TCHERS' VOICE / Social Studies

Introducing our New Civic Engagement Laureate, Heather Van Benthuysen

Getting Better Togather

We all enter the teaching profession with a number of hopes and goals for the kind of classroom community we want to create and the kinds of learning in which we want to engage our students. For most teachers, this includes a classroom community where students can:

  • Feel they belong.
  • Learn about issues that matter to them and that affect their lives.
  • Voice their perspectives and expertise.
  • Talk to and work with others across differences.
  • Participate as active community members in shaping the learning environment.
  • Connect what they're learning to the community and the broader society in powerful and authentic ways.

While these goals continue to drive many of us and our passion for working with young people, they are hard to achieve.

In fact, the ideals for building an authentic, democratic, and just classroom can continue to serve as a reflection point and a lamp post for what we want to continue to strive toward in our classrooms every day and every year. Having a network of other educators to connect to, reflect with, and gather ideas from is invaluable in this pursuit.

Heather Van BenthuysenFor this reason, I'm thrilled to introduce Heather Van Benthuysen -- the latest Teacher Laureate at Teaching Channel. She will be sharing resources and tools as well as provocative questions for us to grapple with, focusing on how to build democratic classrooms and integrate civic engagement across grade levels and content areas.

Heather is a veteran of experimenting with and developing powerful civic school cultures and learning experiences. She is a National Board Certified English educator with almost 20 years experience as a teacher, coach, and youth advocate. Heather is currently the Civic Education Manager at Chicago Public Schools. In this role, she supports teachers across the district to integrate civic learning into their classrooms and schools in a variety of ways. From setting up democratic classrooms, to teaching a civics course, to supporting students in developing media literacy skills, and the capacities needed to navigate civic and political participation in the digital age, Heather has done it all.

In Heather’s Tch Laureate work, she'll explore the many ways classroom communities can be enriched and strengthened when they're informed by democratic values and processes. Civic learning and civic engagement tends to be focused in social science courses and on action projects. Yet, all of our classrooms are communities -- so what better place to practice democracy?

The series of blog posts Heather will publish over the course of the next year will ask us to reflect upon our classrooms by exploring the following themes, as well as a range of learning tools and strategies for democratizing our classrooms:

  • Building democratic classrooms
  • The skills and habits of democratic participation
  • Observing the electoral process (as we head into the midterms)
  • Community
  • Who rules?
  • Who participates?
  • Youth voice
  • Discussion and deliberation
  • Action and reflection

Watch my recent conversation with Heather to find out more about her background, how she got started in civics, why she thinks integrating civic learning in the classroom is critical, and the resources she'll be sharing on Teaching Channel.

Heather just published her first blog post in the series, which you can read here. In this post, she explores how every teacher across grade levels and content areas can cultivate civic competencies. She poses a series of reflective questions teachers can ask themselves to reflect on the democratic nature of their classrooms. And, finally, she shares an end-of-year reflection assessment that teachers can consider administering with their students as they reflect on their classroom community this year and plan for next year.

You can also engage in conversation with Heather (@VanCerny) and others over the course of the year via Twitter and the hashtag #DemocraticClassrooms.

Please share your thoughts, stories, and ideas of how we can strive to build democratic classrooms and grapple with these fundamental questions in our own practice.

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Erica Hodgin is the Associate Director of the Civic Engagement Research Group (CERG) at UC Riverside and Co-Principal Investigator with Joseph Kahne of Educating for Democracy in the Digital Age. Her current research focuses on the educational implications of youth civic and political engagement in the digital age. Erica received her Ed.D. in Educational Leadership from Mills College. Before joining CERG, Erica taught English and social studies and served as an instructional coach at the middle school and high school level. Connect with Erica on Twitter: @EricaHodgin.

1 Comment
Welcome to the Laureate Team, Heather!
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