See Matt’s Video on Teaching Channel: Encouraging Students to Take Action
A petition is a concise, direct, and powerful tool to teach the essentials of civic engagement.
After going through a few cycles of civic engagement projects in my classroom, I found that what distinguished effective projects from mediocre ones was the ability of the student group to articulate a clear and appropriate demand that was addressed to a specific target audience. To help students think about the criteria of an effective “ask” and its relationship to a target audience, I have all of my students write a petition as their first semester history final. The petition serves as a “trial run” for their civic engagement projects and as a checkpoint, midway through the year, to define and practice the fundamentals of civic engagement.
I didn’t come to the realization about the importance of a petition project in terms of teaching civic engagement on my own. This conclusion was the result of many conversations and an inquiry cycle that was supported by the history department, both at my school site and at the district level. I think this is crucial to point out because teaching for civic engagement depends on several supportive conditions, primary among them the opportunity to collaborate with other teachers. My teaching has grown tremendously through the conversations I’ve been able to have with my colleagues in the space created, and funded, by my school and district.
It was in an inquiry cycle during my first year of completing civic engagement projects that a colleague asked, “What do you think separated the effective projects from the not so effective ones?” This simple question helped me identify the differences between two specific projects.
Editors Note: This post was originally published on Catherine’s blog on Medium.
DO NOW: What is Whiteness?
After taking out their supplies and getting ready to engage, my students reacted to the question I’d written on the board as their “DO NOW.”
Some students giggled. Others made faces – perplexed, overwhelmed, entertained. A few began to chat with classmates. Some looked at me hoping for guidance. My co-teacher, having just entered the room, said, “That’s a great question!”
After giving my students time to react, I told them I knew it was a difficult question, but I wanted them to think about it. I told them there were no right answers, but they should draw upon their lived and learned experiences — and that I expected them to try to respond.
It’s Sunday, February 12, 2017 and the top headline of The Huffington Post reads, “MILLER CHILLER: SUNDAY CIRCUIT WHIFF!” Now, I’m an educated person who reads the news daily, and in addition to feeling alarmed (which I imagine is the author’s intent), I’m also confused. So I click into the article to find a revised title: “Trump Adviser Stephen Miller Disastrously Tries to Defend Trump.” Miller Chiller… Circuit Whiff!… Disastrously tries… hmmm. I think I know where this article is going.
I wonder what the “other side” of the aisle has front and center for us today? With a quick search, I find the following in large print featured on Fox News: “‘ENORMOUS EVIDENCE’: Trump advisor says there is proof of voter fraud in U.S., while critics call for data.” I wonder which part of this headline will resonate most with readers: the enlarged, emphasized opening crying, “ENORMOUS EVIDENCE,” or the little opposing part at the end about a potential lack of sufficient data to support Trump’s claim?
As an educator in the Oakland Unified School District, I immediately wonder what meaning the high school students I serve would make of the headlines above. What background knowledge do they have, both on the subject matter and on the two publications? What predictions might they make about each article just by reading the titles? What similarities might they notice? What differences would they identify? Perhaps most importantly, what do I understand about the significance of these competing headlines that our students might not immediately grasp?
Over the course of the last week, I watched in horror as the imaginary world I live in, or lived in, came crashing down around me. I built myself a world where discrimination was largely a thing of the past. A world where people worked together to achieve equal rights for all. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told my daughters, and even my students, that things are different now. I lied. I lied to the children; I lied to myself. We still live in a country where it is open season on black people.