I am on a personal crusade to make civic education the responsibility of every teacher regardless of subject area, despite the fact that it is consistently assumed to be the concern of social studies teachers alone. I believe that the way to accomplish this paradigm shift is to move away from a focus on discrete civic learning opportunities that engage students in particular projects geared only toward formal politics and instead turn toward the idea that what takes place in classrooms on an everyday basis — what we study, how we talk to each other, what we value — consistently transmits messages about the nature of democratic life to the next generation. I believe that we teachers — all of us — have the responsibility to make these messages more thoughtful and intentional.
And, as I’ve explored in my previous blog posts, I believe that connected learning provides a framework that can help teachers apply technology tools to the purpose of fostering civic equity and justice. This model reminds us that technology is revolutionary in classroom learning only to the extent that it offers new opportunities for collaboration, creativity, and — yes — connection. John Dewey reminds us that democracy is not a static system of government but a form of associated living that is renewed each day through social interaction, and technology offers myriad new ways to interact about authentic civic concerns.
So, I created a teacher education course that explores the links between civics, connected learning, and my discipline — literacy. As I share my journey, I hope that my colleagues in other disciplines will think about the ways they can apply these ideas to science, math, and so on.
In terms of literacy, I start my class by considering this quote from American poet William Carlos Williams: “It is difficult to get the news from poems, but men die miserably every day from lack of what is found there.” It certainly can be difficult for English teachers to connect literacy to citizenship, especially considering the pressures of standards, high-stakes testing, and a polarized political climate; however, Williams poignantly reminds us of the devastating effects that can come from ignoring the immediacy of literacy to our daily lives as citizens. Failure to recognize the civic power of literacy deprives us of crucial ingredients that make up our identities as members of a democracy, for the stories that we tell of ourselves and of our nation are inextricably wound up in the stories composed by our fellow citizens. Without a critical civic pedagogy in English classrooms, literacy will remain isolated from our civic life, and civic life will, in turn, remain unimaginative and disengaging for too many in our country.
My course aims to link literacy and civic education by demonstrating the power of critical civic literacy practices that help students read both the “word” and the “world.” My students and I explore the ways that the disciplinary practices at the very core of English Language Arts — including literary analysis, debate, and research — lend themselves in crucial ways to preparing students to become critical citizens.
One way that we do this is by tweaking unit plans that we’ve already taught to make them more civically engaged. I think this is a crucial practice because it relieves the anxiety some teachers feel that they need to throw away everything they’ve ever done as a teacher and start anew. I have my students consider the text they already teach and then brainstorm ways to:
- relate them to current civic dilemmas through big essential questions that guide the unit; and
- create assessments that go beyond essay writing to utilize the tenets of connected learning.
My students have been responding in fantastic ways that make me want to go back to high school and take their classes. Consider some of the essential questions guiding their units:
- How can literature teach us empathy and understanding, as well as what it means for citizens to work collaboratively to improve society? (paired with Kafka’s The Metamorphosis)
- What is the individual’s obligation to society? (paired with selections of Transcendentalist philosophy)
- What does citizenship mean in today’s society? What makes a person a good citizen? (paired with The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass)
Even more impressive are the ways my students have been developing assessments that leverage the best of what technology has to offer to measure students’ academic literacy skills AND their developing civic identities. These include infographics to be shared in public service announcements around the school, community mapping projects that highlight neighborhood assets, and oral history projects that preserve and disseminate the wisdom of community elders.
Most teachers are familiar with the idea of backwards design — of planning a unit starting with what you want students to know and be able to do by the end of it and then working backwards to build in all of the necessary knowledge and skills. I’ve developed a template based on backwards design that helps teachers remember to build in civic literacy skills and connected learning principles as they plan. I hope that this will remind us all that small changes to our practice can have huge impacts on making every classroom a site of civic learning.
Banner image credit: John Green’s Tumblr