“I totally disagree with Kaepernick in this quote!” One student retorted. “Nobody is making him live in this country. Since he is so disrespectful to people who lost their lives for his freedom, he can just find another country to live in.”

As an African-American, I could have easily taken offense to this 6th grader’s response. My overall plan compelled me not to, however. What I witnessed at the beginning of this lesson was the infancy stage of student [learner] agency and a monumental lesson for me as an educator.

Student Agency

Student agency includes student awareness and willingness to acknowledge the need for a new learning experience, discard useless learning, and relearn what is necessary (Bray & McClaskey, 2017).

Developing student agency sometimes requires us as educators to pose questions for which we do not have answers. If I were completely honest about my feelings about Kaepernick and the NFL movement, I would confess that I had no solid stance about the issue. My conversation with others revealed a wide range of opinions and even a divide within groups of people who often agreed on many topics.

When the “kneeling wildfire” spread in 2016 and subsequent controversy continued throughout 2018, I honestly was not sure how I felt as a United States citizen. As an African-American, I’ve lived through racist situations and even possessed concern for my son’s safety and security around a certain caliber of police officers. Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling stance brought these issues to light, and many people, including Blacks and African Americans did not know how to feel about it. In fact, when I engaged in conversations with varied groups, including family, friends, acquaintances, and colleagues I found myself engaged in very passionate discussions that included various opinions that ranged from one end of the spectrum to another. This led to a great divide.

A Great Divide—An Opportunity for Student Discovery

  • Some people understood what Kaepernick was trying to do and the message he wanted to convey but felt he was “going about it the wrong way.”
  • Others wholeheartedly agreed with him and vocalized their approval for him to use his platform to call attention to injustice as this would begin discussions on a grander scale.
  • Quite a few, like me, engaged in conversations but declined many opportunities to take a stance or commit one way or another about the issue.

So far, it seemed like differences instead of division. People could engage in conversations at this level, as long as it was about Kaepernick kneeling to silently protest about racism and police brutality. The great divide surfaced when those issues being brought to light were overshadowed by a debatable question, “Is kneeling during the national anthem disrespectful and/or unpatriotic?”

There was no doubt that I wasn’t the only adult who struggled with this question. If we are honest, the discussion related to patriotism continues today. It is one which questions the founding principles of a country about which we, as U.S. citizens have the privilege to inquire.

Of course, this was a discussion within our school learning community and an engaging one for that matter.

My colleagues and I saw this as an opportunity to put a culturally-relevant issue that adults grappled with into the hearts, minds, and discovery space of our middle school students. To accomplish this often presents a challenge for us as educators. Sometimes our confidence is attached to the fact that we as adults have life experiences that puts us in a position to have answers that students lack. Students’ gap in knowledge oftentimes requires them to depend on us for answers.

This particular case, however, required me as the “teacher” to relinquish control and be ok with not having all of the answers. I had to actively pursue the thought of becoming comfortable with vulnerability in my role as a learner. I went into this lesson facilitation knowing that I did not have all the answers and depending on students’ responses to guide everyone’s learning process.

Building Student Agency Through a Lesson Process

Give students what they deem to be an adult issue, and witness them navigate it like pros!

I began this lesson with what I called “real talk.” First, I projected the meme of Colin Kaepernick sitting down dressed in his football uniform and his quote, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” While the image was projected, I was transparent with my students by letting them know that some people agreed with Kaepernick, and others disagreed with him. I even told them that I wasn’t totally sure how I felt about what he said.

I provided sentence starters and prompted them to write whether or not they agreed or disagreed with Kaepernick and explain their thoughts.

Since adults did not have this one figured out, and there was no right or wrong answer, students confidently wrote their responses. Afterwards, I wanted them to hear their peers’ opinions.

All students eagerly shared opinions with three of their classmates using the Give One, Get One strategy. I intentionally chose this strategy because I wanted students to note responses that resonated with them without engaging in a conversation or debate. When they paired up with their peers, each of them was given one minute to listen, record, and then another minute to share. They were given five seconds to pair up with a different classmate and repeat the process a second and third time.

It was during this activity that I heard the passionate and resounding response three different times. Student choice and voice were established.

At the end of the activity, students were given one additional minute to review all three responses they had the opportunity to “get” and put a star beside one that resonated with them. Volunteers were then given the opportunity to share responses that stood out to them.

Two responses were repeatedly shared—the one response which implied that Kaepernick’s unwillingness to stand was unpatriotic. Then there was another response that questioned whether or not Kaepernick’s point of view was current. This response was posed as a question—“Why was he still talking about oppression? Wasn’t that hundreds of years ago? Shouldn’t he have moved on from that by now?”  

Clearly, both responses missed Kaepernick’s why for kneeling during the national anthem. I was on a quest to help students discover and understand his reason.

I took full advantage of their inquiry and passionate responses. I questioned Kaepernick’s motives by posing additional questions that confirmed their original thinking. Freedom is something good, right? Why wouldn’t Kaepernick stand for the symbol of freedom? These questions led students to think about whether the real issue was the flag or American people. This further intrigued student thought and evoked authentic student engagement with the topic.

Students were now fully invested in the subject matter and took ownership of it. A current issue that adults struggle with piqued their interest to the point that they did not mind exploring events that led to Francis Scott Key’s writing the national anthem. They knew dissecting historical documents such as “The Pledge of Allegiance” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” would assist them with crafting their own opinions about the topic. They delighted in interrogating these texts through the lens of Kaepernick’s quote. Although this was a Language Arts class, students welcomed opportunities to evaluate Kaepernick’s fulfillment of his role as a US citizen.

They owned the historical research process and ultimately proved that the flag itself presented no issue. That left research of how the American people and whether or not Kaepernick himself are an issue.

Further research required them to explore what Kaepernick deemed as oppression within our country. Students discovered more than Kaepernick’s why through research. They realized an alarming state of our nation as a result of some of the American people.

My Monumental Lesson

I learned many lessons during this process, one being that there is so much for teachers to learn when they willingly and intentionally relinquish control of learning to students.

Yes, there was indeed intentionality during the release of control. I wanted students to understand and be able to articulate Kaepernick’s why. I wanted them to see beyond the smokescreen accusation that he was being unpatriotic.

However, the very student who had originally agreed with the accusation was the very one who rendered my monumental lesson during our conversation at the conclusion of the lesson:

“Dr. Johnson, I changed my opinion about Colin Kaepernick,” she said.

I tilted my head to one side and asked, “In what way?”

“Well,” she paused. “If you really think about it, he is actually being patriotic by showing us that we are not representing the country or flag well because we are not taking care of each other.”

An awkward pause lingered because I needed a moment to actually process the monumental lesson this middle school student shared.

Silence diminished, as the student continued, “I will personally continue to stand for the pledge, but if someone decides not to, I will no longer be angry about it.”

Development of student agency during this learning process transformed a student’s thinking in a matter of days.

Clearly, this student had evolved from an offended loyalist into one who maintained pride in our country and developed a newfound respect for an individual who care enough to question actions and motives that violate the rights of others. In addition, this student could now confidently navigate what might be a controversial issue for other individuals.

It’s amazing how one student’s learning and response can leave a lasting impression on us as educators. This was the case during a lesson my colleagues and I developed that included many teachable moments for our middle school students.

Little did I know, this very act would begin to help me sort out my indecisiveness about the Kaepernick issue. I now understood that Kaepernick’s kneeled for the same reason soldiers fought. This teachable moment my student shared with me required me to stop and take in a lesson that so many of us miss on a daily basis—that is—we should hold each other accountable for taking care of each other.

Moreover, I now have a keen appreciation for student agency. It presents an opportunity for teacher learning. After all, teaching is learning.


Bray, B. & McClaskey, K. (2017). How to Personalize Learning. Thousand Oaks: Corwin.