A Superintendent’s Systemic Notion of Civics

It’s not tested under NCLB, but civic engagement ought to be a central component of school reform by Sheldon H. Berman

Participating in a democracy is learned behavior. It takes years to develop the ability to understand the complexity of issues, to negotiate the challenges of political change and to act effectively on behalf of the common good. One doesn’t simply acquire this knowledge and learn these skills through a senior elective civics course in high school. It takes a systemic and systematic approach to civic development that begins early in a child’s education and builds continuously throughout the school years.

Public schools have typically failed to teach for civic engagement because we have viewed it as the byproduct of a history-based social studies curriculum, rather than as the essential goal of everything we do in education. In fact, by excluding civic engagement from our assessment systems, our nation has further taken its eye off the real prize — ensuring the dynamic growth of democratic participation at a time when our national and international challenges are at their peak.

As a superintendent for 14 years in Hudson, Mass., and now for one year in Jefferson County, Ky., I have made civic engagement a central aspect of reform. In part, this commitment arises from a deep belief in the civic mission of schools. However, it also stems from the knowledge that teaching for civic engagement motivates and empowers students to learn in all areas because they find relevance and meaning in what they are studying.

Particularly for those students who come to school carrying the generational baggage of poverty, racism or violence, we need to address an empowerment gap in order to fully address the achievement gap. Children need to experience their effectiveness in the world and discover they can make a positive difference for others and for their community, for them to believe in their own value and invest in their own development.

Real Connections
To be effective, teaching for civic engagement entails thinking carefully about the developmental sequencing of our curriculum, about the experiences of engagement and community provided within our classrooms and about the connections students make with the real world. Understanding civics — that is, how people make decisions and work together to improve their community — is the conceptual framework that enables children to begin to understand the meaning and importance of history. Just as phonemic awareness and visual perception are central to learning to read, we realize that the concepts of law, forms of government, elections and the political structure are pivotal to developing a deeper understanding of how our society operates and how those concepts have evolved over time.

From Civics to the Civic Arts by ELLEN CONDLIFFE LAGEMANN

Ask a group of students whether they are interested in their roles as citizens. Most likely, you will get a yawn. Ask whether they know much about civics. At best, you will get a glimmer of recognition and acknowledgment of having read the U.S. Constitution.

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In Hudson, where we restructured the social studies program around civic development, we introduced the study of community and law in the primary grades. Third grade focused entirely on civics, from the study of how government works on the local and state levels to how individuals and groups can bring about change. The year culminated with a service-learning project in which students researched, and then showcased for adults, organizations that were making a difference in their community.

In 4th grade, students embarked upon a two-year exploration of the evolution of our political society through the lens of the development of civil and human rights. The essential question for 4th grade, was, What has enabled the United States to expand the civil and human rights of people in the U.S.?

The 5th grade continued this study through the essential questions of: How has our democracy changed over time, and how can we realize the vision of all people participating in governmental decision making? We found that as a result of exploring these civics-oriented questions historically, children come to understand that the answer is civic activism.

Developing Reasoning
Just as we know that conceptual physics is a strong 9th-grade building block for future science courses, we have come to recognize that civics is the building block that both supports and fortifies the understanding of history.

At the high school level, in both Hudson and Jefferson County, we created a core 9th-grade civics course whose essential question is, What is an individual’s responsibility in creating a just society? In addition to teaching about civics, a central part of this course is the Facing History and Ourselves curriculum. This curriculum engages students in the study of the roots of two 20th-century genocides — the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide — and extends to the study of more recent genocides and the study of racism within the United States. The curriculum confronts young people with the human potential for passivity, complicity and destructiveness by asking how genocide can become state policy.

The curriculum also develops students’ perspective-taking and social-political reasoning abilities. Students emerge with a greater sense of moral responsibility and a greater commitment to making a difference. It is the perfect introduction to high school, helping students think about their actions — and their failures to act — within the context of both the school community and the larger society.

However, the responsibility of teaching for civic engagement extends beyond the social studies curriculum. In each area of the curriculum, it is incumbent upon us to ask, How does what we teach assist students in becoming active, thoughtful, compassionate and ethical citizens? Each curricular area can build connections with the social and political world, from the way concepts in science and economics impinge upon environmental decisions to the way mathematical data are used, and sometimes manipulated, to substantiate a position on a particular issue.

Elementary reading programs too often are dominated by tales of fictional people and events, rather than by high-quality nonfiction and historical fiction that give students a deeper and more thoughtful understanding of the world around them. By placing civic engagement at the center of the academic curriculum, we not only provide students with a strong conceptual knowledge base, but we also enhance the relevance of the entire curriculum.

A Community Sense
By itself, however, content-area curricula are insufficient to the public schools’ critical role of supporting and inculcating the principles of democracy. Civics concepts have to be lived and applied in the classroom and the school. In the two districts I’ve had the opportunity to lead, we’ve placed an intentional emphasis on classroom climate and culture, with a focus on building a sense of community among students and adults.

This has meant using social-skills development curricula such as Second Step (Committee for Children), in conjunction with classroom community-building programs such as Responsive Classroom (Northeast Foundation for Children), Caring School Community (Developmental Studies Center) and the Resolving Conflicts Creatively Program (Educators for Social Responsibility). Through these programs, teachers engage students in developing rules for the classroom, working together to support each other’s learning and holding class meetings to address classroom issues. These classroom communities enable students to experience democratic decision making, learn to resolve differences, build caring relationships with peers and understand that their actions make a difference.

Civic knowledge and classroom culture are two essential building blocks of civic engagement. Yet it is through the third building block, service learning, that students both experience their connection with the world around them and feel a sense of empowerment to participate.

Service learning is more complicated than collecting cans for a food drive or donating money for a cause. These are beneficial community service projects, but service learning takes community service into the classroom by connecting it to the academic material students are learning.

Service learning in Hudson began in kindergarten as teachers integrated four service-learning initiatives into the core kindergarten curriculum. Thereafter, each grade found a way to bring an aspect of the curriculum to light through service learning. These consistent experiences with service give greater relevance to the curriculum, engage students deeply in the world around them, and cultivate a sense of social consciousness and social responsibility.

Broad Impact
Educating to support democracy is not a one-shot effort. It requires the systemic thinking that we use to build conceptual understanding and skill in any of our core curricular areas. However, as a superintendent, I find when we focus on civic engagement as a central organizing principle across all grade levels and all content areas, its impact is far broader and deeper in terms of the quality of academic achievement, the sense of connection students feel to their learning and their school, and the meaningfulness it provides to the adults who work with our children.

In the final analysis, public education is about educating a public so democracy will thrive. It is a mission that deserves our utmost attention.

Sheldon Berman is superintendent of the Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, Ky., and a founder of Educators for Social Responsibility. E-mail: sheldon.berman@jefferson.kyschools.us