In 2006 I was teaching English at a South Phoenix high school. As word spread about the march planned to protest immigration legislation, many teachers told our students that cutting school to participate would affect their grade. Some teachers even promised to give students Fs on any work missed that day. This just didn't make sense to me—particularly in a day and age when we struggle to engage our students with meaningful learning experiences and furthermore, our school was 80% Latino. It doesn't get much more real than that.
I did what I thought any rational teacher should do. I told my students that I'd give them credit for participating and writing about it.
In preparation, we read the forthcoming legislation and wrote our own thoughts on what exactly "the problem" was and how to solve it. We discussed Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Cesar Chavez. We talked about the power of non-violent protest and what changes had been affected by it—such as the walk out of Chicano students from Los Angeles schools in the 60s and how it led to an inclusive curriculum.
There were holes in class attendance on the day of the march. I streamed video of the protest, thousands of people—of all ages and many ethnicities. En masse, the unbroken line was so long that some were still leaving the starting point while others were arriving at their destination. Honestly, it brought tears to my eyes.
The next day, a number of students came up to me glowing. For some, participating changed their lives. It gave them an opportunity to discover their voice in a society that often ignored them. This, in turn, gave them hope and empowerment. I was so proud of them.
How do I feel about the "peaceful disruption of 'business as usual?'" I agree with Howard Zinn, who said, "Dissent is the highest form of patriotism." And I believe, that even if some people show up to a protest just because there's a crowd, they end up learning something. The air is too full of commentary, discussion, and informed exchanges of information not to absorb a few ideas. Such involvement challenges individuals to find their opinion and make a stand for change. As one student observed, "We are the people."