As I watch the headlines unfold day after day, and hear conversations among friends (both Democrats and Republicans alike) that our nation is more divided than ever, I can't help but feeling that educators (or maybe education policy gurus) are missing something - something vital to our democracy. The talk of late is about STEM and STEAM, about how we need to teach children to code, to experiment, to engineer and calculate. And we do, 100 percent. But by emphasizing some subjects over others, we are acting as though the humanities (subjects like history, civics, philosophy, geography and literacy) somehow don't matter as much as math and science.
But all of the science and math in the world, won't matter if we can't make sound policy decisions to act on that collective knowledge. No amount of engineering or computing in the world will solve the world's problems, if we can't agree on what the key problems are or if we can't communicate and collaborate to address them. The next generation will carry a heavy burden -- challenges that undoubtedly will seem at times insurmountable -- it's our job as teachers to make sure that our students are prepared to meet these challenges head on and this requires us to stress the importance of social studies (and the skills that go with it: reading, writing, critical thinking, communicating). We must work with kids from an early age to become engaged in our democracy. So here are a few ways to bring civic engagement into classrooms, no matter the subject you teach.
Talk about Politics, Early and Often
For some reason, as educators we often shy away from politics. It can be uncomfortable and unnerving (messy at times -- believe me -- try having a group of 30 8th graders discuss global warming or immigration policy). But I deeply believe that we need to talk about these issues as early as preschool. I can tell which students live in homes where the news and politics are discussed regularly. They have a better understanding of the world around them. I recently had a conversation with my five year old about how Donald Trump was elected, who wrote the constitution, and how states are admitted to the Union. He asked a question and his inquiry led us down this conversational path. The answers I gave were simple and age appropriate, but they set the stage for more complex discussions later in life.
Not all kids will grow up in households where current events and politics are dinner table conversations so it is our job as educators to bring these discussions to students. Take a few minutes in class to read a news article or watch a news story and then discuss. If you don't have time to read an entire story show kids a headline and talk about it. Pick things related to your subject area demonstrating that politics is everywhere. You don't have to disclose your personal views -- just explain both sides of the story and let the kids make up their minds. Students often ask me what I think about an issue and my response is that it isn't about me, and my views -- it's about them. What do they believe?
Model Civic Engagement
Just as I model academic discussions, appropriate behavior, and inquiry for students, I model civic engagement. I tell them when I vote, I talk about what I hear and see in the news. I tell them that I lobby members of Congress with phone calls, meetings, letters and texts. I explain that I protest when I think the government can do better. I talk about canvassing during elections and donating to political causes that I care about. I show them how much I love this country by talking about its merits, by discussing the sacrifices made by our men and women in uniform. I do all I can to be a model of civic engagement (without getting into party affiliation or specifics). I want them to see what that looks like -- a regular person who believes in her country -- doing little things here and there to help guide our state, community, and nation forward. Imagine how enriching it would be for kids if all teachers, in every subject, modeled these behaviors regardless of the curriculum they teach.
Look for ways to bring democracy to life. Are the kids complaining about something? Cafeteria lines are too long? The air conditioning isn't working well? A school rule isn't fair? Use these situations to put democracy to work. Brainstorm as a group ways that students could address the problem. A petition? A protest? A letter? A editorial in the school paper? A meeting with school administrators? Talk about the merits and disadvantages of each approach and then help students decide on a course of action. The discussion of what they could do to help change a situation is just as valuable as any action that they might take. We want students to understand that when they encounter a problem they should always think about ways they could solve that problem fairly and equitably, as well as the point of view of all of those involved. Learning these lessons on a micro level will stick with them more than any formal lesson about branches of government every could.
Dive into Discussion
In order to effectively solve your community's problems or even the world's problems, you have to be able to communicate. This means not only being able to express yourself verbally and in writing, but perhaps even more important being able to listen. There is room to build all of these skills in every subject and by doing so we are helping to improve our students ability to engage in civic responsibility later in life. Every time you provide opportunities to engage in discussion you are building their capacity for student engagement. If you haven't already, consider giving them challenges. Some ideas:
Build Citizenship through Digital Citizenship
Part of our identity in 2017 is based on our digital identity. Gretchen recently wrote about the importance of BrandEd -- building brands for schools and libraries. Often students are learning to engage with the world around them using a digital platform. If our current commander-in-chief's use of Twitter is any indication, politics too, is moving into a digital realm. In teaching kids how to manage their online presence and to build their own brand that they can be proud of, we are preparing them to navigate problem solving and civic engagement. By giving kids opportunities to email, blog, flipgrid, tweet etc. as part of classroom instruction, we are teaching them how to engage in social media in a constructive and meaningful way. We not only have to model tech use effectively and responsibly but also give kids the chance to use these tools with our guidance and insights. Tech isn't going away and more and more it will be our kids' avenue into the political realm. Let's teach them, while we can, how to use it and how to use it well.
There are so many ways to increase civic engagement. If you are interested in learning more, here are a few places to start.
Five Ways to Increase Civic Engagement by Jennifer Levin-Goldberg
Guidebook: Six Proven Practices for Civic Learning by Lisa Guilfoile and Brandy Delander.
Bottom line, when it comes to improving civic engagement among our students we all have something to offer, and when it comes to our nation's future, we all have something to gain from teaching our kids these valuable skills. So the next time you incorporate STEM into your curriculum, don't forget the social sciences. Our students deserve a well-rounded education and so does the country.
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