Teaching SOPA in School

Greg Beach is a First Year Teaching Fellow at the Edwards Middle School in Charlestown, MA

Earlier this month, we celebrated the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a man whose legacy of peaceful protest and indefatigable pursuit of justice still resonates in schools across the country. One could even argue that Dr. King’s message is stronger and more vivid than ever in this modern age, when an African American man is one of the only presidents our students have ever known. The national holiday commemorating Dr. King is an opportunity for us to reflect on the past, assess the present and dream of the future. Dr. King’s universal message of freedom and equality also provides a topic around which teachers and students of all backgrounds can unite in solidarity, despite our differences. And so, I decided to take time out of the day to teach a lesson on non-violent protest in honor of MLK day.

However, I knew that I did not want to rehash the same points that these students have heard in school since their first days of elementary. Most students have heard the tale of Rosa Parks, of the “I Have a Dream” speech, of the civil rights marches. I wanted to take the classic story of Dr. King and the movement he was so closely associated with and rebrand it for the contemporary citizen classroom. As luck would have it, the day I decided to teach this lesson was the same day of the anti-SOPA Internet black-out. On this day, innumerable websites either shut down or altered their websites in protest of SOPA, a bill introduced in Congress that would effectively enable the US government to censor the Internet. What better way to learn about non-violent protest than by discussing such a protest happening as we spoke?

I was apprehensive as to whether such an abstract topic like SOPA and Internet censorship would escape my students. To make it tangible, I introduced this topic by showing the students the Google homepage, which had blacked out its logo, and Wikipedia, which had completely shut down. This provoked interest but didn’t get the conversation started as I would have liked. Fortunately, I had another trick up my sleeve, an angle that I knew would catch their attention.

I explained that under SOPA, if you were to share a video or song from YouTube on a friend’s Facebook wall, the government could have the authority to shut down your Facebook page or even the entire Facebook website! Suddenly, the class exploded. “That’s a force, Mr. Beach.” “The government did not think that one through.” “They can’t do that to my page!” The students, having been brought up in an Internet culture of peer-to-peer sharing, simply could not understand why this was happening.

The SOPA discussion went on for quite some time, taking twists and turns to talk about copyright, the ethics of file-sharing, and the power of the Internet to affect change. The dynamic and genuine discussion was enough to make a teacher like me grin from ear to ear. But it wasn’t over yet! Next, I showed them a slideshow of other famous examples of non-violent protest. They got a kick out of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Bed-In’s (“What’s ‘Hair Peace?’”) and were blown away by the powerful imagery of Tank Man in Tiananmen Square. The students’ imaginations were ignited; questions abounded. I concluded the lesson by showing my students a picture of the Egyptian masses in Tahrir Square and a video with photos of the Egyptian revolution narrated by quotes from Dr. King, bringing the lesson to a full circle.

I was astounded and inspired by how enthusiastic my students were during this discussion. They clearly wanted to know so much more about the world they live in and despite their age, already had well-formed opinions and ideas about social issues. They steered the conversation to what they wanted to say and learn while remaining focused on the central theme of non-violent protest and social justice. I could not have asked for a more successful lesson or a more engaged group of students.

I share this story to remind us all of our roles as civic mentors for these young citizens. 21st century skills certainly have their place but so does the discussion of what it means to be a 21st century citizen. Thinking critically and discussing openly our ideas about the world we live, a world these students will soon inherit, is as essential as any element of Citizen Schools. We must not forget this.