Do you remember in It’s A Wonderful Life when Zuzu Bailey says, “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings?”
I have my own similar saying, but it’s a more modern version.
Every time I hear the sound of a tweet, a gay teacher loses their job.
Last month I heard a lot of tweets. Last month wasn’t a good month to be an LGBTQ teacher. In Texas, a beloved teacher was put on leave for showing a picture of herself together with her wife. Tweet.
In Illinois, another teacher was under fire for not being in the closet. Tweet.
That last tweet was the Chicago Tribune tweeting at me because I’m the go-to source when it comes to LGBTQ teachers. Not because I was Oregon’s Teacher of the Year, but because I gave a speech, where I discussed a recent heart attack and said:
“Twelve months ago my partner may have been a widower, but instead I’m here as one of the first openly gay Teachers of the Year showing LGBTQ youth they have a future.”
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.
April is National Poetry Month, and unfortunately, poetry has a bit of an optics problem.
It’s hard! It’s confusing! It’s boring! I don’t get it!
Fear not, there are actually super-engaging ways to dazzle your students with the wonders of poetry — and reach even your most struggling or reluctant students. So this year, be bold. Branch out from the tried and true poetry classics and inspire your students with these engaging forms of poetry that will spark curiosity for all types of learners.
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
Can teachers use spoken word poetry as a tool for literacy, empowerment, engagement, education, and community building across content areas?
Poet, performer, and educator Sarah Kay says absolutely, YES! Sarah is a founder and co-director of Project VOICE, an organization that uses spoken word poetry to entertain, educate, and inspire. Through Project VOICE, Sarah is dedicated to promoting empowerment, improving literacy, and encouraging empathy and creative collaboration in classrooms and communities around the world.
On this episode of Tch Talks, Sarah discusses the origin story of Project VOICE, her own introduction to spoken word poetry, and her work as a poet, an educator, and a bestselling author. Whether speaking from her heart or from her head, Sarah believes that spoken word poetry can be an important educational tool that will have a lasting positive impact on your students’ motivation, creativity, self-esteem, agency, and their desire to share their own stories and listen to the stories of others. Listen in to find out more.
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.
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.
We walk through our classroom doors and want to relate to our students. We want to understand their challenges, thought processes, motivations, and fears.
But how do we develop empathy for our students who may struggle with challenges we never experienced?
How can we understand their reactions, fears, and priorities if their childhood or adolescence is so incredibly different from our own or the one we’re creating for our children?
Good teachers understand that practicing and growing empathy makes us great teachers.