Increasing Civic Agency by Jessica Tyson

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 I have noticed that my students are often significantly more engaged in class when the topic at hand is connected to a contemporary issue that they understand to be important. This year, in my ninth grade California Studies class at Oakland Tech High School, I wanted to turn that engagement with school into real engagement with the community: I wanted to help students learn to analyze social issues (both historical and contemporary), and to increase their personal sense of civic agency.

I designed several classroom structures, routines, and assignments with these goals in mind. First, I used a “problems and solutions” framework for analysis of social issues. Knowing that I would eventually be asking my students to take action — to try and solve a problem — I designed three units (on the Gilded Age & Progressive Era, the Great Depression, and the 1960s and 1970s) using essential questions that would guide students towards understanding the actions people have taken to address past problems.

Second, I asked students to research and make a speech on one of several contemporary issues, selected by me.

Finally, I asked students to take action on a contemporary issue or problem of their choice that they could connect in some way to the 60s and 70s social movements we studied. I called this their Taking Action Project.

Key Findings

My students’ initial understanding of how to fix problems in society was broad and generally fairly naive. I asked them in a survey early on how they thought society should deal with its problems, and typical responses included “We should just change and send the bad people to jail,” and “Accept that we have them and all help in finding a solution.” When I asked them if they, individually, felt that they could make a difference, most said they could — this response rate did not vary dramatically over the course of the year — but in the first survey, answers were again vague. “I can help stop something bad that happens to everyone,” one student wrote; another said that “Everyone can make a difference, it’s just a matter of how you do it.”

After studying historical problems and solutions and attempting their own action with TAP, students’ responses to survey questions were far more nuanced. “Get a consensus on how people feel,” recommended one student, “and then based on that create a rational plan of action.” Describing potential actions they might take individually, students listed many specific tactics: “Marching in a protest, conducting a survey, making an account, holding up a poster with fact. There are so many big and small ways to take action…” Students were not uniformly more enthusiastic about their own power to individually make a difference, but their responses demonstrate a better understanding of how people can work together to make change. One student wrote, “If you really want to fix something in society you either need power or a great deal of people joining together.”

The Taking Action Projects themselves were a delight. Students worked on problems ranging from “the environment” to the lack of inclusion for special needs students in school (see a complete list of problems here). Many, many students gave surveys and published their results in the form of posters. One pair wrote a letter to our school administration about their concern over students’ lack of preparation for college and received a letter in response; another wrote to U.S. Congresswoman Barbara Lee on the legalization of marijuana. Three different projects involved the creation of YouTube or Instagram videos and several projects involved social media campaigns on Facebook and Twitter (see links here). One pair of students made a website; another pair had a diabetic-friendly bake sale and raised $60 for the American Diabetes Society. Another pair made a presentation to a 5th grade class on segregation in schools. One student got an editorial published in the East Bay Express and in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Students’ reflections on the efficacy of their actions were varied. Students were often thoughtful about how to measure their impact, but their lack of knowledge of typical means for evaluating social impact constrained their responses. Many students responded by saying that their actions were somewhat effective, but needed to be larger in scope.

Reflecting on my civic engagement curriculum, I’ve reached the same conclusion as my students. In fact, I am planning on redesigning my entire school year in order to create a stand-alone unit for TAP.

Separately, I plan to enlarge my curriculum on independent research. Students’ ability to research social problems that interested them really defined what they were able to do on their Taking Action Projects.

Another major point of concern for me is supporting all students in my classroom. The students who were most able to successfully create complex projects tended to be those who came into my room better prepared (and better connected) in the first place. I’d like to work on scaffolds for students who may need more support.

Finally, in planning for next year, I’d like to help students think through their choice of problem more deliberately.

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