Accountability Character Citizenship Civics Democracy Education Reform

Andrea Gabor: Now Is the Time to Revive Civics Education and Media Literacy

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Andrea Gabor argues that the violent storming of Congress is reason to revive civics in schools. Clearly, she writes, many Americans do not understand the norms of a democratic government (including, I would add, Trump and most of the elected representatives of the Republican Party).

Last week’s attack on the U.S. Capitol may have been incited by President Donald Trump and right-wing politicians, but it was supported by millions of their followers. News reports and public opinion polls make it clear that many Americans believe evidence-free assertions by Trump and his allies of massive voter fraud in the November election and their lies about the power of public officials to overturn the result.

The riot was just the latest and most appalling evidence that a wide swath of the American public doesn’t understand democratic norms. That’s why it should serve as a sputnik moment for an ambitious revival of civics instruction along with expanded training in news literacy.

Nobody’s claiming that the violent extremism on display on Jan. 6 owes its rise mainly to the decades-long de-emphasis of U.S. classroom civics. But it should be a clue that civics is too important to relegate to a semester or two of high school or to sacrifice to other curricular goals. It needs to be woven throughout the K-12 curriculum and go beyond rote instruction in the three-branch structure of the U.S. government, how a bill becomes law and the ins-and-outs of the electoral college.

Last week, educators nationwide were forced to throw out lesson plans and help students make sense of the day’s events. On Twitter, teachers reported students coming to class hungry for answers about everything from the 25th-Amendment process for declaring a president unable to perform his duties to why the Capitol police were more forceful last summer during the Black Lives Matter protests. In Matt Wood’s seventh-grade civics class at Leman Middle School in suburban Chicago, students analyzed images and words used by the news media to describe the Capitol attack — insurrection, coup, insurgency, protest — to determine which ones were most accurate.More fromCall the Senate Vote on Trump’s Removal and Be Done With ItA Breakup Plan to Save Intel and Preserve National SecurityTrump Will Try to Make His Impeachment About Free SpeechThe Pentagon Must Learn to Do More With Less

At a time of heightened political polarization, wrestling with the events of Jan. 6 is a potential minefield for both teachers and students. Teachers need help from civics experts to figure out how to navigate it.

Some districts in Florida thought they could avoid potential blowback from parents by telling educators to avoid discussing the Capitol riot at all, even though Florida has a decade-old civics graduation requirement. That didn’t stop students from pressing teachers for answers. On Twitter, some students, including an eighth grader in Virginia, agonized about how a class discussion had unleashed racist attacks from classmates.

Illinois’s five-year-old civics mandate requires the discussion of “current and controversial issues” and provides an object lesson in how a robust commitment to civics can prepare schools and educators to help students make sense of the things they see on the news. (Illinois was among 11 states that previously had no civics mandate.)

As part of Illinois’s professional developmentofferings, teachers can take weekly civics webinars. Last week, about 50 educators, including math and dance teachers as well as librarians and administrators, joined a webinar on “strategies for using current and controversial issues in the classroom,” which quickly focused on the Capitol attack. It offered resources on voter fraud and how presidential pardons work, as well as the importance of engaging “student voice.”

Participants were encouraged to handle thorny debates by drawing distinctions between “settled” and “open” issues. For example, the constitutional right to abortion has been “settled” by the Supreme Court but efforts to limit or eliminate it remain “open.” Although debating abortion might be “uncomfortable,” noted a Naperville high school social studies teacher during the webinar, doing so teaches students that “civic peace exists because we can hold oppositional views in the same community.”

Counterintuitively, encouraging debate can help teachers avoid political minefields. When one webinar participant argued that teachers should “condemn” the insurgents and denounce them for racism, Wood, whose Chicago-area school is ethnically and politically diverse, countered that having students help guide discussions by encouraging them to ask questions helps to protect teachers from community blowback. It also gives students a greater stake in the conversation.  

For years, civics has been neglected in favor of math and English, subjects with federally mandated annual tests. A new study found that the vast majority of California students “attend schools in districts that do not articulate a substantial focus on civic education.” Most American high school and college students also have trouble judging the credibility of news stories they read online.

Discussion of current events should begin as early as kindergarten, argues Steve Masyada, a civics expert at the University of Central Florida. And schools should begin teaching American history and civics in early grades.

Maryland is one of the few states to embed civics in social studies learning standards for all grades, and to establish a community service graduation requirement.

In Illinois, high-school students have been instrumental in drafting new legislation, including a 2016 school-discipline law and, most recently, a pending bill to observe daylight savings time all year. In earlier grades, students work on community improvement projects and participate in mock U.N. and legislative sessions.

Doubling down on civics and news literacy will require ratcheting back costly and time-consuming annual standardized tests — though a high school test could measure student knowledge and news literacy gleaned over time. One bonus: Mastering the background knowledge needed to understand history and civics is likely to make students better readers, while civics projects would help produce more engaged citizens.

Schools everywhere should be offering after-hours civics classes for families. The federal government should consider sponsoring an advertising campaign aimed at disseminating bite-sized lessons on how to distinguish fact from fiction online. That would be a fitting way to mark the end of Trump.

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