and others regarding their personal efforts to “occupy education.”
The lesson closed with students revisiting their initial brainstorm and identifying concrete ideas of ways they can be involved in local civic action—one student proposed a student solidarity effort with Occupy San Diego, and we discussed options such as blogging, writing about their own school reform efforts, and contributing to websites already established, such as Occupy Education.
It was incredible being back, and even more incredible to have the opportunity to teach my former students and talk about a very relevant subject near and dear to my heart. Through my interactions with other educators, I see that many teachers are taking advantage of the teachable democratic moment of Occupy Wall Street, bringing it into their classrooms or even better, taking their students to their local movement. However, I encourage other teachers besides those who teach history or civics to think about ways to bring this very important topic to your students. Math teachers, capitalize on this moment to teach proportions, inequalities, or distribution (of income) through OWS. Science teachers—have your students brainstorm solutions to weather-related concerns of OWS camps in New York and other locations that may experience severe winter weather soon. English teachers—have your students read articles on the movement and write persuasive essays that identify the strengths and weaknesses of the movement or create a working nonfiction account of the movement…and so on. Below are websites where you can find other accounts of lessons taught on Occupy Wall street, and you can join a community of teachers committed to teaching about the movement at https://www.facebook.com/groups/teachOWS.