Helping Educators Develop Engaged Citizens in the Classroom

A new book and educator organization hope to help teachers bring civics into all classrooms and create a bridge between academic skills and effective participants in society.

Scroll through most teen’s social media feeds right now and the typical selfies and birthday wishes to friends are interspersed with statements for social justice and posts about the importance of voting—even though most of them aren’t old enough to vote. They have turned into a civically engaged generation. And they have largely done it on their own, without a lot of classroom instruction or discussion about how to be a good citizen, the importance of participating in a democracy, and how to research and analyze information, and use those skills to make an impact on their communities.

“As educators and as a school system, we’ve left behind the idea that it’s a training ground for new citizens,” says Pablo Wolfe, founder of the Coalition for Civically Engaged Educators. “Instead, we focus almost exclusively on academic skills instead of how those academic skills can be in service of the real objective, which is to prepare kids to become the citizens that democracy needs in order to survive."

Wolfe adds, “We have neglected that role that education is supposed to play for a long time. We haven’t been teaching the values, the knowledge, and the dispositions that are really necessary to have engaged citizens. The result is we have people who are less informed and less curious and less adapted to dealing with the challenges that our current climate puts in front of us.”

Wolfe has co-written a book to help teachers bring civics back to every classroom from K-12. The Civically Engaged Classroom: Reading, Writing, and Speaking for Change (Oct. 20, 2020; Heinemann)—by Mary Ehrenworth, senior deputy director of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, Marc Todd, a seventh grade history teacher in New York City, and Wolfe—offers a guide to help students have important, but difficult, conversations and use their academic skills with purpose.

“The book is practical guidance to support teachers giving students the skills, knowledge and tools to participate in society, and those are to read clearly, to question text,” says Todd, who teaches history. “These are all things that all students can use. Whether you’re liberal or conservative, you want background knowledge, you want to do some critical reading. If you’re going to make your stance, you want to build coalitions around you and engage in some activism to know how to in order to make change. It’s to challenge ourselves to overcome any differences that you have.”

The kids are ready to have these conversations; in fact, they are already having them. But for years, many schools avoided politics and controversy and anything that could cause uncomfortable conversations or parental complaints. That is a disservice to the students, according to Todd. “The world changes really quickly and, as classroom teachers, we need to be ready at a moment’s notice to teach what is happening and how to respond to it intellectually, as well as emotionally, and not to respond to it with silence,” he says.

Educators focus on academics, but not on how to use those academic skills after the tests are over, according to Wolfe, who taught in New York City public schools for nine years then handled staff development for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. As a teacher, he says, you are focused on getting kids ready for high-stakes tests and assessments that are supposed to show whether or not educators are effective.

“What’s lost in that is how those skills you are teaching the kids should be applied to the real world,” Wolfe says. “I see in civic education a really beautiful way to get academic skills to be applied in ways that show the kids that the classroom is the real world; it’s not some kind of isolated bubble. You get to do things that impact the way the world works, and there’s a point to learning all of these skills—how to write an essay, how to write a letter, talk to others, and agree on things together with other people. There’s a point to that, and I think that makes it easier for the teachers to teach the skills, because they have buy-in, especially when the challenges they are tackling are the ones raised by the community they live in.”

In this volatile and partisan country right now, everything is seen as advancing an agenda, but that is not what this book is about, Todd says. “The most successful students can make great arguments and back it up with research,” he says. “It’s separating that personal belief from research to support your opinion. It’s not like we’re pushing our stance. This is how civically engaged classrooms can go across the country.”

It can be done in math class by teaching ways to break down data that lead to students analyzing information on their own, not just assuming the results of an outside analysis are true. It can be done in science when looking at climate change and food growth and delivery. And, of course, it can be done in high school civics class, and history, social studies, and English classes throughout K-12, where students must be taught not just to read but to critically engage with text.

“I think every teacher has a responsibility to teach students how to communicate with each other meaningfully, to debate respectfully, to tackle difficult ideas and come up with solutions to difficult problems,” says Wolfe. “We conflate civics with elections and with voting—certainly that’s the clearest part of what it means to be a citizen, but it’s not the only way.”

With this need in mind, Wolfe recently created the Coalition for Civically Engaged Educators, an organization that he hopes will be a network where teachers can “communicate their best practices with each other, share anecdotes, become audiences for each other’s classroom projects, also to get together large groups of kids potentially that could serve as the audience for public speakers.” It will offer professional development, but will not create curriculum.

“This is more about teachers connecting directly to teachers, treating teachers as the experts that they are, and having them figure out ways to help each other handle challenges that come up when you teach this way,” he says. “It’s a way to put teachers at the center of their own professional development.”

He wants it to be a way  "to spread civic engagement education across the country and do it teacher to teacher."

“I want educators to see how getting kids involved in civic education is not only good for democracy, but it’s good for kids and it’s good for their academic skills development, as well,” says Wolfe. “Right now, there’s a lot energy and momentum around thinking about this particular election. It seems particularly important to everyone, but it’s really work that has to continue even after the election and I think that’s what teachers have the responsibility to do once the election is over, to carry on this work all year long.”

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Cindy Mediavilla

A nice complement to Virginia Walter's new book YOUNG ACTIVISTS AND THE PUBLIC LIBRARY: FACILITATING DEMOCRACY (ALA, 2020). Her book covers young people, civic literacy, and libraries; information for young activists; putting civic literacy to work; and resources for civic literacy.

Posted : Oct 14, 2020 01:54


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