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The 74 Interview: Jeff Foster Taught Parkland Students the Power of Protests. Now He’s on a Mission to Inspire the Next Generation of Voters

By Mark Keierleber | October 27, 2020

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School teacher Jeff Foster embraces Emma Gonzalez, his student and a prominent youth activist, after her speech at the 2018 “March for Our Lives” demonstration in Washington, D.C. against gun violence in schools in the United States. (Emilee McGovern/Getty Images)

See previous 74 Interviews: Journalist Paul Tough on class, race and the pursuit of college; EdBuild’s Rebecca Sibilia on America’s ‘jacked up’ school funding system; Parkland teacher, filmmaker talk HBO documentary on the shooting and its aftermath; and the full archive of 74 interviews.

Before the gunshots rang out at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, AP government teacher Jeff Foster spent the day lecturing his Florida students on the political power of special interest groups — including the National Rifle Association.

Because of the gun group’s vice grip on American policy, he told his students, tragedies like the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School come and go without major reforms. “If we can’t change gun laws now after little innocent kids get shot up in a school,” he recalled telling his students, “it’s never going to happen.”

That afternoon in February 2018, a gunman opened fire at Foster’s school and killed 17 people. Practically overnight, several of his students, including David Hogg and Emma González, became potent figures in the divisive debate over American gun laws.

“It was really just a weird coincidence that it happened that way,” Foster told The 74. “But it also might have been the impetus for why these kids were like ‘Not this time.’”

In response to the tragedy, the Parkland students went head-to-head with the NRA by forming their own special interest group, March for Our Lives, to advocate for new gun laws and inspire young people to get out and vote. Foster, who helped ignite their political fire, stood by their side to provide advice and support.

For two decades, Foster has used his classroom to incubate a new generation of active citizens who recognize the power they wield in shaping our government and political discourse. Now, after helping propel his students to the national stage, he hopes to empower an even younger cohort. Through his new book “For Which We Stand: How Our Government Works and Why It Matters,” Foster aims to imprint children ages 7 to 12 on the power of civics, offering a roadmap on how young people can become change agents.

“We live in a great country that allows every person to effect change,” Foster writes. “There are new issues popping up every day. How we deal with these new problems is what is going to define the next generation — your generation. Don’t be a bystander. Be a problem solver.”

Ahead of the high-profile presidential election next month — when young voters are expected to turn out in record numbers — The 74 caught up with Foster to discuss his new book and how he’s working to inspire the next generation of voters. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The 74: It’s an interesting time to be a government teacher, with the Supreme Court confirmation hearings and the election coming up. What did you teach in the classroom today? 

Foster: We were talking about the hearings themselves. We were talking about some of the formal powers of the president including his ability to appoint people, and then we started talking about how justices are appointed. They’re astute enough to realize that ideology plays the number-one factor in 2020 in terms of selecting a judge.

I gave them 25 minutes and we just sat together and watched some of the questions during the hearing. Especially this year because of the election, it was almost like a political ad tied to a confirmation hearing. Ted Cruz will spend 15 minutes talking about why the Republicans are better than the Democrats and then ask a couple of questions. Amy Klobuchar, who the kids knew because she ran for president, was after Ted Cruz and she spent 20 minutes ripping the Republicans and talking about health care.

The students asked, ‘Aren’t they supposed to be asking Amy Coney Barrett questions?’ I said ‘Generally yes, but it’s become more of a political circus this year because we are approaching an election.’

(Amy Coney Barrett was sworn into the Supreme Court Oct. 27 after being confirmed Oct. 26 by the Senate along sharply partisan lines. Her confirmation gives conservatives a 6-3 majority on the high court.)

Life, for better or for worse, really wraps itself around the pandemic. These kids are learning things everyday that’s directly tied to the government, like the debate over whether to wear masks. We’re in a school district here where we’re not really allowed to go back to school full time, yet two counties up, every kid in the county is going back to school. Our governor makes decisions that’s different than Cuomo, the governor of New York. Even though we all focus on the presidential election because of the press coverage, these smaller elections have more of an impact on us.

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That’s a great point. Your book does highlight the presidential debates and the three branches of the federal government, but it also talks about the importance of local politics like mayoral races. How do you think the shooting at your school affected the politics of your community?

It’s much more political than it’s ever been before. I mean, my local sphere of friends on Facebook and Twitter is comprised of a lot of people from the Parkland area and their politics are a heck of a lot more active now — I’d say times 20 — than it was pre-shooting. They have an opinion on everything. You would think we’d be galvanized behind one voice, but no, it’s all over the map.

Parents are active, the community is active, teachers are active. It’s a shame that it took such a tragic event to bring people to the political arena, but it’s nice to see people engaged and taking a stand on things.

I moderated two of the debates locally. I did the mayoral debate and I did the city commissioner debate on back-to-back days. Even though we really don’t focus on local governments at the high school level, I was able to talk to my students about the job of the city commissioner and the mayor and why they could set a curfew for you in town, they could decide what’s allowed or what’s not allowed in the city of Parkland post the Parkland massacre.

My hope, along with every other hopeful civics/government teacher, is to inspire people, at a minimum, to vote. I really think, because of the combination of all the stuff that’s happened over the last six months to a year in this country, I think we’re going to have one of the biggest turnouts in the history of politics. As a government teacher, I’m hoping that it’s the younger people that push that number up.

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Even before the shooting, how did you encourage your students to become involved politically even if they weren’t old enough to vote? How did Emma González, David Hogg and the other student activists use your lessons in their advocacy? 

We have a lot of Socratic discussion in class. I try to bring up a lot of topics that are difficult to talk about and to be an unbiased moderator. We were talking about Black Lives Matter in my class since its inception. I think a combination of bringing up conversations about topics that are controversial and also really explaining how things work legitimately. Not just just teaching ‘This is how a bill becomes a law.’ No, break down and really talk to them about how interest groups work and why they’re motivated to do what they’re doing.

Jeff Foster explains the Electoral College in his new book For Which We Stand: How Our Government Works and Why It Matters. (Jeff Foster)

If you would have asked me on Feb. 13 to pick out six kids that are going to be political by the end of this year and might run for office in the future, David and Emma would have been at the top of the list because of the way they participated in class. David sat in the front seat in my class and when lectures were over, the other kids almost started to begrudge him a bit because we’d be done and they’d want to talk to their buddies or play on their phones. But then David would raise his hand and ask a great question which would get me talking for five more minutes. I know David is on the record of saying he wants to run for Congress as soon as he turns 25.

I’m proud of all of them and I still talk to them occasionally. They’re living their lives and doing their thing. Some of them have drawn away from it and some of them are still out there. As the election comes up, it’s nice to see that they’re out there pushing and working for different groups. I’m hoping that one of them will become president someday soon so I can become the Secretary of Education and switch some things around in this country.

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Kids in your class can get into pretty heated political debates. You’re a registered Republican teacher who helped a group of teens — several of them now prominent liberal activists — launch a campaign for heightened gun laws. How did you reckon with that personally, and what do you teach your kids about how to engage with peers who have different political opinions? 

That’s one thing I pride myself on, for sure. In terms of social issues, I’m extremely liberal and in terms of financial issues, I’m extremely conservative. In terms of my classroom, I’m well versed on both sides of the arguments. The year after the shooting, the hardest thing was that the kids were so raw still from everything. If you bring up something like gun laws and you’ve got a handful of conservative kids in there that are hunters, you’re going to have some arguments in the class because about 22 of the kids are anti-gun and might have lost a friend.

No matter what we’re talking about, whether it’s abortion or gun laws or COVID with masks or no masks, no matter what they say, I try to play devil’s advocate and play the other side and always demand civil discourse. No name-calling, no interrupting.

Most of them want to take a side, most of them want to be informed, and I think it’s incumbent on us as instructors no matter what you’re teaching, whether it’s how to write a story or how to be engaged in the political process, I want them to have the ability to formulate a side and then defend that side. It’s not about what you believe, it’s about why you believe it, and how strongly you believe it.

My favorite part of your book was the section explaining how young people can become engaged in the political process — even if they aren’t old enough to vote. Why do you believe that this message is important?

I think it’s important because once it becomes ingrained as the norm for them, so if they start at 6 or 8 or 10, hopefully they’re going to be engaged for the next 80 years. They can have an impact and make a difference and not accept the mantra of a lot of people who are just like ‘It is what it is.’ That is the exact opposite of my mantra in life. You need to get informed to allow yourself to become a citizen activist. That allows you to control your own destiny as opposed to allowing someone else to make decisions for you.

We also did a deep dive in the book on the history of political activism. We didn’t just do Rosa Parks. We did the Stonewall Riots. We did the American Indian Movement. We tried to touch on all of these different groups. The more that kids see other kids that look like them, whether it’s color, religion, race, gender, et cetera, influence a group of people, the more it inspires them to take charge of their life, their government.

My initial goal was to motivate people to participate. My next goal is to try to get people to hold those officials accountable. We have the keys to make politicians accountable to us and if they’re not, don’t listen to the nonsensical rhetoric, just vote them out and put someone else in there.

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You often give your students a simple piece of advice: If you don’t participate, you can’t complain. But youth voter turnout has long lagged. Why is young voter turnout so low, and what needs to change? 

First of all, hopefully this year it is going to change. Hopefully it’s going to be up a lot this year. It was a lot lower than I thought it was going to be in 2018. There’s no question that our movement made a difference but not a substantial enough difference to really matter in the long term. I was with the students that night of the 2018 election and to watch the two big Florida candidates that they backed lead early and then lose, to just watch the despair on their faces was tough to take. But I told them ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day, you can’t quit just because you lost an election. You’ve got to keep going.’

We’ve just got to keep trying to inform young people that they do make a difference, they can make a difference. We’re fighting a tough battle right now because there are so many distractions for these kids. I like to think I’m pretty entertaining and, in my classroom, I can’t keep them from looking at their phones every three seconds.

I just blamed the Kardashians for like a decade. Like, why don’t you just participate? I said, ‘Because you’re too busy keeping up with the Kardashians and not paying enough attention to what’s going on in the world.’ I always say ‘Who here knows anything that’s going on in D.C. or Tallahassee today?’ Outside of the odd child, nobody knows. Then I’d say ‘Who knows what Kourtney Kardashian’s husband’s name is?’ And they’re like, ‘Oh, Scott.’

I don’t try to degrade them for YouTube or the Kardashians, it’s cool that you have different interests than I have and that you enjoy watching people becoming billionaires that really don’t have much talent other than being famous. That being said, it doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t pay attention to more important things in life.

I hope that this book inspires a generation. It’s a big ask, but I hope it inspires generations of children to realize, ‘Ya, we can determine our own destiny. Let’s figure out what’s important to us,’ whether its climate change or female reproductive rights or gun control, or whatever. Just figure out what you’re passionate about and try to effect change. Get in the game.

I’ve been fortunate enough for all of my years that kids consistently get into the game, obviously on a grander scale with the shooting in our school. When I was standing on the side of the stage and those kids were giving the speeches on March 24 that year, there was a flood of emotions going on as you’re sitting there watching a child that you taught, that you might have had a small impact on, speaking to millions of people and doing it so eloquently. I get goosebumps just talking about it. It was truly unbelievable.

Your book focuses on kids 7 to 12 years old, who are younger than the teens you’re teaching in your classroom. Why did you decide to focus the book on younger kids? 

There really wasn’t that much literature for kids of that age. That’s what really appealed to me about the book. It was all leading to the crescendo at the end of how we could inspire younger people to get involved. However, a lot of my friends have purchased the book and they obviously aren’t 7 to 12 years old. At first they heard it was a children’s book and they thought it’d be a little 30-page whatever, but they were like, ‘This is essentially a textbook.’

Even though it was written for kids, a lot of people have reached out to say it brought them and their kids together to give them something to read at night and discuss, especially now that they’re at home together because of the pandemic.

When you look back at your career and your efforts to get kids engaged in the political process, what’s going to stand out the most in your mind?

Just the relationships you build with your kids. I gave it my all in explaining the nuts and bolts of government and civics. It’ll be impossible not to think about these last couple of years post-shooting. I think I’ll feel very fulfilled that I aided in bringing up global citizens. I know I’ll be able to see my students doing great things in whatever field they choose. I know a lot of them have chosen politics because of me, and that’s awesome. So many of my kids are like, ‘I didn’t even think about the political process and now I’m studying political science at Florida State,’ or ‘I’m going to George Washington University because I want to learn about politics.’

It’s nice to have a small imprint on them, the ability to have one small piece of them in terms of making them informed citizens. It’s weird to watch what you teach put into practice right in front of your eyes. I would give it all back to have every one of those people back and to not have the event happen at our school, but at the same time you’ve got to allow yourself a second to stand back with pride and say, “Damn, this is pretty cool.”

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