Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Rethinking Teaching: Preparing Students as Citizens

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June 24, 2013

This spring, five Washington State teachers attended Citizen University, a conference designed to improve citizen engagement. Below, each teacher reflects on a portion of the conference—and how it may apply to the classroom. What do you think?

“Living Room Conversations” -- Kristen Sluiter, virtual community organizer, The Center for Teaching Quality

I attended a session with Joan Blades (co-founder of Moveon.org) and Mark Meckler (co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots). They’re an unlikely pair, but when Joan began hosting Living Room Conversations (LRC), she invited Mark to take part in across-the-aisle dialogue, gaining mutual respect for opposing viewpoints. An open source project, Living Room Conversations offers discussion guides, scripts, and tips for fostering productive dialogue among participants with varying perspectives.

 Practical application:

  • Teachers could use the LRC model and resources in social studies or communication classrooms in high school or modify the curriculum for younger audiences. Facilitating LRC sessions is challenging: it includes establishing ground rules for discussions that may cover sensitive topics—a great way to develop students’ leadership skills. To teach students that most political conversations can be approached with inquiry and curiosity may improve how communities approach politics in the future.

 “The Triple Helix of Citizenship” -- Nathan Sun-Kleinberger, English, Kentridge High School, Kent, WA

I got a lot out of the session with Howard Gardner, a Harvard Professor who studies cognition and education. Hediscussed The Good Work Project, a research project analyzing how people achieve career fulfillment,  concluding that “good work” includes the “triple helix of good citizenship:” engagement, or being actively engaged; ethics, or making decisions that benefit everyone; and excellence, or demonstrating skill in your avocation. Gardner noted that millennials as a generation need to “get their hands dirty” to be civically engaged.

Practical application:

  • I agree with Gardner that weshould encourage students to “get their hands dirty,” making learning meaningful via service learning, volunteering, or mentorships so kids can realize how their education connects to the real world. (Of course, this is challenging, given the pressure schools face to demonstrate progress on standardized tests.)  

“Peer Progressions” -- Tracey Drum, fifth grade, SeaTac, WA

Steven Johnson began his talk with an inspiring example: a neighborhood intersection in Portland, Oregon. With cans of paint and thermoses of tea, neighbors developed a community gathering space. City planners didn’t design this space—it emerged from the collective ideas of networking neighbors. 

Practical application:

  • This makes me think about CTQ’s new platform. The CTQ Collaboratory, Content Labs, and Geo Labs create spaces for teachers to create change. The website belongs to no one and to everyone. It is designed for the confluence of ideas from diverse people who value education. What new ideas will grow here? Or, as Johnson would ask, how will we paint the intersection?

”How Culture Influences Democracy” -- Ryan Prosser, Early Adolescent English Language Arts and instructional facilitator, Tacoma Public Schools.

During one of the sessions I attended, Darnell Strom of Creative Artists Agency asserted that we can encourage participatory democracy by taking three basic steps: sharing a captivating story with a call to action through an intentional distribution plan.

Practical application:

  • To engage students, a lesson must tell a story that connects to students’ experience. It must create purpose, asking students to consider, “How will my learning benefit myself and others?” The answer may vary by student—we must differentiate instruction, developing an intentional plan.
  • To make learning and quality instruction sustainable, educators must reflect and make practice public, collaborate with peers, and ask, “How will my learning benefit my students?” This will create classroom and school cultures fit to influence our next generation of democratic participants.

“Documenting the Undocumented” – Delonna Halliday, literacy coach, Tacoma Public Schools

I enjoyed hearing journalist Jose Antonio Vargas speak about his life in the shadows as someone living in the country illegally, which he documented in the New York Times. Having come to the United States as a young child, Vargas didn’t know his status wasn’t legal until he was a teen. His provocative questions challenged the audience’s assumptions about people in similar situations..

Practical application:

  • I teach at a high-needs middle school. The day after Citizen University, I looked at my students. I wondered, “Do I really know what is really going on with them?” At the tip of the iceberg, I know some of my students care for drug-addicted parents. Many live in poverty. But what don’t I know? I cannot take the huge chunk of ice below for granted. My students come to class every day, and that alone deserves respect.

Tracey, Delonna, Ryan, Kristen, and Nathan teach at different schools. But all are virtual colleagues in the Center for Teaching Quality’s Collaboratory, an online community of teachers transforming teaching. (All are also part of CTQ-WA, a Geo Lab of teachers in Washington State who seek to improve their profession.)

They invite you to join them in rethinking teaching.

 
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