Ways to Improve Civic Engagement and Student Voice: An EdWeek Chat
As part of our ongoing coverage of civics education, Education Week recently held a chat on what schools could do to improve their teaching on this subject, respect students' rights, and give them a say in what happens at school.
It was a really rich discussion with a lot of engagement, so in the interest of getting some of the insights out to a wider audience, I've decided to summarize some of the most interesting points of discussion here. (You can go back to follow the chat using the hashtag #StudentVoiceChat, or by starting with the tweet thread begun in this post below.)
Hi everyone! This is Stephen, an Education Week reporter covering curriculum and host for tonight's chat on student voices, students' rights, and civics education. #StudentVoiceChat /thread— Stephen Sawchuk (@Stephen_Sawchuk) May 14, 2019
I led with the question of how to involve students in decisionmaking, because it seems to me that given that compulsory public school itself is an intensive interaction with a civic institution, good civics education should start there: Students should have a voice shaping what happens in their schools.
Over the last year of reporting on civics, I've learned almost every school district purports to value student voice in theory, but administrators are not always so sanguine when students push back on some of their ways of doing things.
A1: Students should always have a voice and a vehicle for expression. That implies that teachers and admins ought to listen. However, that doesn't mean they actually get a vote. How one responds to Stu voice depends on so much, including grade level #StudentVoiceChat— Rick Stevens (@rickeducation) May 14, 2019
As Rick points out, this doesn't mean schools should necessarily be run as direct democracies, but it does mean that students should have a say in how schools' norms and policies work. In fact, two student journalists who wrote a recent op-ed for Education Week after being turned away from a press conference with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos gave a good example of what happens when there's a rift between word and deed on student voice:
when it comes to the curriculum of that class, students do not get an input, therefore, students do not like going to CCR.— PLD Lamplighter (@pldlamplighter) May 14, 2019
Here's another great example:
@educationweek A1: A great example is students who drafted a Gender Identity and Expression Policy and presented it to the board. They stood up for their rights and those of their peers. The board adopted it and put it into action. #StudentVoiceChat— Alison Fisher (@fisher_olsd) May 15, 2019
We also looked at how civics is taught. Typically, this occurs through a historical lens rather than one that emphasizes the changing, dynamic nature of civic institutions and interactions. (Picture a teacher droning in a monotone voice: "The Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791 ... .")
Historical civics is really important, but it's easy to portray it as distant and remote—even though the civic roots of our nation are more relevant than ever, with conversations like policing and presidential impeachment procedures in the news. (The Constitutional Sources Project is a wonderful resource for primary sources on the evolution of the Constitution and amendments.)
Chat participants had lots of ideas on this topic, with several pointing towards action civics as a potential strategy and others noting that local politics are often more immediately relevant than larger national debates.
A2. The answer is to make it relevant. Project based learning that connects students to the communities that they live in and/or where their school resides. Also it's important for students to learn how important local and state politics are to their lives. #StudentVoiceChat— Tinisha.Shaw (@TiRoShaw) May 15, 2019
Our third question dealt with the issue of students' rights.
Here, commentators offered perspectives on students' constitutional rights—which, as I reported for a recent story and video explainer, look markedly different for students in school, as well as other sources that shape what students are and aren't permitted to do.
A3: Though out of the classrm, I have seen varied degrees of respect for students' rights. Most often, this happened when students thought out the issue, researched it, & had a plan & proposal for solutions to address their concerns. #StudentVoiceChat @educationweek https://t.co/ynmICntvue— M Gilbert-Mitchell (@mgmcollegesvcs) May 15, 2019
Here's a discussion of student codes of conduct, which can be an opportunity to engage students—or, as Frank LoMonte points out, impermissibly restrict students' rights:
#studentvoicechat Students can get legally invalid "codes of conduct" changed, including these students in California who (with legal help) got rid of an unconstitutional "waive all your free speech rights contract." https://t.co/e1iddllLci— Frank LoMonte (@FrankLoMonte) May 14, 2019
One commentator pointed out something I've thought a lot about: Efforts to "harden" schools or make them safer can sometimes work at cross purposes to the expression and emphasis of students' rights. (Surprisingly, this has not been a focus of much media coverage or even much discussion among the school safety and social-emotional learning experts.)
#StudentVoiceChat A3 Working in a lockdown school, we have a difficult relationship with student rights. We try to make up for the lack of physical autonomy (can't leave the school) by allowing students to voice their opinions as freely as possible. Not great, but it's something https://t.co/8Iqiulcq9H— Neil Wrona (@neilwrona) May 14, 2019
Our journalism students noted that their school has their backs on their First Amendment right to freedom of the press.
A3: Yes, our rights are respected in our school. Through our journalism program, students are able to freely express their voices while being supported by teachers, as well as administrators. #studentvoicechat— PLD Lamplighter (@pldlamplighter) May 14, 2019
Finally, Tinisha Shaw noted the racial dynamic that often plays out for schools serving black and brown students.
A3. Often student voices are tolerated or contained. I find this especially true for Black and Brown students in predominantly White spaces. The fear that their voices will automatically lead to violence is offensive to me and just racist. #StudentVoiceChat— Tinisha.Shaw (@TiRoShaw) May 15, 2019
Last, for our fourth question, we spoke a bit about what schools could do better to model good civics practice, not just teach civics. (In a recent story, I wrote about a charter school in Colorado that has arguably not done a good job on this front; it allegedly punished students who held a respectful protest.)
Here were a few of the chat participants' ideas:
A4: it was a very basic and easy thing, but my HS Government teacher made handed out voting registration at the end of the year. She had all of us fill them out & then mailed them back in for us. It was a simple way to show us that we were expected to vote #StudentVoiceChat https://t.co/z3lpX5tgI4— Neil Wrona (@neilwrona) May 14, 2019
A4 we had a mock election, ran like the real election, with student-created nonpartisan voting guides. Kids voted on US Senate and local referendum. We even invited @SecTreHargett to our planning meeting (he had some great advice). #StudentVoiceChat— Amanda Smithfield (@asmithfield) May 15, 2019
These themes run through all of Education Week's civics coverage. If you haven't already, this is a great time to read those stories.