Freedom and High Expectations: What Worked In My Civic Engagement Unit by Patrick Friedman

Whatever success my students had with becoming “educated for Democracy in the digital age” can largely be attributed to two factors: (1) the freedom to pursue topics that were authentically intriguing to students and (2) the expectation that they would present their findings with professionalism and some degree of expertise. Giving students opportunities to pursue topics that genuinely interested or puzzled them helped students generate pride, passion, and ownership in their work. In making our work high stakes — with the possibility for a large and public audience — students put forth greater effort and, in many cases, produced better work than is typical.

Some context: I teach 10th grade World History at Oakland Technical High School, a comprehensive school with over 2000 students. For my inquiry, I wanted to see how practice in public speaking and academic research would increase those skills. I chose these skills as the focus of my inquiry because these skills were lacking in students from previous years. When it came to public speaking, many students lacked professionalism, presence, and expertise. A primary reason they lacked expertise was because of weaknesses in academic research skills. Students too often accept unreliable information as truth and, in turn, reach unreasonable or uncorroborated conclusions.

Issue Analysis — Digging Deeper and Going Beyond

Viewing this research project through the lens of civic engagement — analysis, action, reflection — the emphasis is on analysis. Specifically, students had the task of learning about a country’s status related to one or more of the following topics: economics, politics, social dynamics (e.g. religious and ethnic conflict, gender roles, education, etc.), as well as information relating to their country and climate change. Students also learned information on the United Nations and how and why it functions.

Recalling my inquiry questions, analysis came in the [broad] form of academic research. Much of this blog is devoted to reflecting on how this research can be done more effectively. I admittedly failed in large part to implement enough class activities aimed at my second inquiry question — can students publically speak with presence, professionalism, and expertise if given several opportunities to practice and get feedback? Finding class time to give students this repeated practice proved difficult. But I stand committed to helping my students develop public speaking skills. Whereas developing academic research skills is a form of “issue analysis,” speaking publicly about their findings is form of “civic action,” albeit one with limited spread if only happening within the confines of my classroom. Still, the skill of public speaking lends itself to effective civic action. One of my most important challenges going forward is to create more substantive and engaging opportunities for civic action.

That said, the focus on issue analysis was fruitful. Students clearly learned a lot about academic research and, for many, interests were piqued and explored. Some more specifics on our project would help here. Students formed teams and chose a country to research. The country was one of 15 countries that were also researched by students at two other Oakland high school campuses. Selected students then built upon what they learned in their research to participate in a Model United Nations conference on climate change.

Beyond the aforementioned topics (economics, politics, etc.), students were free to explore what piqued their interests. Rather than regurgitate factual information — What are the percentages of people following different religions? How do male and female literacy rates compare? What percentage of the country’s wealth is shared by the poorest 10%? — students were encouraged to dig deeper, engage in analyses of the facts, explore different perspectives, and characterize issues in terms relevant to the rest of the world. One student, Amelia, found statistics on wealth disparity in Brazil. Then she explored the tensions between the government, which has spent billions of dollars preparing for the World Cup, and residents of favelas in Rio de Janeiro who protest such spending at the expense of schools, hospitals, and housing. Amelia said that the freedom to explore in researching made for one of her most exciting learning activities.

For other students, this freedom to explore during academic research needed to be more structured. Some had difficulty generating interesting questions for inquiry once confronted with some facts about their country. So the students’ inquiry processes could be refined and more clearly structured. I want students to distinguish and analyze issues that engage them. Therefore the project needs a specific step where students go beyond factual information to generate analytic questions worth exploring.

In addition, students needed more specific scaffolding to verify the truthfulness of sources on the internet.

Getting Active

Another difference for next year will be to expand the types of action students can take after issue analysis. Most students were not interested in participating in Model UN. In a sense, presenting their findings is a type of action taken by students. This does not entail engaging with a community outside the classroom, but the classroom is a real community. As such, students did feel more accountable for their work — because they were members of a team and also because they were expected to articulate what they learned (in other words, to teach) to their classmates. Still, I would like to see actions beyond the walls of my classroom. Perhaps my students could connect with teenagers in the country they researched. These students could engage in cross-cultural conversations about the issues that interest them. Or my students might see similarities between the countries they researched and their own communities. Do issues in any way mirror each other in these places? What actions could students take in the spirit of “thinking globally and acting locally?”

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