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Understanding This Moment through Civic Education

by Andrew Roush
civic education

Educators of every kind work to equip their students with the knowledge and thinking skills they need to be happy, healthy, and to make positive contributions to the world. When we see the world changing around us, our students do, too. 

In times of social change, the role of the educator to provide context to events, build critical thinking skills, and even help students to process difficult thoughts or emotions, is especially vital. In the United States today, attention is being turned to questions of diversity, tolerance and bigotry, and freedom and equality, as ongoing protests have taken to the streets of cities in every state of the American union. Even more specific questions about American federalism, constitutional rights and duties, and economic conditions are being raised.

Teaching in Context

In the United States today, there is a nationwide movement for equity and justice for African Americans, particularly as regards incidents of police violence. This movement involves understanding many aspects of American culture, history, government, economics, and more, and has caught the attention of the world.

With a combination of a global health event, rapidly changing economic circumstances, and consequential follow-on results to work and life, many have begun considering whether we are living through a notable historic event, with echoes of the tumultuous summer of 1968. Not only do historic events touch on many lives and many academic subjects, but they also affect education itself, just as they did during the 20th century Civil Rights movement

For social studies teachers in particular, the history of civil rights in the U.S. is a vital place to start, a movement which itself traces back through American history. But that movement also connects directly to English/Language Arts, the fine arts and humanities, and more. 

Editor’s Note

TCEA believes in recognizing the historical and contemporary issues in our society. Educators must help their students process and understand current events that might directly effects those students and their communities. The purpose of education is to prepare people to understand and ultimately improve a shared world.

We must recognize inequities and prejudices, including our own, while also not shrinking from discussing those challenges. Only by standing with the oppressed and underrepresented, and doing our best to understand and improve, can we make the world we live in a better place for everyone.

The Centrality of Civic Education

While many American students are required to take civics courses that focus on political science in high school, civic education is a broadly defined term, and a kind of teaching nearly all educators can engage in.

In 1998, the nonprofit Center for Civic Education noted that not only is participation in civic society vital, but that such participation should be grounded in critical thinking, stating that “participation in a democratic society must be based on informed, critical reflection, and on the understanding and acceptance of the rights and responsibilities that go with that membership.”

Further, they define good civics education as recognizing one’s own opinions and beliefs in relation to others. This is particularly important, they note, in a society built on the premise of democratic governance.

“Sharing is essential in a democratic society — the sharing of power, of resources, and of responsibilities. In a democratic society the possibility of effecting social change is ever present, if citizens have the knowledge, the skills and the will to bring it about. That knowledge, those skills and the will or necessary traits of private and public character are the products of a good civic education.”

“The Role of Civic Education,” Margaret Stimmann Branson, 1998.

Civic education, however, is not confined to history and civics classes, just as civic participation is not limited to the voting booth. Scholars and educators have offered other ways to teach the foundations of American government and civic participation through concepts like service learning, simulation activities like mock trial or Model UN, and more

Understanding This Moment

Teachers understandably want to teach to this moment. Subject areas like social studies and civics are obvious places to lead discussions and activities centered on current events, though teachers of all kinds can use their classrooms to help students understand this moment.

With this in mind, we’ve collected and curated a number of sources on civic education, the history of race relations and civil rights in America, and even resources for building social-emotional learning in students. 

This is by no means a complete list, but rather a starting place. Help us keep the conversation going. Check out the resources below and add your own ideas and experiences in the comments. 

General Resources

Bearing Witness: The Death of George Floyd
Check out these resources for understanding America’s racial history and leading discussions with diverse learners in this post from Facing History Facing Ourselves, a group dedicated to using history to teach anti-bigotry.

Teaching Ideas and Resources to Help Students Make Sense of the George Floyd Protests
The New York Times has partnered with news and educational organizations to put the demonstrations into a larger context.

158 Resources to Understand Racism in America
This essay on race relations from Smithsonian includes a massive trove of links to multimedia resources.

Lesson Plans for Civic Education

For those looking for a blueprint to work from, some lesson plans are already available.

Teaching Tolerance
These lesson plans are divided up by grade level for K-12. Be sure to look at the What Can We Learn from a Box of Crayons activity for younger students.

Death of George Floyd Sets off Massive Protests
This lesson plan from the PBS Newshour includes a video, discussion guide, and extension activities covering the immediate circumstances of the protests, as well as their historical background.

Civil Rights or Human Rights?
Created by the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, this lesson plan puts civil and political rights within the broader spectrum of cultural, social, and economic freedoms known as human rights. 

Civil Rights Teaching
This site, a project of Teaching for Change, includes “lessons, timelines, readings, quizzes and more” with a focus on community and grassroots action.

Student and Teacher Responses

It is important to recognize that events in the news do not exist in isolation. Communities across the U.S. are being affected by these events, including educators, schools, parents, students, and their communities at large. Here’s how schools, teachers, and students are reacting to the moment, as well as thoughts from parents and experts.

‘Moments like now are why we teach’: Educators tackle tough conversations about race and violence — this time virtually
Chalkbeat explores teachers’ reactions to teaching the news, all while teaching remotely. 

As a black high school teacher — and a mother of sons — this is my urgent message
This personal essay, also in Chalkbeat, shares the experience of African American educator and mother Nikia D. Garland. “One of our neighbors, a white male police officer, is friendly and kind,” she writes. “But my sons cannot count on such treatment in America.”

Oakland students organize protest of George Floyd death, pleading to be heard
In California’s Bay area, EdSource profiles students involved in protests and activism, as well as schools’ reactions to their involvement.

As Protests Erupt after George Floyd’s Death, Teachers Grieve with Students from a Distance
Education Week Teacher digs into how educators are trying to support their students right now. “It’s hard because as a teacher, you’re not a therapist, you’re not a social worker, you’re not a doctor or a nurse—but those are all roles we take on when you become a teacher,” says one teacher.

How to talk to kids about race, privilege amid George Floyd protests
In this piece from Good Morning America, both experts and everyday people give their thoughts on discussing the concepts of race and its effects on society with children.

The Importance of Teaching Tolerance: 9 Ways to Create an Inclusive Classroom For educators considering equity and diversity in their own classroom, check out #2: “Give your classroom a diversity audit.”

Teaching Civil Rights

Today’s protests exist in the context of American history, especially the history of African Americans, the history of racism in America, and the 20th century Civil Rights movement, a movement which also changed the course of education in America. Here are some resources to help contextualize contemporary events with the nation’s past.

Exploring Civil Rights History with Digital Resources
This post from TCEA’s TechNotes blog shares online resources for understanding the Civil Rights movement and the Civil Rights Act. 

A Better Way to Teach the Civil Rights Movement
Edutopia outlines reasons and ways to refresh Civil Rights education, with an emphasis on grassroots activists, churches, schools, and women.

Civil Rights Done Right
This document, from Tolerance.org, guides teachers through understanding the Civil Rights movement and equips them with essential practices.

Digital Resources for MLK Day
Originally compiled for the holiday, this TechNotes post includes videos, activities, and more to help students understand the Civil Rights hero, his message, and its meaning today.

StoryMap JS: Creating Immersive Social Studies Education
StoryMap is a powerful tool that allows teachers and learners to work on multimedia maps to document current or past events. Check out how it works in this TechNotes post.

Experiencing Early American History with Interactive Resources
The history of race in America reaches to its very foundations as a nation-state. Find online resources to explore the country’s colonial history in this TechNotes post.

A Time for Justice: The American Civil Rights Movement
This teachers’ guide (PDF) from Teaching Tolerance includes standards, resources, and lessons for teaching a civil rights unit.

Creating Social-Emotional Learning

The realities of violence, inequality, and unrest are complex topics for anyone to understand completely. When students are affected by these realities, encouraging positive social-emotional learning (SEL) is a vital part of helping students process both ideas and feelings. 

How Teachers Are Talking with Students about George Floyd, Protests, and Racism
We Are Teachers shares ideas directly from educators about supporting students right now.

Five Powerful Activities to Teach Tolerance These include analyzing the music of Peter, Paul, and Mary to sharing how unkind words can hurt us.

Helping Students with Social-Emotional Challenges
Mario De La Rosa and Lyn Torres write in TechNotes: “Knowing that students who are in crisis aren’t always going to share their fears and worries with an adult, we needed a student safety platform that would put our administrators, counselors, and teachers in closer touch with students.” Here’s how they did it.

Empowering Students Through Digital Citizenship and Social-Emotional Learning
Also in TechNotes, this post helps define SEL and put it into the context of civic education.

Photo by Stephen Nichols via Flickr

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Raymond Rose June 9, 2020 - 8:31 am

I’m not sure this is the best place for this comment, but it seems like the only place… There’s an Editor’s Note here that says: “We must recognize inequities and prejudices, including our own, while also not shrinking from discussing those challenges. Only by standing with the oppressed and underrepresented, and doing our best to understand and improve, can we make the world we live in a better place for everyone.” And in the dame newsletter an announcement of the featured speakers for the elementary technology conference — anyone notice its a completely white group?

Lori Gracey June 9, 2020 - 3:47 pm

Thank you for your comment, Raymond. You make a valid point, and it is something that TCEA is very aware of. Planning this year’s Elementary Technology Conference was especially difficult as we transitioned to a virtual event. While we endeavor to create a diverse, inclusive, and accessible environment in everything we do, you are correct that we missed the mark when it comes to including featured presenters that reflect the diversity of our speakers, attendees, and the communities they serve. I can assure you that this is a vital priority for us, as it is for many organizations, and that there will be a greater diversity, and focus on diversity, in all our events and work moving forward.

As we stated in our Editor’s Note, we must reckon with our own shortcomings, while also supporting and sharing the voices of those who need to be heard. Thank you, again, and know that this is only the beginning of a meaningful dialogue.


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