Reflections on Civil Discourse and Civic Engagement: As Educators, Helping Youth Understand Global Changes

Adam Strom, Director of Scholarship and Innovation, Facing History and Ourselves

How has your role as an educator changed in light of our current political reality?

We are currently witnessing the world’s largest refugee crisis since World War II. There are 65.3 million people displaced across the globe right now and about one billion others on the move. Migration is creating new encounters with difference daily. How we respond to these changes will shape our future.

As educators, part of our mission is to help young people understand these global changes. In part this means reflecting on these changes in the classroom but also in micro terms, it means looking at how we view school communities, how we welcome newcomers, whether our schools are divided and how we retain our identities but also remain open to newcomers and welcome them.

I’m optimistic that people are recognizing the challenges that stem from the divisive nature of the recent election and its aftermath as well as the sharp fissures we have on issues of race, religion, and ethnicity. Educators and students alike are highlighting the value of civic education more than we’ve seen in the past. (It’s important to note that civic learning isn’t just about understanding structures of government, but also, understanding what makes communities strong and vibrant.)

At Facing History and Ourselves, we’ve been hearing from educators who are reaching out, particularly in the aftermath of the election, and looking for resources and strategies to affect school-wide practices on issues like bullying and intimidation. After the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center put together a report on how the presidential election led to an increase in bullying at schools. Teachers and administrators are looking for guidance to help create civil spaces to talk about these issues and others, some that are particular to school culture but also looking for resources to help provide a historical perspective on the challenges we face today.

What other changes have you noticed in your own work?

There’s a new aspect in the conversation on civic engagement education that people are just beginning to understand, and that is how digital technologies are impacting what it means to participate in the world, how to have a voice and make a positive difference, for younger and older generations.

In the past, so much of our daily civic interactions—organizing, protesting and more— were mediated through big institutions. But the digital realm allows people to get hands on, mobilize and organize on their own. This creates both opportunities and challenges. Young people who are looking to express their voice early on and begin to participate in the digital realm sometimes back out of the conversation because the online world can be so nasty and uncivil. They are also aware enough to know of the lasting imprint of the Internet and they worry about that, and rightfully so. The MacArthur Research Network on Youth and Participatory Politics (YPP), under the leadership of Joe Kahne, has done wonderful work in this area, helping educate young kids to navigate this new digital terrain.

Have any recent current events generated new Facing History educational materials?

One of our new resources is called Facing Ferguson: News Literacy in a Digital Age. We looked at the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown, and how the news media shaped the way that people responded to that event. The resource examines confirmation bias and teaches source verification, and offers students the opportunity to examine the way that our identities influence how we respond to the news. So often, people are unaware of how their own particular bias influences what they read and take away from the media they consume. This resource helps to slow that process down.

We’ve also developed a whole new set of lessons looking at the global refugee crisis.

But you know, while we’re absolutely invested in creating educational materials that are responsive to current events, our pedagogy is based on the belief that teaching about the past offers students tools to think critically about connections and distinctions in their lives, and resources on current events offer an entry point into the larger work. That larger work is a rigorous historical analysis combined with the study of human behavior that empowers young people to confront bigotry and anti-Semitism, and prepares them to make a positive difference in the world.

We’ve got over 40 years of evaluation of our methods and we know well that when kids engage with our pedagogy as much as they do with our resources, the outcomes show that they are better able to think about their relationships with their peers, stand up for injustice, make thoughtful connections between the past and the present, are more tolerant of people who hold different viewpoints and reflect more deeply on ethical dilemmas.

When you look at your work through a Jews lens, what do you see?

At a time when there’s increased anti-Semitism, for Jewish students who have learned about their own difficult history, there’s also an opportunity to encourage them to think about themselves as active agents. When difficult historical moments like the Holocaust are taught well, there is an opportunity created which allows students to reflect on the moral and ethical dangers of the past and open their eyes to what they can affect today. A rich study of history can open the mind.

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