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.
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!”
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.
The Educating for Democracy Deep Dive is a collaboration between Teaching Channel and the Civic Engagement Research Group
Our Democracy is Precarious
In a 2017 national survey, just 20 percent of Americans said they trusted the government to do what’s right for them always or most of the time, and only about one third of young adults said they’re optimistic about the nation’s future. When a government that aims to be of the people, by the people, and for the people, is only trusted by 20 percent of the people, something is significantly wrong.
What’s more? Disengagement from, and frustration with, the divisive nature of politics appears to be intensifying. In fact, a poll of teens in 2016 showed that most believe they’re living in a divided America, with four out of five teenagers saying that Americans are greatly divided on their most important values.
We believe that educators have a significant role to play in responding to these challenges.
Education for democracy can prepare our youth to learn about, engage with, and respond to complex civic and political issues in informed and effective ways.
See Matt’s Video on Teaching Channel: Encouraging Students to Take Action
Each year, I’m so impressed with what my students produce as a result of their work learning about civic engagement and the culmination of that work, the Taking Action Project. As I close the Teaching for Civic Engagement series, I’d like to take the time to reflect on the successes of the Taking Action Project, as well as the challenges and possibilities it presents.
Projects that earned some attention this year included a proposal to improve the library at our school, a boycott of products with microbeads, a website to share stories and resources about sexual harassment, and a website to centralize all the counseling and mental health resources available at my school.
Previous projects have included a flyer targeted at helping residents of Chinatown resist gentrification and illegal evictions, a petition to end unfair taxation of products for women, and a zine about eco-feminism. The latter has flourished far beyond the classroom walls into a full publication with a website and a fundraising effort.
These are certainly examples of some of the most impactful learning my students engaged in over the past few years. However, while the Taking Action Project is one of my favorite parts of the year, it also presents a number of challenges.
See Matt’s Video on Teaching Channel: Encouraging Students to Take Action
As I’ve been writing about in this Teaching for Civic Engagement blog series, I’m thinking about civic engagement throughout the school year. However, if you ask the students in my class, “What do you do for civic engagement?” they would probably say the Taking Action Project. The Taking Action Project is the final unit in my history class and it’s the culmination of all the skills and content we’ve been studying throughout the year. A part of the project was documented in this Teaching Channel video, and here I want to share a bit more about the nuts and bolts of the larger project.