I recently volunteered on a career panel for first generation, college-bound high schoolers. I have volunteered in this capacity with various non-profits organizations before and always have been categorized as “lawyer” or “teacher” depending on what was needed more of on the day in question. What struck me about this particular career panel was that this panel and subsequent sectioning had me labeled as “advocate.” When I inquired about this title, wondering if the kids would even know what an ubiquitously labeled advocate does, I was shocked by the response by the facilitator. She said, “Yes, of course they know what an advocate is, half of them want to be advocates.”
With a growing desire to be advocates and the growing need for students to become and be their own advocates, how do we effectively teach mindful advocacy in the classroom? How do we allow students to thrive through graceful and respectful argument and persuasion? Here are a few ways I have seen students develop amazing “advocacy” and rhetoric skills in the classroom.
Allow a space for argument. This takes some dynamic and careful teaching skills, but allows students the space to disagree, argue a grade or make a counterargument to a point you made in class. By establishing a normative surrounding argument, you encourage both its use and the appropriateness of respectful disagreement. Establish ground rules of when and how students should present arguments or counterarguments. Enforce the necessity of evidence and rationality with a side of humor and flexibility and your students will be respectful advocates in no time.
Define advocacy. Take some time to teach the concept of advocacy and build in advocacy with argument in your CCSS curriculum. Ask your students to define what advocacy means to them and how advocacy can impact their school, community and their world. Teach about the power of advocacy and what advocacy looks like for them by teaching case studies of current community advocacy.
Fight. Fight the power. I am sure many teachers reading this have also read and love Paolo Friere and his amazing “Power of the Pedagogy.” It is useful to read the books about the power dynamics in the classroom and how we can begin to combat them. By teaching and acknowledging power dynamics in the classroom, students will feel more comfortable with speaking their truth in a situation when they are not the most powerful people in the room.
Invite a non-traditional advocate to speak. This takes a bit of research but ask someone working in the community, at a non-profit organization or an agent of change in your city to come in to talk about how they got started in advocacy. Each person who identifies him or herself or is identified as an advocate started by challenging something small (or maybe big) that he or she felt was unfair. I got started on my journey for advocacy by being forced to navigate an antiquated disability system at my university while I was chronically ill. It was through this marginalization experience that I was able to more profoundly empathize with those who lacked power in a given situation. You also don’t need to be an “advocate” to advocate. Allow room for small advocacy and big advocacy.
Encourage speaking and listening (in all forms). Speaking and listening conferences help students develop rhetoric skills and develop their persuasive voice. Ask students questions that allow them to more fully develop their critical thinking skills and their oral advocacy skills all at the same time. If time does not allow for speaking and listening conferences, engage in Socratic dialogue in your classrooms so students, again, can begin honing their spoken literacy skills to properly advocate. There is a reason that law school doesn’t aim to teach content but rather teach people to think like a lawyer. Socratic dialogue encourages students to think like an advocate, like a problem solver and like an active member of his or her community.
Most of all, encourage students to change their classroom and begin to think about changing their world. These nascent minds are prime for advocacy because there is no dream too big or problem too messy for them to solve. With that said, happy advocating!