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.
We’ve all witnessed an impressive array of youth civic engagement in the last month in the wake of the mass shooting that occurred at a high school in Parkland, Florida. We’ve also seen a range of impactful youth participation in the last several years in response to gun violence, systemic racism, immigration policies, water rights, and sexual assault that has grown into broad and long-lasting efforts such as the Black Lives Matter, United We Dream, and #MeToo movements. And, of course, there are many young people who are considering getting involved in civic and political issues for the first time.
Many educators are asking themselves how to best support their students to reflect on and take informed action in response to the current challenges in our society. And teachers are grappling with a range of questions about how to position themselves in relation to their students’ activism.
Inspired by youth activists from Ferguson to Parkland, a new community-created online resource has just launched called YouthInFront. This resource includes advice from experienced youth activists and allies on ways to consider how to support youth-led civic engagement.
In today’s digital, interconnected world, youth participate in public debates and dialogue through writing. Writing in all its forms — text, memes, infographics, video, and the like — provides a vehicle for making arguments about issues that matter to them and their communities.
Tenth graders in Columbus, Montana published letters about local issues in the Stillwater County newspaper. Some letters spurred public action — a bond measure to fund an emergency services district and school district training for teachers on suicide prevention.
Can your students contend with the disinformation, misinformation, and propaganda that floods their phones, tablets, and laptops?
Since the 2016 presidential election, there’s been intense concern about whether people can make sense of digital information. Our work at the Stanford History Education Group may have contributed to the unease. Over the past several years, we have designed short assessments of civic online reasoning — the ability to effectively search for and evaluate social and political information online — and in November 2016 we released a research report that indicated that students from middle school to college struggle to evaluate online content. Our assessments revealed that students had difficulty distinguishing ads from the news, imposters from verified social media accounts, and lobbyists from independent researchers.
So what can teachers do to tackle this problem?
One place to start is with our short assessments. Below, we detail four ways to integrate one of our assessments into instruction.
When was the last time you asked your students, “What makes you really mad?”
It’s a question that many teachers in Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) ask their students.
Classroom management is hard enough; why would any teacher want to give their students a reason to get angry?
Anger is a powerful emotion that activates us and gets us on our feet. Students need practice examining the issues that make them angry and channeling that energy in productive ways. I’m not suggesting that teachers become therapists for their students, but civic engagement is a constructive way for them to redirect their feelings of anger.
TchLaureate Geneviève Debose Akinnagbe teaches ELA at Bronx Studio School for Writers and Artists (BSSWA) in New York City, a secondary school where teachers refer to their students as Scholar-Activists. She’s developed a unit on Scholar Activism for her middle school students to give them a better idea of what that title means and the honor it carries.
So far, we’ve explored the following questions:
What, exactly, is scholar activism, and why is it important to teach our students about scholar activism in the classroom?