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.
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 so they have 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?
In this post, Geneviève focuses on the ways we can collaborate with a range of community members, like fellow educators, students’ families, and community organizations, to create an authentic and engaging learning experience for our students (aka scholar-activists).
Let’s listen to Geneviève as she shares her ideas:
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
This Won’t Be Easy
Important conversations never are. But our students — and colleagues — learn as much from what we do (or don’t do) as what we say (or don’t say). The events that transpired in Charlottesville, Virginia are likely weighing heavy on your students’ hearts and minds, just as they are on yours. You haven’t had the opportunity to learn their names, set up a structure, or lay the foundation for learning this year, but you can still create a space for your students to begin to unpack race, face history, and grapple with the lasting legacies of the past.
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.
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 Channelvideo, and here I want to share a bit more about the nuts and bolts of the larger project.
In order for students to engage in effective civic engagement, I fundamentally believe that they have to master the vocabulary to identify and analyze problems in our society, plan an action step, and reflect on their work. With this goal in mind, I attempt to plan specific vocabulary lists each week that build on each other, both within a unit and across the year, to accumulate into a complex database of language that students can use to analyze and change their world.
In this post, I’ll describe some of the weekly routines I use to support vocabulary development, then explain some specific vocabulary sets and the civic engagement learning goals I’m trying to accomplish with those specific words.
“High school students hate history. When they list their favorite subjects, history always comes in last. They consider it “the most irrelevant” of 21 school subjects, not applicable to life today. “Borr-r-ring” is the adjective they apply to it. When they can, they avoid it, even though most students get higher grades in history than in math, science, or English. Even when they are forced to take history, they repress it, so every year or two another study decries what our 17-year-olds don’t know… “
The study of society and our collective past is important. It helps us understand ourselves, how we got to the present, and the world around us. It’s interesting that, as a society, we show a great interest in our culture and history. Whether it be historical novels and nonfiction, games, television programs, feature films, museum exhibits, or Broadway shows, American audiences — young and old — are fascinated with the “story of us.”
Yet our students sleep through the classes that present it.
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.
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.
My first year as an instructional coach was a learning year.
I was experienced as a department chair, but the role of an instructional coach was a bit different. For starters, I was in a different district. The District of Columbia Public Schools have a robust approach to coaching called LEAP — Learning together to Advance our Practice. This method of coaching almost mirrors how assistant principals observe, except for the evaluation component. It was an adjustment at first, but LEAP has helped me to hone my craft as an intentional observer.
The school where I coach and teach, the historic Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, was America’s first Black public high school. In the first half of the twentieth century, this school was an elite institution, which attracted an extraordinary faculty. (Watch as I give a tour of the school’s museum.) Today, we remain a committed and extraordinary faculty; however, like many urban public schools, Paul Laurence Dunbar High School is a high-poverty school that has historically experienced high staff turnover. Nearly half of my ELA department is either new to the building or new to teaching.
Finally, understanding the human dynamic present within the feedback cycle is something that has to be experienced to be appreciated. Teachers are humans, just like every other professional, and their humanity must be maintained throughout the observation and feedback process. At the same time, however, instructional coaches and other school-based leaders must see the potential in each teacher and design learning opportunities that help them to see potential in themselves as well.