Can We Talk? Librarians Lead New Push for Civics Education, Focusing on Discourse

Librarians are helping to foster a productive exchange of ideas among students.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

 

Rachel Harrington, 17, describes herself as "opinionated" and "assertive," someone who is not afraid to speak her mind. She is also, at Hume-Fogg High School (HFHS) in downtown Nashville, TN, a conservative among students and teachers who tend to lean left. So when a controversial topic arises in her AP History class, such as gun control or border security, she stays tight-lipped.

"The teacher is a lawyer," Harrington says. "He’s cool and won’t get mad at me for expressing my views, but it’s still intimidating. I worry that I might not have all the facts or won’t be able to produce the evidence to back up what I’m saying on the spot."

But Harrington does have a place at school to speak her mind, where students have "all the resources to make legitimate arguments" at their fingertips: the school library.

Public libraries, of course, have always been considered essential to democracy. They are a safe space where everyone has free access to information and the opportunity for public dialogue on topics of shared concern—which these days could make them more vital than ever. Since the 2016 presidential election, conversation among Americans has often devolved into nasty disagreement exacerbated by the threat of fake news, spurring school librarians to take up the mantle of civics with renewed vigor.

This doesn’t mean that librarians are drilling students on the workings of government. While such knowledge underpins informed dialogue about the issues, many educators say their main job is to bridge the rift separating our country by fostering a productive exchange of ideas essential to participatory democracy.

Amanda Smithfield, school librarian at HFHS, is leading the conversation. She’s a big reason the library is where Harrington feels most comfortable sharing her views. This past school year, Smithfield started ProjectCiv, a once-a-month lunchtime discussion focusing on issues from Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) to the debate over when life begins. Students with various political leanings are encouraged to talk about controversial issues and possibly find common ground.

Smithfield says the key is to make sure students are prepared for the discussion. On every topic she assigns at least three articles from across the political spectrum, drawing from outlets such as the National Review or the New York Times. During the discussion, she models how to defend an argument and how to question one without giving offense: "I wonder why you said that? Where did you learn that?" At each table sits a mix of students—self-identified conservatives, progressives, and independents.

"This isn’t a one-time Facebook post," Smithfield says. "Students have the chance to develop more nuanced views. They can try out their ideas, get some pushback, rephrase their ideas, or think about them more. They can totally disagree, but they have to be civil about it. If they don’t talk to each other, that just increases tribalism, and we don’t want that."

Focusing on "civil conversation"

The deterioration of public discourse is part of a larger failing in the teaching of civics in the U.S., and efforts like ProjectCiv, advocates say, are needed now more than ever. A 2016 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that only 26 percent of Americans can name all three branches of government. On the most recent (2014) National Assessment of Educational Progress civics exam, just 23 percent of eighth graders performed at or above the proficient level.

Civics has been getting short shrift in schools because of an increased emphasis on reading and math, critics say. Only nine states and DC require high school students to take one year of U.S. government or civics, while 31 require only a half year, according to a report by the Center for American Progress think tank. Ten states have no civics requirement at all.

In light of these statistics, should librarians be focused on teaching the ins and outs of government?

"At another time, some would have said it’s terrible that people don’t know the three branches of government and we should teach that," says Peter Levine, associate dean at the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University. "But right now, the concern is more that people don’t know how to deal with differences. I imagine that’s why librarians are taking the ‘civil conversation’ approach to civics rather than making posters about how a bill becomes a law."

Even in schools that teach civics, talking about controversial issues can be rare. Levine says that teachers are afraid to hold these discussions because of pushback they’ll get from parents and school and district leaders. Some, justifiably, fear acrimony in the classroom. According to a report by the University of California Los Angeles Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access, 28 percent of high school English and social studies teachers surveyed at the end of the 2016–17 school year reported an increase in students making derogatory remarks about immigrants, racial and religious minorities, LGBTQ youth, and women. Where state standards require students to engage in civil dialogue in the classroom, there’s no accountability to ensure that teachers actually follow through.

That librarians are getting involved is a good sign, Levine says. Their training makes them uniquely qualified to teach young people how to have a conversation based on facts and evidence. "The Senate is supposed to be the world’s greatest deliberative body, but that’s a joke," he says. "So we can’t model discussions on [those on] TV or in Congress."

There’s support for Levine’s faith in librarians. Research has shown that young people trust librarians. A majority of millennials (87 percent) say the library helps them find "trustworthy" and "reliable" information, according to new analysis of Pew Research Center survey data from 2016. Another Pew analysis of 2016 data found that millennials (ages 18 to 35 in that year) are also more likely to use the library than older Americans.

 

The Civic Lab at Skokie (IL) Public Library supports dialogue and engagement on community issues.

A public library civics lab

"People by and large feel like we are a community resource they can trust and that we don’t have an agenda," says Amy Koester, learning experiences manager at Skokie (IL) Public Library. The library houses a Civic Lab where patrons can have moderated discussions on current topics, from immigration to net neutrality.

"We have years and years of embedded experience in this arena, so we’re not trying to get up to speed after the election or after the onslaught of misleading news on social media," says Koester. "These are things that we’ve been doing since before the current media existed."

The Civic Lab originated in the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election. Skokie librarians created packets of reading and video materials on issues that patrons wanted to learn more about, such as Black Lives Matter, climate change, and income inequality.

Koester says that keeping the conversation civil is all in the approach. "This isn’t about opposing viewpoints," she says. "This isn’t ‘here’s a pro; here’s a con; now make up your mind.’ Instead, our aim is to provide a whole spectrum of resources with the goal of patrons making up their own minds using credible information."

Smithfield has found that when HFHS students can identify credible resources and back up their views with evidence, they have more productive conversations. Sometimes, they even come to an agreement. Conservatives and progressives at the school have agreed on background checks for gun owners and on a path to citizenship for undocumented children brought to this country by their parents.

"A change of heart can come about through discussion, when we have a chance to see students from different parties and with different views as regular people," says HFHS sophomore Katie Madole. The 15-year-old describes herself as "independent with a Democratic lean."

Madole considered the view that 18-year-olds should be allowed to own handguns when it was pointed out that they are old enough to serve in the military and fight for this country. "That was a good point that I would never have considered if I hadn’t been a part of the discussion in ProjectCiv," she says.

 

Hume-Fogg High School students participating in ProjectCiv host a voter registration event (left)and visit the senate chamber at the Tennessee State Capitol (right). Photos courtesy of ProjectCiv

Engagement beyond the library

There’s another good reason to promote civil dialogue on topics of shared concern, says Levine: Young people with civics know-how who engage in moderated discussions are more likely to vote and work to solve problems in their communities and in the world.

Librarians have a range of ways to encourage young people to get involved in their community. At the Black Lives Matter discussion, Skokie librarians invited patrons to answer the question "What can you do to reduce racism in Skokie?" Those patrons who didn’t want to share their ideas verbally had the option of writing a response and placing it in a ballot box. The responses often spark the development of future Civic Lab topics.

At Robert E. Lee High School (LHS) in Springfield, VA, librarians designed cross-curricular lessons centered on the first volume in Congressman John Lewis’s graphic novel trilogy, March: Book 1, the chronicle of the fight to end segregation through nonviolent sit-ins at lunch counters. The entire school—students and staff—read the book and engaged in monthly discussions in their homerooms. In the end, students reflected on what they would march for. Their responses included equal education for all, women’s rights, racial equality, and gun control. They created posters with messages like "Stop Gun Violence: Enough Is Enough," and "The Only Thing That Should Be Scary in School Is My GPA," and held a march outside their school.

"We asked students to think critically about their world and to question the status quo," says LHS librarian Mimi Marquet, who created many of the lessons on March with fellow librarian Lisa Koch, literacy specialist Lindsey Conrad, and International Baccalaureate coordinator Stephanie Bilimoria. "What would they march for? What sociopolitical and economic situations are untenable? We want our learners to know they have a voice, and that as citizens they have a responsibility to act."

Similar reflection happens after every ProjectCiv discussion at HFHS, when students write down the action they will take to further their exploration of the topic at hand. Some have written letters to state lawmakers asking them to put tighter gun control laws in place, while others have held voter registration drives at local coffee shops and at a Nashville Predators ice hockey game, where students taught would-be voters how to register online.

For her part, Harrington had a letter to the editor published in The Tennessean in which she argues for dispensing with "derogatory words" when confronting opposing viewpoints on issues such as gun control. "We continue to demand change yet no one is willing to talk," she wrote, pointing out that after the mass school shooting in Parkland, FL, students demanded gun control, but said they did not want to meet with President Donald Trump to discuss their ideas for change. (In fact, while some students did want Trump to stay away from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where the shooting took place, a group of students and teachers did meet with the president.)

Harrington has found her voice and wants more than anything to use it responsibly. "I’m passionate about my beliefs, but I don’t want to intimidate others with my views," she says. "I want my views heard and considered, and I’m lucky to have a safe space where that can happen. We are learning to stick to the facts, point to evidence and reliable sources, and keep discussions civil. We are learning to be respectful and open-minded. If we don’t all have conversations like these, I’m afraid nothing will ever change in this country."

Brenda Iasevoli is an education journalist based in New York City.

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