This blog post, written by Lyndi Hewitt, originally appeared on the Mobilizing Ideas blog and appears here with the author and institute’s permission. We liked it so much we just had to share! 


For those of us prescient enough (wink) to plan a social movements course for this semester, it’s been quite a ride.  I’ve been teaching a first year seminar on global justice movements and, like many other instructors, altered my carefully planned syllabus in response to the unexpected wave of activism that emerged before our very eyes.

As the students in the course simultaneously processed core social movements scholarship and news coverage of the Occupy Wall Street protests, I was particularly struck by the fact that many students had very specific and often inaccurate ideas about who the protesters were (and what it cost them to be there) even after extensive, theoretically informed class discussion and news analysis.  So I decided to invite the students to join me for a visit to Zuccotti Park.  Newly equipped with social movements concepts, along with requisite iPhones and video cameras, the students and I ventured into the park on a chilly Saturday evening in early November.  We observed a general assembly, discussed the various issues and frames represented among the signs, and interviewed protesters about their views.  Despite the fact that most of the students were initially skeptical of Occupy Wall Street, they exhibited both intellectual curiosity and great respect for the protesters.  One especially enthusiastic student prepared a short video documenting the protesters’ responses to his questions (which I share with his permission):

The two gentlemen featured prominently, both veterans, had a significant impact on the students. Their remarks around 5:50 encapsulate the disruption of students’ pre-existing assumptions: “I’m tremendously excited by what I see here. These people are extremely sophisticated people. They’re very intelligent people. They’re not bums. Don’t believe the media that we have nothing better to do, okay. We would like to be productive members of society. We were at one time and we would like to be again. We have a lot to contribute.”

Although we’d been discussing the Occupy Wall Street protests and applying social movement theories in the classroom for weeks, the experience of being in the park, seeing the encampment alongside the police, and talking with protesters proved to be a far richer learning opportunity for students. It blew the students’ minds that OWS protesters could be older, hard working, and patriotic; moreover, hearing movement grievances articulated face-to-face catalyzed a depth of understanding that wasn’t achievable simply through reading and watching video clips about those same grievances. Interestingly, our debriefing after the field trip revealed that over half the students had changed their opinions of the protesters as well as the legitimacy of the movement as a whole (all, it turned out, from an unfavorable to a more favorable opinion).

Seeing the OWS protesters through the eyes of my students reminded me how powerful a teacher experience is, and that more time spent in the midst of the action would be valuable for most of us.

Lunchtime for Hoodies

Jen’nan Ghazal Read explores views of Muslims in her article Muslims in America in the Fall 2008 issue of Contexts. You can read the full text here! This is great article to assign in any class on race, culture or politics. Use the discussion questions and activity below to incorporate this article into your class.

Also, listen to Jen’nan Ghazal Read talk about these issues on the Contexts Podcast Office Hours.


1)    How do the political views of Muslim Americans compare to the rest of the American religious public?

2)    Why might Muslims, who ideologically align with most of mainstream America, still be considered “outsiders”?

3)     Can you think of other groups that are similarly considered “outsiders” in American society today?


ACTIVITY: The author provides demographic information on Muslim Americans. Download the Pew Center Report used in the article and write a summary of any information you learned that surprised you or that
you think should be more widely known.


Below is the last (for now) post from our guest blogger, Nathan Palmer.  Nathan’s work can be followed at www.sociologysource.com

Does race still matter? This is my day one question for students in my race & ethnicity courses. Many students walk into my class on the first day thinking that racism, prejudice, and discrimination are issues that were solved in the 1960s. Frequently I hear, “”well things aren’t perfect, but they sure are getting better all the time.”  Countless students have said to me, “How much racism can there be if we have a Black president?” While I see this line of thinking more often from my white students, I have had many students of color share this mindset. Using very recent current events can convince students that racism is not a thing of the past but a very real part of our present.

Even students who believe and know that racism is alive and well are typically unaware of the numerous current events that many feel are clear examples of racism. Students are surprised to hear that just this August a Mississippi middle school barred students of color from running for class president. Most students have not heard about the controversy surrounding the firing of Shirley Sherrod over claims of racism. Students are unaware that two ROTC students spread cotton in front of the Black Culture Center at the University of Missouri in February. They are shocked to learn that, also during this past February, a student hung a noose in the UC San Diego library and shortly thereafter a UCSD fraternity put on a “ghetto themed” party called the “Compton Cookout” where guests were invited to dress like thugs and “Nappy Headed Hoes.” I tell my students that this is by no means an exhaustive list. You could also discuss the recent Arizona Immigration laws, or the recent controversy over “Dr. Laura” using the N-Word multiple times on air.

As we go through each of these news events and facts I say over and over again that I am not saying each of these events is evidence of racism. I am simply showing them examples of what others have called racism. This is crucial, because it avoids any debate about the incidents and it keeps students from feeling bullied or steamrolled. Also, students are savvy enough to draw their own conclusions.

I wrap up the discussion by asking my class, “If racism is a thing of the past, why is it in the news so frequently?” “If we have civil rights laws on the books and a Black president, why do we continue to talk about the dead issue of racism?” Needless to say, my students always seem to see the ridiculousness of these questions.

NYC Pro-Muslim Rally Marching On Sept. 11th, 2010

This in-class debate allows students to understand both sides of the controversy over whether English should be the official language of the United States. This activity is designed to be used with “English-Only Triumphs, but the Costs are High” by Alejandro Portes in Contexts Spring 2002.

Directions: Students will read the article before the class period and come to class prepared with 3 arguments in favor of English being the official language of the United States (check out http://us-english.org for arguments on this side) and 3 arguments opposed to English being the official language. Students will be assigned a side to take when they come into class. The two sides will break into smaller groups of 4-5 and discuss their arguments supporting their assigned side. Each small group will have 1 or 2 representatives who will be responsible for presenting their arguments to the other side. All representatives from one side will present their groups arguments, followed by all representatives from the other side. While one side is presenting, each student on the opposing side will come up with a rebuttal to an argument presented. After both sides have presented, the floor will be open for debate. After the debate, all students will come out of character and will have the opportunity to express their opinions on the issue. Afterward, all students will write an in-class reflection on what they learned from the debate and how they feel about this issue.

To be completed before class:

English should be the official language of the United States because:




English should not be the official language of the United States because:




In-class Small Group Work:

After all members of your group have presented their arguments, pick 3 that the group agrees are the best arguments for the debate:




As the other side presents their arguments, think of a rebuttal to one or more of their points.


Individual Reflection (after the debate):

What was your position on this issue before the debate?

What did you learn from this debate?

What is your position on this issue now?



Here is another idea for how Downey and Gibbs’ feature article  “How Schools Really Matter” (found in the Spring 2010 issue of Contexts) could be used in the classroom:


Directions:  Given that much educational inequality is due to disparities during the summer months, some people have proposed year-round schooling.  Multiple schools have developed this model, which generally  involves 6-8 weeks of class followed by a 2-week break.

Divide the class into two groups and orchestrate a debate on year-round schooling.  The debate will work best if students are given time to prepare beforehand (either assign the groups in the previous class or bring materials for them to use to prepare in class).

The following learning activity can be used to spark discussion in class when used along with “Rights Activism in China”  by Ching Kwan Lee in  Contexts Summer 2008.

Below is a simplified list of the 30 human rights accorded to every human being in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Place a “+” by the 5 human rights that you think are the most important and an “-” by the 5 rights that you think are the least important.

_________ Right to Equality
_________ Freedom from Discrimination
_________ Right to Life, Liberty, Personal Security
_________ Freedom from Slavery
_________ Freedom from Torture and Degrading Treatment
_________ Right to Recognition as a Person before the Law
_________ Right to Equality before the Law
_________ Right to Remedy by Competent Tribunal
_________ Freedom from Arbitrary Arrest and Exile
_________ Right to Fair Public Hearing
_________ Right to be Considered Innocent until Proven Guilty
_________ Freedom from Interference with Privacy, Family, Home and Correspondence
_________ Right to Free Movement in and out of the Country
_________ Right to Asylum in other Countries from Persecution
_________ Right to a Nationality and the Freedom to Change It
_________ Right to Marriage and Family
_________ Right to Own Property
_________ Freedom of Belief and Religion
_________ Freedom of Opinion and Information
_________ Right of Peaceful Assembly and Association
_________ Right to Participate in Government and in Free Elections
_________ Right to Social Security
_________ Right to Desirable Work and to Join Trade Unions
_________ Right to Rest and Leisure
_________ Right to Adequate Living Standard
_________ Right to Education
_________ Right to Participate in the Cultural Life of Community
_________ Right to a Social Order that Articulates this Document
_________ Community Duties Essential to Free and Full Development
_________ Freedom from State or Personal Interference in the above Rights

Questions to consider:

1.     Explain the rationale behind the rights you chose as most important and those that you listed as least important.

2.     How do you think your culture impacts what you view as important human rights?

3.     Are there any rights that you think should be included that are not on this list?  Are there any rights that you think are unnecessary?

4.     Does it seem like some rights are prioritized more than others today?

Here’s a simple learning activity to be used in class with Andrew Cherlin’s Contexts article “Should the Government Promote Marriage?” from Fall 2003 (also found in the Contexts Reader). Students would need to be able to reference the article as they work on this in small groups. Click here for a PDF of this worksheet.

Directions: Get into groups of 3 or 4. As a group, find evidence given in the article that supports both sides of this debate.

1)      Imagine that you are a proponent of the “Marriage Movement.” What evidence can you find in this article that supports your argument that marriage is the best family form?

2)      Now, imagine you are part of the “Diversity Defenders.” What evidence can you find in the article that supports your argument that marriage is one of many positive family forms?

Now that you have examined some evidence for both sides of the debate, discuss and answer these questions with your group:

1.  Do you think the government should encourage people to get married? If so, is there a specific group that should be targeted? If not, why not?

2. Do you think that a child who is raised by married parents benefits from their marriage?

3.  Do you think that children who are raised within other family forms (e.g. single mothers, single fathers, gay and lesbian couples, etc.) inevitably miss out on some benefits because their parents are not married?