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High School Civics is Cool Again

High school graduates don’t know enough about American government.

That’s the conclusion of a Department of Education report which highlighted the fact that less than a quarter of high school seniors scored proficient on the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) civics test. Civics learning, the department maintained, was an add-on in too many schools and was seen as a distraction from the core subjects.

“The need to revitalize and re-imagine civic education is urgent. That urgent need brings a great opportunity—the chance to improve civic education in ways that will resonate for years,” then- Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in 2011.

And the students themselves are looking to boost their knowledge of American government. The current politically charged atmosphere is drawing a record number of high school students toward current events, according to the New York Times.

Students are seeking out more information about civic engagement through social media and from their high school teachers.

To support schools as they craft their new civics classes, a wealth of online resources and curriculum content are available that present the facts and history of American government, provide an overview of the ideas and the issues that divide our nation and introduce students to the various methods for participating in American politics.

The first step in any civics or government class is to instruct students about the institutions of government. The three branches of federal government, checks and balances, the process of creating laws, federalism, the basic mechanics of elections, and the role of parties and interest groups in this country all need to be mastered. Like any good board game, students have to know the rules of government in order to play.

After students have a strong understanding of the institutions and process of government, the next step is learning about the substance of politics. Here, students learn about the issues and the values that divide our nation. They must take positions on controversial topics and state their opinions in a civil manner. They have to discuss the details of current policies, such as those related to the military, education, housing, welfare, and immigration. Research shows that students who are used to discussing current affairs are more likely to be politically active as adults.

The last step in any good civics class is to present the various ways that students can wade into politics and have their voices heard. Voting is the most basic form of participation, but citizens can also sign petitions and attend marches. They can attend local town hall meetings. Even calling an elected official to ask a question or stating your position on an issue is a way of participating. Hopefully, some students might even work on a campaign or run for office in the future, or at the very least gain an insight into and respect for the machinations of government that affect all American lives.

The following resources help teachers provide their students with deep knowledge of the institutions of government, the ability to wade into the hot buttons issues of the times, and the tools to directly participate in American politics.

Resources

  • Discovery Education’s Social Studies Techbook offers instruction on the structure and processes of the U.S. government through an inquiry-based learning process. It provides teachers with primary source documents, exclusive videos, and other dynamic digital content. New online-entry features check students’ understanding, allowing them to apply their learning to new situations, and contribute to classroom conversations. Discovery Education Social Studies Techbook also includes interactive features in which students practice civic discourse with debates and role-playing.
  • iCivics is a set of free online educational games developed by a nonprofit organization founded by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Last November, the game was played roughly 3 million times, according to Education Week.
  • Newseum, a Washington-based museum about current events, provides free learning tools on media literacy and the First Amendment.
  • C-SPAN Classroom offers extensive classroom lesson plans and free videos developed by teachers and the C-SPAN staff.
  • The Center for Civic Education is an independent, nonprofit organization whose mission is to promote an enlightened and responsible citizenry that is committed to democratic principles and actively engaged in the practice of democracy. It offers a variety of lesson plans related to elections on topics such as voting requirements, the power of the senior vote, and amendments. Handouts include a chart of political slogans. Did you know that Herbert Hoover’s slogan was “a chicken in every pot (and a car in every garage)”?
  • The American Bar Association has lessons plans on a variety of topics, including antitrust laws, the Second Amendment, and the environment. One lesson plan involves a discussion of the use of censorship in Ray Bradbury’s book Fahrenheit 451.
  • The Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools is an advocacy group that promotes civics education at the state and national level. Its website provides links to over 90 organizations and schools that provide teachers with free lesson plans and inspiration, including EarthForce.org and the Constitutional Rights Foundation.
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Helping Students Search for Truth in an Era of ‘Fake News’

“What is true and what is false?”

This reads like a driving question for a unit of study in social studies. But in the current political climate, many people are asking this question in their daily lives.

Fake news — the deliberate spread of misinformation or hoaxes across various media — is meant to mislead readers in order to gain financially, politically, or otherwise. The furor surrounding fake news has resulted in heightened skepticism of reports from the news media, and an escape route for those who struggle to accept the authenticity of information that does not align with their beliefs on important, divisive issues.

A recent report concluded that students may be among the most susceptible to the influx of false statements and the manipulation of facts. In a 2016 study by the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG), researchers found that youth have a hard time telling the difference between objective and sponsored online content. Young people are also susceptible to bias when politicians and organizations post messages on social media.

“Many people assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally perceptive about what they find there,” said Professor Sam Wineburg, author of the report and founder of SHEG. “Our work shows the opposite to be true.”

Searching for truth in an era of fake news needs to be a priority in education. This is not the responsibility of the social studies teacher or the English department alone. Every discipline should teach “media literacy,” defined by Heidi Hayes Jacobs as being able to “develop critical and creative capabilities to both receive and assess the quality of messages from all forms of media, and to generate and create quality media of their own.” This includes understanding that any communication has a purpose and an audience in mind.

Media literacy also addresses how people may leverage specific strategies to entertain, inform, or persuade in a variety of media.

There are specific strategies and skills educators can foster in students to ensure they develop a more nuanced and deeper understanding of the information available before forming their own opinions. Here are just a few:

1. Curate reliable feeds of information

Taking one person’s word as truth on any complex issue may lead to misinformation and misconceptions. Teachers can combat this by modeling for students how to create a reliable list of individuals and groups on social media. For example, a teacher can maintain a classroom Facebook page or Twitter account. The teacher would demonstrate how to evaluate who they might follow, discuss why they would read their posts, and ensure multiple perspectives are considered. Older students can be taught to maintain their own information feeds using digital curation tools such as Feedly and Flipboard.

2. Understand how people are persuaded

Merriam-Webster defines “fact” as “a piece of information presented as having objective reality”. This would be a good entry point for a study of what makes for effective persuasive writing. Connections with media literacy can be made by studying the techniques advertisers use. The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and International Literacy Association (ILA) offer many teacher resources on this topic at ReadWriteThink.

3. Teach search strategies

Google’s revenue source comes primarily from businesses and organizations that want to have their websites on the first page for key search results. Using search engines designed for students, such as Sweet Search, will help ensure results are objective and appropriate. Students should also be taught how to use features within the advanced option for Google searches when doing research for a class project.

4. Create content for an audience

In the search for truth, everyone can have a voice with the advent of the Internet and digital applications. Students need opportunities to apply their media literacy skills in new contexts. Teachers can use creation tools, such as  learning management systems, or LMSs, provide safe online spaces for students to interact with peers.  Students can post their work and their ideas for feedback. Their finished products, which may include a mix of audio, images, and video in addition to text, can be published on a blog, website, or video channel.

Old Challenges, New Strategies

Dealing with fake news is not a new phenomenon. Mathew Ingram of Fortune Magazine points out that historical figures such as John Adams and Benjamin Franklin wrestled with these very same issues. The good news, Ingram reports, is that “we arguably have much better tools to fight it than we have ever had before.” Social media and content development tools, along with the right strategies, put every student in better control of what they consume and create.

 

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Navigating Controversial Topics in Middle School Classrooms

Lately it seems as if every major issue in the country is dividing citizens. From the recent presidential election to debates about fake news, immigration, and health care, citizens are split on their positions. While having a divide isn’t unusual, the gulf between those who are pro and con seems wider than ever before.

This is not just a feeling. A Gallup poll from late 2016 proved it: Nearly 80 percent of Americans perceived the country as divided, topping the previous high of 69 percent in 2012. It seems the only thing Americans can agree on is that we don’t agree.

For middle school teachers hoping to introduce sensitive issues to students, this divisiveness can be daunting. And yet, the exercise has never been more important.

“We need to show kids how to talk about controversial things the right way,” says Larry Lhulier, the supervisor of curriculum, instruction, and technology at New Jersey’s Wildwood Crest Memorial School. Teaching students the skills to debate sensitive issues while still respecting others’ opinions is the best way to counteract the current corrosive debate, he adds.

“What we’re trying to do is prepare young people to participate in democracies,” says Diana Hess, the dean of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s School of Education.

Hess visited middle school classrooms and studied their debates to research her 2009 book, Controversy in the Classroom: The Democratic Power of Discussion.

The benefit of having these discussions in middle school is that many children haven’t formed a solid opinion about most subjects, she adds. “I like teaching in classes where there’s a range of views and where people were not set [in their opinions]. It’s the puzzle of trying to figure something out.”

Teacher Tips

Rich Young says a teacher’s first move should be to communicate to parents, students, and the school’s administration any controversial materials chosen for the classroom, such as a movie or book. Explain why the resource is needed, how it will be used, and include class protocols for discussing current events. Young, currently the project director for Teaching American History at the Education Cooperative, was previously the social studies curriculum coordinator in Brookline, Mass.

“You can explore any topic, and if done right, you shouldn’t have any issues,” adds Lhulier. He and others advise teachers to keep their personal opinions out of each debate, but be ready to step in and play devil’s advocate if an entire classroom slants in one direction.

“I have strong views,” Lhulier adds. “I reserve them for home with my wife. The kids didn’t know where I stood on any of the issues we discussed.”

Young points out that classroom debates about the Second Amendment took on different tones when he taught in southern Indiana, where a majority of boys were active hunters, and when he was in Massachusetts, where most students were anti-gun. In both cases he would bring up counter arguments to make sure students had thought through all the issues in this complicated topic.

“Teachers who are really good do a good job of bringing in multiple perspectives,” Hess says. Her studies showed that more and more classrooms are breaking down along “red” and “blue” designations depending on where they are based. “We’re more politically polarized, and students are more likely to live in communities that agree with them.”

Push Past Stereotypes

It’s important to make conversations specific and evidence-based, Lhulier says. In this polarized political atmosphere, students can repeat negative stereotypes, unfairly labeling classmates and impeding classroom debates. Don’t let students equate someone’s conservative beliefs with racism, or someone’s liberal beliefs with not supporting the police, Lhulier adds.

“My experience is kids are really open,” Lhulier says. “A good teacher gets kids to think about their perspective in a nonjudgmental way.”

In Wildwood, the New Jersey shore community includes wealthy hotel owners and the families of people who work in the hotels, Lhulier says, offering a rich, socioeconomic diversity.

“Kids get excited about seeing something in a different way,” he says, adding that he considers it a success when a student ends up saying, “I get it. I see how that person would react in a certain way.”

Teachers have to be ready to rein in conversations, especially when students start to share personal details that shouldn’t be public, he says. “Kids are thinking out loud; they don’t have the filters that adults have.”

How you treat a student’s experiences depends on the student, Lhulier says. One golden rule is to “never make a student be an unwilling spokesperson for a topic. On the other hand, I never silence a child who wants to be a spokesperson for a topic.”

Encourage Simulations

At the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, simulations avoid the problems Lhulier mentions. The Boston institute, which includes a near-exact replica of the Senate floor, tasks students with arguing over bills that have been passed in the U.S. Senate—but with a twist. The institute assigns students to portray various senators. So as students dig into the immigration bill, they may represent a conservative senator from a border state or a liberal senator from the northeast. Since the institute opened in 2015, more than 30,000 students from middle school to college have come through its doors.

“It sets students back from their gut reactions and sets the ground rules,” says Kennedy Institute president Jean MacCormack. The simulations include giving students expert testimony to help inform them to reach a consensus. For instance, in the case of the immigration bill, students are told about H-1B visas that allow workers with special skills to enter the country to work for U.S. companies.

“Coming to a compromise is not an easy thing,” she says. “They have to choose between their own opinions, their party’s opinions, and constituent opinions.” Students who don’t agree with their assigned role frequently ask what would happen if they bucked their party or constituents, MacCormack says. “You may not get reelected.”

While sitting in a U.S. Senate replica adds to the drama of debate, MacCormack says the institute has taken its debates on the road, bringing the simulations to Mississippi and Martha’s Vineyard. While Senator Kennedy was unabashedly Democratic, the institute works with staffers from both Republican and Democratic offices to make sure the simulations are nonpartisan.

“Students can learn a lot from simulations,” Hess adds. But she cautions that teachers should be sensitive to assignments when creating conversations. Giving an undocumented student the role of an anti-immigration senator is a bad idea, she says.

MacCormack says the debate, which frequently starts before students come to the institute, typically lasts for days after they return to school. And that, to her, is the entire point. “Democracy isn’t a spectator sport. You have to get involved.”

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5 Strategies for Using Primary Source Documents in Social Studies Classrooms

Use of primary sources was once remarkably scarce, both during in-class instruction and in textbooks. The availability and accessibility of primary sources on the Internet has revolutionized social studies instruction. But how are primary sources used in the classroom? Are students working with primary sources to make their own claims supported by self-selected evidence?

Those questions are becoming increasingly relevant as historical thinking skills are embedded in Common Core literacy standards, Advanced Placement exams, International Baccalaureate courses, and so on. It is not enough to include primary source images in teacher PowerPoints or include primary sources sporadically on assessments. Students should be conditioning their historical thinking skills with primary sources, daily, as active learners in a 21st century social studies classroom.

Looking back some 60 years, the progression of social studies instruction becomes clear. A 1950’s textbook was generally a static, authoritative source that left little room for multiple perspectives and primary source analysis.

Consider this excerpt from the 1st edition of the “American Pageant” textbook in 1956:

The average ex-slave, freed by the war and the 13th Amendment, was essentially a child. Life under the lash had unfortunately left him immature—socially, politically, emotionally. To turn him loose upon the cold world was like opening the door of an orphanage and telling the children they were free to go where they liked and do as they wished. One of the cruelest calamities ever to be visited upon the much-abused Negro was jerking him overnight from bondage to freedom, without any intermediate stages of preparation… The hapless Negro was in some ways even more of a menace to himself.

This simplistic, false, condescending narrative was presented as fact, with no quotes from African Americans living through Reconstruction. This, unfortunately, was not an anomaly, even 40 years later. James Loewen, author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” reached this conclusion when he first surveyed 12 U.S. history textbooks for the first edition of his book in 1995.

He wrote, “No book can convey the depths of the black experience without including material from the oppressed group. Yet not one textbook in my original sample let African Americans speak for themselves about the conditions they faced.”

Fast forward another 20 years, and textbooks are increasingly digital, with rich primary and secondary sources in a variety of multimedia formats to enrich the classic textbook narrative. Modern students, in a student-centered classroom focused on content inquiry and literacy skills, can now corroborate secondary accounts with primary source material. The teacher, no longer the “sage on the stage,” can provide these sources and tasks and guide and facilitate inquiry.

Inquiry-based, student centered instruction requires extensive lesson planning. Locating primary sources can be a cumbersome and time consuming process. But once located, providing these resources to students alone is not enough. Sources may need adaptation for different reading levels, and scaffolds to make the sources accessible for all students.

This underscores the need for collaboration, both within course teams at the school level and digitally across the Internet. Many teachers are now forming Professional Learning Networks (PLN’s) to share resources and ideas digitally. Teaching on an island is becoming increasingly difficult.

Here are some suggestions for using primary sources for learning.

Use primary sources to corroborate secondary sources.

Provide students with a secondary interpretation—a recent newspaper article, an encyclopedic narrative, a passage from a book—and provide primary sources for students to corroborate the claims. If the textbook provides an overly simplistic narrative, students can examine primary sources on the subject and re-write the narrative. This conditions corroboration and historical interpretation skills.

Brainstorm dialogue of historical figures based on primary source analysis.

One way to foster student-centered instruction is to have students brainstorm dialogue based on primary source analysis. This forces students to synthesize multiple viewpoints to draw conclusions.

For example, if students read Alexander Hamilton’s economic writings from the 1790’s, in which he advocated for an industrial America and a government that amassed debt, alongside Thomas Jefferson’s words on agriculture and fiscal restraint, students could construct a debate between the men. They could insert speech bubbles on images of the men, act out a skit, or participate in a mock debate. The primary sources are the catalyst for creativity and to contextualize a time period.

Move past the “main idea.”

Teachers should instruct students to think past the “main idea” or “summary.” These instructions are fine, but alone can allow students to skim a source and not really read it closely for historical thinking. Focusing in on vocabulary in context, asking students to corroborate multiple sources, analyzing the point of view of the source, among others, are ways to condition historical thinking with rigor.

Let all people in history speak for themselves

Teachers should think about who is speaking in their history class. If all the primary sources focus on politicians and notable figures, the everyday folks driving history, making history, are left out. Analyzing the words of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln are important, but so too is hearing from those not so famous and those often marginalized in society.

If using a source from Frederick Douglass, also use Kale’s letter to John Quincy Adams, an 11-year old captive on the Amistad. If using Abigail Adams’ words on gender equality in the founding era, also use excerpts of diaries and letters from lesser-known women to help contextualize a time period. Students need to see themselves in the curriculum.

If sources used in instruction are overwhelmingly from white men in positions of power, students are less likely to engage with the content and feel empathy for the foot soldiers of history.

Consider multiple formats of primary sources.

Primary sources are not always text-based. Common Core, C3, and other skills standards that guide social studies instruction require students to examine a variety of multimedia sources to draw conclusions. Rather than read a speech, students can listen or view a speech.

Teachers can present students with old newsreels from the days before television. Students can analyze images, posters, photographs, cartoons, and many other visual primary sources to learn content and build skills.

Primary source analysis is increasingly the cornerstone of social studies instruction in the 21st century classroom. The Internet makes these sources much more accessible than ever before. Teachers are responsible for crafting inquiry-based, student-centered lessons so these sources are used in meaningful ways to achieve various learning outcomes.

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