In Today’s Political Climate, It’s Harder to Teach Civics, Some Teachers Say

By Madeline Will — January 16, 2018 4 min read
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Is teaching civics in 2018 harder than it used to be?

In the contentious Trump administration, there is a constant churn of news that brings to life any civics textbook—including allegations of foreign involvement in U.S. elections, claims of both voter suppression and voter fraud, and heated debates about policy, from immigration to health care to taxes.

It’s overwhelming, teachers say.

“Everyday, there is something that happens that I could fit into my lesson plan,” said Jonathan Gold, a middle school history teacher in Providence, R.I., in a phone interview. “It’s really hard to know when to press pause and say, ‘Let’s talk about what’s going on,’ when to ignore, and when to delay. ... If I stop for everything, then I won’t be teaching my content.”

Add that to the fact that the partisan divide in the United States is deep and growing, and many teachers say that teaching civics and current events has become even more challenging.

When the 2016 presidential campaign was underway, teachers reported feeling anxious about teaching such an inflammatory campaign cycle. And after the election of Donald Trump, educators set to work easing the divisions that had trickled into their classrooms. My colleague Alyson Klein recently reported on an Education Week survey of teachers’ political beliefs, and found that while most educators want to be neutral in class, politics has creeped into their work.

Last week in Washington, Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, moderated a panel discussion about “teaching democratic citizenship when democracy is at risk.” The panel, co-sponsored by the AFT and the Albert Shanker Institute, was in front of an audience of both educators and people who work in civics-related jobs (and this Education Week reporter).

Panelists—Danielle Allen, a government professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Timothy Snyder, a history professor at Yale University—argued that American democracy has been in crisis for decades. Now, they said, it’s become paramount to educate young people on being an engaged citizen in a democracy.

Weingarten, who was formerly a high school social studies teacher, asked how educators can tackle these concerns in the classroom.

“This age of political polarization is now the lens through which everyone looks at everything,” she said. “As a result, even when you start talking about wanting more people to vote, which is what we used to teach, that is now a political issue, not a democracy issue.”

In this age of division, Weingarten asked, “How do we teach in a way that engages kids to think that democracy matters, citizenship matters, [and] voting matters?”

Some Advice for Teaching Civics

On the panel, Allen urged educators to teach students the “capacities, skills, and know-hows” for civic action, as well as a base understanding of civic knowledge. Projects that encourage students to pick a problem facing their community and brainstorm a solution are a great way to get young people engaged, she said.

And when in doubt, turn to the Declaration of Independence, Allen said.

“Let me just remind you, it’s a how-to manual,” she said. “First, you got to figure out what your problem is, list your grievances, and then you’ve got to figure out what your values are for having some solutions. ... And you have to put together your grievances and the things you care about in a rhetorically convincing structure that will bring you allies ... and you’ve got to be committed to actions at the end of it.”

See also: Young People as Change Agents: The Obama Foundation’s Approach to Civics Engagement

When I put out a call on Twitter, teachers shared some strategies and instructional activities to get their students invested in civic action:

(“Abandoned” is a documentary show on Viceland where skateboarder Rick McCrank explores abandoned places to pay tribute.)

And Gold, the Rhode Island history teacher, said he tries to “build muscle within [his] classroom for open conversations about news, for kids to feel safe to express their ideas, to disagree with each other,” and to ask questions.

When he’s not sure whether to bring up something in class, he oftens explains that to his students—"bringing them into my thinking as a teacher ... peeling back my choice-making,” Gold said.

“It gives them some ownership, ... [and] getting them to see my process and experience in all this shows that I don’t have all the answers, I’m grappling,” he continued.

Teachers, we want to hear from you—how has teaching civics changed in the past couple of years? How are you getting your students engaged in civic action? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter.

Photo via Education Week (File)

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.