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Student protest

04/02/07 12:00AM By Joe Deffner
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(HOST)Students at Vermont's oldest secondary school, Thetfford Academy, joined thousands of others in protesting the fourth anniversary of the Iraq War . Commentator and teacher Joe Deffner offers his thoughts on why this one was a little different.

(DEFFNER) We have a saying at my school and it's usually said in response to a situation like the one I'm about to describe. The saying is: "Only at Thetford Academy."

I had occasion to use this saying just the other day when I learned of a scheduled class walk out. The walkout took place last week. What was not remarkable was that the kids had planned a walkout, or the reason for the walkout itself. What was remarkable was the fact that at our rural school, of less than four hundred students, across six grades, students and the administration had worked out the details ahead of time. That's not to say that the protest had the blessing of the administration, but student organizer Catherine Craig had called up Head of School Martha Rich to arrange it, so that it would have the least impact on what Head of School Rich calls "academic life and orderly routines."

Together the two of them settled on the day. The usual consequences for participants in the protest would apply - one hour of detention for each block of class missed. In fact, thanks to the TA Student Protest Guidelines, they were both very clear on this point.

The guidelines go back to March, 2003, when the war in Iraq began. At that time some Thetford Academy students had joined the anti-war movement, while others gathered to express their support for U.S. government policy.

As a citizen, I believed in what the students were trying to do; as a teacher, I was conflicted. I supported the position of the majority of the protesters, but I wasn't convinced that school was the right venue. "Who's going to see them, anyhow?" one of my seventh graders asked in a rhetorical outburst. Plus, I think that if you are going to protest, it should somehow involve sacrificing a little free time.

But on the day before the protest, I maintained neutrality as I helped my seventh graders weigh the pros and cons of participating. "What do you do at a protest, anyway?" one of them asked. I gave him the old standard response, "Well, you hold up signs; you sing songs; you try to change people's minds."

At our school, however, I would have been wise to consult my copy of the Student Protest Guidelines and add that a protest should promote "informed, thoughtful, and responsible discourse, especially when people disagree on important issues."

If they did that, I guess I shouldn't feel too bad about the protesters who missed my class. After all, isn't that a lesson we want all of our kids to learn?

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