Occupy D.C. protesters Nathaniel Brown and Nicole Normile are high-schoolers. That’s not unheard of. The really interesting story is that they were encouraged to get involved by their high school civics teacher.
The two seniors are part of the seven-member, student-directed extra-curricular club “Waking Up the Nation” at the Howard Gardner School in Alexandria, Va. Since its inception in the Fall of 2010, the social activism club has tackled a number of social projects from preventing war to seeking environmental justice under the leadership of faculty advisor Matt Hawley is the group’s faculty advisor.
Students address topics they are concerned about, said Hawley, a teacher in his third year at the independent school. “The goal was to [educate themselves] and their peers.”
Hawley, who also teaches the school’s social justice class and is an activist, was the ideal go-to guy to start the club.
“I saw that students were angsty and frustrated with the way things were going on in the country environmentally, economically and socially,” Hawley said. “I was trying to get them to do something constructive with that criticism.”
Hawley says the club has gone in a lot of directions based on student interest. They’ve partnered with groups such as the Maine-based Beehive Collective to put together posters and other graphics to educate people on globalization.
“It’s blossomed into a really educational experience for the students where they’re doing extra papers, extra work outside of their class for no credit,” says Hawley.
Nathaniel Brown, 19, followed the spread of Occupy Wall Street in the news and when he saw it was coming down to D.C., he couldn’t resist.
“I brought it up to [Nicole] and [she] said, ‘Hey this is going on and we need to do as many great things as we can together, to help out the community,’” said Brown.
For his part, Hawley put them in contact with the Wayside Center for Popular Education , three hours away in Faber, Va. Hawley and the club members traveled to the social activist training ground in October of 2010.
Hawley also sees that the informally organized Occupy movement, still trying to figure out its identity, serves as an ideal learning experience for Nicole and Nathaniel. He admits their goals are broad and not-yet-fully-formed. But students were encouraged to ask lots of questions.
"I suppose you could wave the sign. We wanted to be able to know what we're protesting for and talking about," said Nicole Normile, 17, noting that her protest interests include educational reform and health care.
Brown concurs. They learn more when they talk to people about why ther are involved.
In addition to school, Normile and Brown have jobs. They are only available on weekends but have been regular attendees.
Hawley attributes the success of the club to the school’s progressive approach to learning. Named after Howard Gardner, the noted scholar  and Harvard professor who authored the theory on multiple intelligences, the school offers a non-traditional approach to education. With a student body of 65 students, the school emphasizes personalization and a hands-on approach.
Nathaniel Brown is considered a success by his school and the Waking Up Club, Hawley said.
Nathan “came with low self-esteem. He wasn’t getting good grades,” Hawley said. Now he’s getting almost straight A’s and he’s a community leader.”
For Brown, it comes down to inspiration. “There's something inspirational of seeing people come together. I think it's extremely important for me to be here,” said Brown.
Konheim is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C. area.