By Jackie Whitwill, Bayhill English Teacher and Department Chair
Bayhill Junior States of America representatives attended a two-day congress with 100’s of students from Northern California.
Key Note Speaker, Bill Whittle: “Now let me explain something to you. You cannot legislate against a crisis.”
15 Year Old High School Student: “You are skilled orator, sir, but you did not answer my question. How does this proposed economy, without accounting for externalities, cope with market failure?”
Regardless of where you may fall on the political spectrum, this snippet of an exchange was a wonder to behold. The student-run and student-elected cabinet for Northern California’s Junior State of America made the controversial decision to ask a conservative pundit to speak at this year’s Winter Congress, just blocks away from the State Capitol building. As could be expected, tensions rose during the Q&A portion. Bill Whittle’s responses to questions posed by more liberal-minded students gradually rose in their tenor. As those responses grew to be inappropriately hostile, condescending, and misleading on his part, I remained silent.
The teacher, woman, and mother in me desperately wanted to rise to this young girl’s defense and decry the lack of facts found in some of the responses Mr. Whittle had made. I wanted my own students to have the benefit of my education as I put this man’s skilled oration in perspective. But, I didn’t need to. Through her own research and the platform for public speaking that JSA provides, a high school student stood her own and disagreed with an adult who was further empowered by his reputation, wealth, and even the podium he stood behind.
This is the beauty of the Junior State of America, and I am so glad that my own students, all of whom learn differently, were able to witness this young girl’s empowerment. You see, for the most part, teachers are discouraged from voicing our own opinions or guidance in the debates and votes that occur at these yearly conventions. These discussions, debates, and decisions have been set up by students, for students.
I had feared that the skill with which he spoke would distract my students from fact checking and making their own opinions. What if they agreed, but didn’t know why? What if they disagreed, but only because they thought their parents would disagree? My fears were unfounded. Though not quite ready to take on the mic and this pundit directly, one of the more reserved of the 9 Bayhill students who attended this conference whispered his own criticism of the keynote speaker.
Bill Whittle: I’ve been paid as a scientist. I’m not degree’d but I have been a lab assistant. And I can tell you that as soon as you changed the term to “climate change” you lost the argument. The climate has been changing for millennia.
Bayhill Junior: He’s totally ignoring the fact that the other changing ‘for millenia’ actually took millenia to happen.
At lunch afterward, these conversations continued. I had the pleasure of silently observing my students wrestle with statements made that they had never heard anywhere before in the relative bubble of the Bay Area. This wasn’t an assignment, there was no grade. But here, in the real world, they were thinking critically and forming their own opinions with nary a graphic organizer or teacher prompt in sight.
In the world of learning differences, much of our instruction is teacher led. Complex content is scaffolded and broken down into categorical, digestible parts. As an English teacher I also provide support and prompting for students to express their thoughts on this content in essays. Yet, when I attend these conferences or even our own JSA chapter’s weekly meetings, I do almost none of that.
For the past 4 years, students have approached me and asked that I serve as their JSA Advisor. These students who struggle with reading, writing, executive function, and, for a few, socialization actively put themselves out there in a crowd of 1000 unknown high school students to debate the topics that will matter for their shared futures. As a teacher of students with so many diverse needs, it has always served as a powerful reminder that I do not always need to be the one talking.