A recent study involving rural farmers and urban activists in North Dakota asked each group to “select three terms that describe what ‘social justice’ means to you,” and then “select three terms describing what ‘autonomy’ means to you.” The results, represented in word clouds, point to our own political divide and the challenges we face when trying to identify what we mean by civic skills.
If one group values individualism and the other interdependence, clearly their ideas on essential civic skills and habits might differ. So how do we plan for democratic classrooms when it seems at times our own values conflict?
As we come to the end of another school year, it’s often a moment to pause and imagine what new and innovative things we can experiment with next year. Given our interconnected lives and the many urgent and contested issues facing our world today, reconsidering how to prepare our students to participate in democracy and in society seems warranted.
What skills, capacities, and dispositions do your students need to thoughtfully and productively navigate the world around them — and how might you support them in new ways?
Of course, students often have many skills when it comes to using digital platforms and tools. But they may not feel confident about using them to learn about issues they care about, engage in productive online dialogue, voice their perspectives in powerful ways, and take informed action.
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.
For 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.
Question for you: If the health of our democracy depends on the people, then when do we learn the skills of participation?
Hopefully, your answer was the most transformative space on earth… school! Since the inception of American public schooling, we have considered school to be where participatory citizens were made. You probably have the words “community” or “citizen” in your school mission statement. Yet, preparing students for college and careers tends to take priority over that “third C”… civic life. Our schools develop the people, we are the people, and it’s time that we fully realize our role in revitalizing civic life.
We can start by looking at how our schools and classrooms model democracy every day. We can’t expect to fully prepare young people to participate in a democracy from within undemocratic systems. That would be like teaching someone how to swim without ever putting them in the water. Developing a civic identity, like any complex skill, takes time and practice in varied contexts to achieve mastery.
If we want our young people to participate effectively, then we need to get them in the water early and often.
Blogging. It’s such an inspirational and aspirational idea to incorporate into the classroom. It has an audience, it asks students to really share about a topic that interests them, and it gives them a platform to voice their perspectives on pressing civic and political issues. It all sounds good on paper and in lesson plans you read online, but when it’s time to make it happen, there always seems to be a few lingering fears — like a monster under the bed that haunts you in the night.
- Will my students take the task seriously?
- Will they leave thoughtful comments and respect others’ work?
- Will they feel confident enough to post their work?
- Do I have the bandwidth to manage their “online” lives?
Three years ago when I had my students blog for the first time I had these questions too, and I let the monster under my bed hold on to my ankles. I had my students add pages to the same Google Site and only leave comments on each other’s work. I controlled the situation to limit the answers to those questions. It went fairly well, but some of the authenticity was lost.
Then, I met Youth Voices and began to stare the monster down.
As adults, we often rely on people with practical knowledge to model procedures for certain tasks we intend to do on our own. This is why we sometimes turn to YouTube for guidance whenever we need to change a tire, assemble furniture, or roast a turkey. You may have even used video as a support for some of your professional development initiatives.
In my freshman Ethnic Studies classroom, we use resources like Google Classroom and Edublogs as an early scaffold to support the work students will produce in upper grade levels. However, when students first come to our school, they bring with them a wide range of competencies using these tech tools. One way I’ve been able to overcome this challenge is by creating instructional videos to provide directions for my students. The amount of time I spend managing the process of digital projects has decreased, and the time I’m able to spend engaging students in the challenging work of an Ethnic Studies class has increased.
I was recently asked, “What is a current trend in education that has shaped your teaching?” My immediate response was civic engagement. Knowing the “why” of my praxis guides my choices in lesson design. As I ponder this question and my response more deeply, an unsettling feeling takes over.
How could civics learning be considered a trend? How can preparing students to actively participate in our democratic society be seen as one of the many here today, potentially gone tomorrow, initiatives in public education?
Shouldn’t developing skills to help our youth contribute, question, and make informed decisions about what goes on around them be at the heart of public education? Shouldn’t part of helping learners articulate their voices be focused on engaging in real-world challenges? If not, all the number crunching, all the empathy lessons, all the increased awareness of our histories, all the hypotheses and experiments… Why?
We can all agree that most young people are frequent and savvy users of digital media and online tools. And we’ve all seen compelling and impressive examples of youth using these tools to make a change when it comes to issues that matter to them, such as Black Lives Matter, the March for Our Lives, and #MeToo.
However, not all young people know how to use digital media to express their civic and political perspectives. In fact, data from a recent survey indicates that only 15 percent of youth are highly involved in these kinds of online political activities. That means 85 percent of young people are NOT involved or only occasionally involved in online participatory politics. What’s more, other studies show that youth (and adults) often struggle with a range of critical civic tasks, such as:
Clearly, new skills and dispositions are needed to help fully leverage new opportunities for effective youth participation in democracy, while navigating new challenges. And youth need and want adult support. For example, a nationally representative group were asked if they and their peers would benefit from learning how to tell whether information online was credible, and 84 percent said “Yes!”
Are you integrating civic learning experiences into your classroom but unsure whether it’s working?
One common concern with civic education is that it’s often hard to determine whether it’s really deepening students’ civic knowledge, capacities, and commitments.
Assessment is one way to identify, inform, and move toward deeper learning. Even though there are many assessments available for reading and math, when it comes to civics, assessments often only hint at civic knowledge. While knowledge matters, the aims of civic education go far beyond that. And yet, teachers often lack resources for measuring students’ civic learning in ways that encompass these broader aims and are authentic and meaningful.
This need is heightened by major reforms like the Common Core State Standards and the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework that highlight the need for new assessments that can speak to the authentic tasks that are often at the heart of high-quality civic education. Fortunately, innovative organizations, districts, and states have begun developing some methods.
Mr. G. was a literacy teacher at a Colorado high school where more than 80 percent of the students identified as Latino/a or Mexican American, and many were undocumented. One of his assignments, to draft a college application essay, sparked a larger discussion among students about their hopes for the future, but also their concerns about barriers to higher education facing them and their peers.
Many of Mr. G.’s students, for example, were acutely aware of the difficulty associated with attending college as an undocumented person. Furthermore, they believed that paying exorbitant out-of-state college tuition at Colorado universities — even though they had grown up in Colorado — was unfair to undocumented students.
They expressed frustration that their high school, with its strong college preparation focus, didn’t acknowledge these challenges or offer guidance and advice on how to address them.
Mr. G. decided to use his literacy class as a context for students to explore issues of immigration and to take action based on their research. Using a curricular model called Critical Civic Inquiry (see Figure 1), the students:
- Collected data by interviewing their peers and reviewing archival information.
- Researched legislators’ biographies and wrote persuasive letters to legislators that reflected their values and ideas for policy.
- Organized a dialogue with adult school personnel about the importance of explaining options for undocumented students, particularly given the school’s prominent college-going message.
Figure 1. Critical Civic Inquiry Learning Cycle