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Too Young to Vote, but Not to March: Lessons in Youth Civic Engagement

Nearly one million students are estimated to have participated in this month’s gun violence protest, and tens of thousands of young people are expected to attend this weekend’s March for Our Lives. This lesson will help students put this movement into context by drawing on two key episodes of the Civil Rights movement, inviting students to consider the virtues that were embodied by participants in each event. This context will help students better understand the important role they play as citizens in our free society.


  • Students will understand select key youth-led civic movements in the United States.
  • Students will explore the virtues necessary to lead effective social movements.


Background Activity: 20 minutes

Youth civic engagement in America has a long history. This background activity gives students resources to explore two different types of youth-led protests in the civil rights era: the “Children’s Crusade” and the Tinker v. Des Moines Supreme Court case. In May 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference encouraged children to participate in a protest march in Birmingham, Alabama. The “Children’s Crusade,” as it came to be known, ultimately led to the desegregation of Birmingham’s businesses, but many children were jailed and injured over the course of the protests. Two years later and 800 miles away, Des Moines students John and Mary Beth Tinker, along with a friend, wore black armbands to their school, to express their disapproval for the ongoing Vietnam War and mourn the soldiers who had perished during the conflict. After the school suspended the students until they agreed not to wear the armbands, the Tinkers took their case to the Supreme Court, which ultimately decided that the school could not violate students’ First Amendment right to free speech. Distribute Handout A: Children’s CrusadeHandout C: Tinker v. Des Moines – Case Background, and Handout D: Documents to Examine (G-J).

Once students have completed the reading, ask them to discuss (as the whole class or in small groups) the following questions:

Handout A: Children’s Crusade

  1. Why did King and the SCLC decide that it was necessary to include children in the Birmingham protests?
  2. What actions did Birmingham officials take following the conclusion of the Children’s Crusade?
  3. Some people were critical of the decision to expose children to violence, including Malcolm X, who said, “…real men don’t put their children on the firing line.” Do you agree?
  4. King remained convinced that it was necessary for children to participate in the protests, and he asserted that the experience allowed children to develop “…a sense of their own stake in freedom.” Do you agree?

Handout B: Tinker v. Des Moines – Case Background and Handout C: Documents to Examine (G-J)

  1. Why did John and Mary Beth Tinker, along with their friend, decide that it was necessary to wear black armbands to school?
  2. Do you agree with the school’s decision to suspend the students?
  3. What was the Supreme Court’s decision in this case?
  4. Do you support the majority opinion, or do you side with Justices Black and Harlan? And why?

In-Class Activity: 10-20 minutes

Distribute Handout D: Civic Virtue Quote Cards and Handout E: Maria Montessori Quote. As a class, discuss the following:

  1. What virtues have youth protestors exhibited?
  2. What are the different kinds of virtues that were called for in Birmingham and Des Moines? What are the similar ones?
  3. Do you agree or disagree with the Maria Montessori quote: “In all adult society the child is an outsider…So he is shut up in special rooms… Or else he is banished to school, to that exile which adults reserve for children until they are able to live in the adult world without disrupting it. Only then can he be admitted to human society.” –Maria Montessori, Basic ideas of Montessori’s Educational Theory, Kinder sind anders, 1931
  4. What could young people do in order to change the perception articulated by Maria Montessori?