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October, 2012 - Students Petition the Government in the 21st Century

In his seminal book Democracy and Education, John Dewey wrote that there was no better site for political and democratic action than the school.[1] A noteworthy example of Dewey’s idea occurred this fall in Sharon Springs, Kansas, at Wallace County High School. A group of teachers and students created a music video called “We Are Hungry” to voice their displeasure over the calorie limits in lunches served at school.

 

The new calorie program was mandated by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 to curb calories and fat in school lunches. According to the plan, improving nutrition equals cutting down on maximum calorie levels: in this case, 850 calories for high school students. The program also allows students to get additional helpings of fruits and vegetables and to purchase extra á la carte items.

The “We Are Hungary” video parodies the song “We Are Young” by the band Fun and shows students collapsing from hunger or smuggling snacks from home into their lockers. Within two weeks of being posted on YouTube, the video had garnered over 500,000 views. Hundreds of students at other schools have held boycotts and protests, such as smuggling junk food into their schools.

Students generally agree the imposed food changes are most likely beneficial, but the calorie caps, especially 850 for high school students, are just too low. With rigorous athletic training and practice schedules, students can burn significantly more than 850 calories over the course of a school day. High school football players, for example, burn upwards of 1500 to 2000 calories or more just at practice.

In the “old days”—and maybe even the “not-so-old-days”—students would generally be discouraged from challenging such mandates handed down from on high. They would have been referred to the textbook covering the Boston Tea Party or the text of the First Amendment’s right to petition the government. But today, when voting among the young is at an all-time low; when many high school students are characterized as being high-maintenance and unproductive; when so many adolescents are plugged in, turned off, and have no place to go; teachers are challenged trying to apply old methods of teaching civics and history. Student projects like “We Are Hungry” are pointing educators in new directions to better engage students in civic participation.

Film critics can comment about the video’s production value and the students’ overacting. Cynics can complain that these students don’t know how privileged they are to even have a school lunch program. But, hey, the same could be said about the Boston Tea Party as grown men “disguised” themselves as Indians and threw cases of tea into Boston Harbor, in spite of the fact that the tea was less expensive with the tax than without. Isn’t the “We Are Hungry” video an example of exactly what we’re supposed to be doing in schools? Isn’t this the type of civic engagement what we’re supposed to be encouraging? Content standards from the National Council for the Social Studies to McREL to the National Standards for Civics and Government would agree.

The right to petition the government is one of the most fundamental rights in a democracy. It serves as a safety valve for citizens’ frustration. It improves the way government works. This type of active-learning experience is meaningful to students. It involves an issue that interests them—something where they have skin in the game. It engages them in critical thinking and advanced reasoning. In producing the video, the Wallace County High School students had to consider multiple perspectives, synthesize information, and present a coherent story that demonstrated their understanding of the issue. Engaging students in an activity such as this prepares them to be active and productive citizens in a democracy.

Below are some classroom lesson ideas you may want to try with your own students.

Starters:

  • Show the video “We Are Hungry” (found on YouTube) to your class and ask students for their reactions.
    • What is the central message of the video?
    • Who is the intended audience?
    • Do you agree or disagree with this message? Why?
    • Does the video provide information on what outcome the creators would like to happen?
    • Do you think the message of the video is well presented and effective? Why or why not? How could the message be presented more effectively?
    • Do you think this is an effective way for students to voice their opinions and petition the government? Why or why not?
    • If you had a similar concern about the school lunch program, how would you make your voice heard?

 

Larger Lessons:

  • Present the First Amendment clause on free speech, press, assembly, and petition. Ask students why they think such rights are important. Ask them to provide examples where these rights have been practiced. How do such rights help citizens? How do they help the government? Have them Identify what limits they feel should be placed on citizens to practice these rights and why.
  • Open up a discussion that explores the role of government. You can use the founding documents such as the Preamble of the Constitution as a primer, but be sure to also incorporate phrases from the Declaration of Independence, particularly the phrases right to “life, liberty, and property,” “governments are instituted among men, deriving powers from the consent of the governed,” and the limitations on government as expressed in the Amendment. Then review the two ideological positions of liberals and conservatives over the role of government (liberals generally believe that government can play a role providing services to help the less fortunate and regulate businesses to protect people. Conservatives believe individuals should take personal responsibility for themselves and its best to have people make decisions about what they want through the free market.) Have students find news articles and OpEd pieces that either support or reject government programs like the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Have students conduct a debate on the merits of government programs like this law.
  • Have students brainstorm a list of issues occurring in school or in the community that concern them. Have students select one or two issues they’d like to address. Have them begin to isolate the issue by identifying the situation or problem, explaining why it is a problem, suggesting actions they could take to address the problem and what outcome they’d like to see from their actions. Then have them develop a plan of action to address the problem.

These are just a few suggestions. Several INTERACT units like Government Activators, Volume II; Families in Their Neighborhoods; and Solving Problems in the Park are full of ideas and examples of ways students could become engaged in voicing their opinions and exercising their right to civic engagement.

We’d love to hear of any projects you’ve conducted with your students that engage them in active learning in civic engagement, or any questions you may have on how to further engage your students. Get started by posting in the comments section below.


[1] Dewey, John. Democracy and Education. Macmillan Company, NY, NY. 1916

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