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Stenciling Dissent: A Student project Draws on the Language of the Street

Political graffiti engages students in the history of protest for social justice
Stenciling Dissent: A Student project Draws on the Language of the Street

Illustration: Andrew Reed

A couple of summers ago I was racking my brain to come up with new lessons for my U.S. history classes. I wanted the format of their projects to reflect the content of our unit on the power of protest. I finally came up with the idea that my students would create stencil images. Stencils are often used as a form of street protest, not just in the United States but throughout the world, because they’re easy to make, quick to apply, and can be used over and over.

Because most of my students here in Wichita, Kan., are immigrants or children of immigrants and from lower socioeconomic households, I stress in my history classes how dissent, strikes, and protest have given the poor, minorities, and immigrants a voice when the vote hasn’t. When my students learn about people like Sacco and Vanzetti, Emma Goldman, and Malcolm X, and events like the 1892 Homestead Strike and the United Farm Workers’ grape boycotts of the 1960s, it gives them an understanding of the struggles and achievements of those in the past who have faced obstacles similar to those my students and their families face today.

The relevance of this kind of curriculum was apparent in April 2006. After learning about the 1968 Chicano student walkouts, some of my students organized a walkout in solidarity with the nationwide immigrant rights rallies and walkouts going on at that time. My students’ walkout involved about 500 young people from different Wichita high schools; it ended up on the front page of the Wichita Eagleand was the top story on all three local evening newscasts. I took no part in organizing the student walkout and, contrary to the superintendent’s claims, no other adults organized it either; it was all led by students. On the other hand, I do believe that the history curriculum they learned in my class gave them a sense that they were capable of doing it. The following year, I wanted to do something to keep alive my students’ spirit of protest.

Our power of protest unit dovetailed with a school district requirement for a research-based persuasive essay. I decided to ask students to choose an individual, group, or event essential to the history of dissent in the United States. Their project would entail researching their chosen topic, writing the essay, creating and printing a stencil, and distilling the essence of their topic into a paragraph to accompany the stencil.

The list of topics I gave students included individuals like Emma Tenayuca (labor organizer for Mexican migrant workers in the 1930s), Fred Korematsu (Japanese American who resisted relocation to an internment camp during World War II), and Philip and Daniel Berrigan (Catholic priests who protested against the Vietnam War); organizations like the Brown Berets (Chicano rights activists in the 1960s who were inspired by the Black Panthers); and events like the Ludlow massacre (famous labor strike in 1914) and even the recent immigration rights rallies.

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