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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Student Voice and the Teaching of Democracy

School's out. Politics is in. Five months of presidential political combat lie ahead. So I'm psyched to revisit the challenge of effectively educating kids to be active participants in our democratic processes. I plan to post a number of columns over the next months that focus on student voice, the teaching of democracy, civic engagement and political literacy. I'm hoping some of you will join the discussion and toss in your two cents.

The prime directives, cutting across all these topics are:

  1. To effectively teach democracy, you have to model it.
  2. To teach students how to be actively engaged citizens, you have to enable them to practice active engagement.
We get the electorate and government we deserve, and our schools play a critical part in this.

The Value of Student Input

One place to begin is the way in which our secondary schools include students in both classroom and school-based decision-making processes. It continues to astonish and distress me that instructional, curricula and policy decision-making usually excludes the direct voices of students, their experiences, perceptions and preferences.

These common practices have nothing to do with students' capabilities. Doing research on classroom environments some years ago, I was surprised by how accurately upper elementary school students evaluated their teachers' strengths and limitations. Their assessments of their classroom environments were generally dead-on. I was particularly impressed with how perfectly they differentiated flexible from inflexible teachers, nailing one of the key variables that distinguishes good teachers and bad teachers.

It stands to reason that high school students are capable of doing this even more accurately. If you spend time talking with high school students about the school climate, you know how much they register even the subtlest political workings of the school administration. As just one example, interviewing students in a San Francisco Bay Area high school a few years ago I was repeatedly told about a known student drug dealer who administrators were hurriedly trying to help graduate rather than risk exposing the school to a public scandal. As one student put it, "It's the same old game. They don't want anything in the paper!"

Although using student input for teacher evaluations is a complex and potentially tricky challenge, using student input to help guide instruction and curriculum is a no-brainer. There is no excuse for failing to do this. The dual purpose is (a) helping to empower students and train them to use their voices effectively, and (b) getting the best possible feedback to make adjustments in both curriculum and instruction.

The biggest obstacles to this are: habit, the usual key culprit; the allocation of valuable time ("If I take time for this, I may not get to the Civil War by Christmas!"); ego (only masochists enjoy receiving negative feedback!); and skepticism regarding the value of student perceptions. Habit and skepticism can only be overcome by taking the risk of trying a different way. Time allotment should be easy; this doesn't take much time. And as for our delicate egos, teachers need to remember that feedback used effectively will always improve student-faculty relationships.

Engaging the Constituents

Here are some easy and quick ways to include student voices in your classroom.

1) Instruct in the Art of Giving Feedback

Provide some short instruction on the art of giving feedback at the beginning of the semester. You can make it part of preparing students to give each other feedback for project presentations. readwritethink provides one of the many useful guidelines that are available on the Web.

2) Have Students Fill-Out an Anonymous Questionnaire

Give students this short questionnaire periodically, to be filled out anonymously. There are only four items:

  • What I like most about this class
  • What I like least about this class
  • More time should be spent on . . .
  • Less time should be spent on . . .

3) Create a Student Advisory Group

Create a student advisory group in each class. Have the students elect two to three student reps who will meet with you or communicate online with you once a week to provide feedback on how things are going in the class. This makes it easy for students who might be reluctant to speak up to at least share responses with their rep.

These three small processes alone will (a) provide valuable information that can be used in the ongoing formative assessment of your instruction and curriculum, and (b) give students a sense of empowerment. (More on that in my next blog!)

Ah, but this is the easy challenge! It just means individual teachers making some easy changes. And I think the more teachers begin to do this with positive results, the more others will slowly try it. Moving to the school-wide level, the challenges are far greater. I'm talking about school-wide decision making.

Stay tuned for my blog on this subject, and meanwhile, please share your responses and suggestions in the comment area below.

Comments (10)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

This is a time that I dread the most, because too many teachers and staff can't resist placing their own preferences or biases on display. Schools don't do enough to make the environment ideologically neutral. Politics are like religion, at least that's how I was raised. They should be kept private. It shouldn't be the business of your students or your immediate colleagues what your political preferences are. Instruction in the democratic process can be conducted in this way but it requires a disciplined teacher without a personal agenda. I am fully aware that many teachers feel it is their duty to indoctrinate students in a certain mode of thinking. This is especially true at the post-secondary level. My advice to parents is to scrutinize all materials given to their children, especially in social studies, history, economics, science, and language arts, to suss out questionable viewpoints or conclusions that may strain ideological boundaries.

M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

The recent incident at a school in North Carolina, where social studies teacher Tanya Dixon-Neely ripped a student for criticizing the present POTUS during a classroom discussion by claiming that the student could be "arrested" for sharing his opinion. She also compounded her absurd claims by stating very adamantly that criticizers of George W. Bush were actually "arrested" during his time in office. However, the most egregious example of her bias was her warning that criticisms of Obama would "not be tolerated in my classroom!"

Mark Phillips's picture
Mark Phillips
Teacher and Educational Journalist
Blogger 2014

I think that a teacher using the classroom as a bully pulpit for a particular political point of view is unconscionable, unethical, and unprofessional. The art of teaching history is to expose students to varied perspectives and help them develop their own. Exposing biases of any sort in text materials should also be part of the teaching process.

I think time should also be spent helping students see the way in which the media manipulate the facts, whether the media is Fox news or MSNBC.

At the same time, there is no such thing as a value free classroom. The very act of including students in decision making and legitimizing their critiquing of one's own teaching, school policies and procedures, and district, state, and national policies, is a value laden act that some teachers and administrators may find threatening. And again, as your warning implies, this questioning needs to come from the students, not be an indoctrination based on the teacher's biases.

Thanks for your responses M.A.

Mark

Mark Wilding's picture
Mark Wilding
Ed PassageWorks Institute

Mark: I always enjoy your blogs... thanks for this one! Do you know about IDEA?

IDEA, Institute for Democratic Education in America, is a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization whose mission is to ensure that all young people can engage meaningfully with their education and gain the tools to build a just, democratic, and sustainable world. @goodIDEAfolks
http://www.democraticeducation.org/

Cheers, Mark @mwilding

Ann Sisko's picture
Ann Sisko
Emeritus Classroom Teacher (grades 2/3 - 7/8) in South Brunswick, NJ

It is true that the impulse to share one's political views -- especially in today's political climate -- is almost irresistible

My experience is on the elementary level -- where we teach about American democracy and the electoral process. From 1992 to 2008 my class (fourth or fifth or sixth grade, depending on the year...) ran our schoolwide Presidential election.

The kids learned about registering to vote and then registered voters in our school; they learned about signing the register by sitting at desks and signing voters in; they learned about voting by voting themselves and then instructing others on what to do; and each year they had to come up with a solution to the issue of -- how can we make the process work for voters who haven't learned to read yet?

(Their choice was always to put pictures as well as names on the ballot boxes.)

[Those were not the only Civics topics we addressed, but I need to stick to the point.....]

The last three elections were orchestrated by my fourth grade classes. We did discuss politics -- always on the terms they understood it -- and there was a lot of 'question and answer.' The kids often asked me who I was going to vote for. I always told them I would tell them after the election.

The 2008 election was particularly challenging for me. (Not as challenging as the 2012 election would be if I were doing it this year, though!) Before I told them who I voted for, after our election (held on the 'real' election day), I asked for a show of hands as to whom they thought I voted for.

Twelve were sure I voted for McCain; twelve were certain I voted for Obama. Three said they had no idea. I felt I had done my job well!

M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

[quote] Before I told them who I voted for, after our election (held on the 'real' election day), I asked for a show of hands as to whom they thought I voted for.[/quote]

Why was this important for them to guess your political orientation? I'm sure I could predict with near 100% certainty as to whom you voted for, since NEA members typically vote as a bloc and unilaterally for one party only.

M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

[quote]I think that a teacher using the classroom as a bully pulpit for a particular political point of view is unconscionable, unethical, and unprofessional. [/quote]

It happens all the time, especially at Catholic universities. For example, if you exhibit too much support for Israel's involvement with disputed West Bank territory, you get chopped off at the knees.

FrankLoMonte's picture
FrankLoMonte
Executive Director, Student Press Law Center

Mark, please keep this discussion going, it's essential. Education is the only industry in America where "the customer is always wrong."
We will never effectively inculcate civics as long as constitutional rights are taught as an abstract concept in history books but not lived as a reality. Take the recent example of the student delegate to the Allentown, Pa., School Board, who was told after giving a truthful speech about ineffective teaching and lack of discipline that the assistant principal would have to vet her future speeches, because her comments were hurting the school's image. Or the student in Lenoir City, Tenn., who was prevented from publishing an editorial column decrying the inculcation of Christianity by her public school, on the grounds (the superintendent's words) that it might provoke "passionate conversation."
The censorship climate in public schools breeds cynicism and disconnect; it is a recipe for civic dis-engagement. You cannot get students engaged in the democratic process when they've seen that the democratic process does not work -- that their school board invariably sides with administrators over students regardless of the facts, and that there are no consequences when administrators violate the law and lie. The pendulum has swung much too far toward heavy-handed authoritarian control, and it is time for legislatures (and if not them, courts) to establish a reasonable middle ground.

M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

Frank: The limitations placed on student voices in the classroom can be generalized to the rest of society. Legitimate dissent or criticism in this marketplace of ideas can be mischaracterized in the harshest of terms by those who believe they are being unjustly targeted. They will resort to the most unscrupulous tactics to silence the opposition, even threaten with legal action in certain cases. In the matter of higher education professors-- rank, tenure, and the ability to attract major research dollars insulate many from accountability in their treatment of students.

As the title of this post asserts, this spills over into other areas of our lives. I find the effort to control the internet very chilling. Now we have airborne drones flying over us and looking out for what exactly?

Orwell saw it coming!

M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

Recently, a popular and award winning science professor at Oregon State University was sacked just prior to finals week. No administrative explanation was given to the faculty member upon and since his dismissal. His teaching and publishing record was excellent save for one tiny details that rankled his department chair-- he openly questioned the science surrounding global warming. It was widely speculated among former associates that this was the reason for the dismissal, as the department chair was a leading advocate for man-made global warming theory and not surprisingly, attracted big research grants to investigate that theory.

So apparently at Oregon State University, good faculty can be sacrificed in favor of keeping up appearances with corporate or foundation donors who fund research.

All parents thinking about college for their children need to carefully vet the record of any school under consideration for how they treat dissenting views of faculty members as well as students.

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