Normally I try to post about generic resources and tips that can help any teacher regardless of subject area. Today, I'm going to get a little specific, but it's still applicable across curriculums, more on that in a minute.
I was very fortunate today to attend the inaugural conference on civic engagement and learning entitled, "Serving America: Promising Practices for Building Literacy and Civic Learning." The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education teamed up with the new Edward M Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate. For those of you outside of Massachusetts, the Kennedy Institute is one of our newer resources that opened in March of 2015. The Institute sits adjacent to the John F Kennedy Library and our Commonwealth Museum, so it has really created an awesome resource for educators. Field trips are free, and they even have some money available to fund busses if transportation is an issue. If your an educator in Massachusetts it is definitely worth checking out, and if you are outside the state it's worth stopping into when traveling through Boston.
Anyways, the institute contains a replica of the Senate Chamber. I have to tell you, that alone was worth going to the conference for. I've been to Washington D.C. several times, but I have never been in the Senate, even though it was a replica, it definitely gave me goosebumps.
There was a ton of information provided at this conference but I'm going to highlight my two big takeaways. The first was a breakout session I attended on Service-Based Learning. Service-Based learning may immediately make you think "Community Service" or "Community Based Learning" but it actually goes a step beyond that. While we as educators are really great at utilizing resources in our communities and getting our kids involved in community projects, we are not always good at handing over the reigns. In service-based learning, students identify a problem organically as part of their studies. They then create a plan to solve that problem. It is through their research of the problem and their creation of the solution, that they learn various content pieces. Finally they share that solution with the community in some way. The teacher's role in this is more of a guiding one. We are not posing the problem or posing the "correct" solution. Rather we are enabling students to access resources and find community partners that they need in order to create their solution. In this model their are three key components; academic integrity, apprentice citizenship, and student ownership.
Academic integrity means that the project has clear learning objectives related to the standards and class curriculum. Apprentice Citizenship means that students forge partnerships with local resources and engage in civic participation. Finally, student ownership means that the students are making the decisions and that the adults are acting as partners and coaches.
I really loved this model and cannot wait to incorporate it into my history classes. The workshop I went to though demonstrated examples from all across the curriculum. One example they gave was that students through work in their science class discovered that where the busses parked at their school was reducing the air quality on one side of the building. The students researched this and performed tests on air quality using skills from their science class to determine that this was happening. They then wrote a grant to get covers for the busses to convert the emissions and improve air quality. The key to this was that it was student driven. The students were the ones doing the research and in the end it was their idea to write the grant. They were involved in the project from start to finish.
There are many opportunities to apply this in our classrooms regardless of what we teach, I will definitely be blogging about this in the future. For more information on service-based learning I recommend checking out the Kids Consortium, they provided some great resources.
My second takeaway from the conference was from a lecture given by Meira Levinson, PhD. Levinson is a Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (and my newest educator crush). She spoke about why civics is important. While she made many, many amazing points and had some great information to share, I was really struck by her idea that civics should be practiced daily. She likened it to the fact that we as a society believe it's important to have students practice reading and writing daily (and it is) and we also believe that it is important to practice mathematics daily (and it is). However, we do not expect them to practice civics every day, when civics, regardless of what field they go into, or what they end up doing in life all grow up to have civic rights and responsibilities. She was in no way diminishing the importance of reading or mathematics, but was pointing out that we are failing to allow students to understand something that they will inevitably be part of.
This really struck me because it's true that we give student's a half-year course on government and then send them off into the world. Yet we're stunned when voter turn out is low, or people cannot name their representatives. It's no wonder students feel disenfranchised and disconnected from the American political process, they aren't being allowed to practice it. Levinson likened it to baseball. You aren't just born with a love of baseball, you develop it by practicing every day and finding a passion for it. If we don't allow students to practice civic discourse, they will never become passionate. She made an excellent point that we often involve student government in the planning of dances, but rarely the planning of curriculum. Again, similar to service-based learning, the take-away here is student autonomy and student voice. It definitely made me aware that I need to do more to implement civics into my curriculum not just once in a while, but on a consistent daily basis.
There were so many other great talks and workshops, and an amazing recreation of the senate debate on the Civil Rights Act. If you are a teacher in Massachusetts you should definitely consider attending next year. If you teach outside of Massachusetts, consider teaming up with some colleagues and thinking about what you can do to incorporate more civic education into your lessons. It is an area that we often gloss over in our pursuit of other topics. It definitely deserves more attention. Feel free to reach out to me as well, I'm happy to share any of the resources that I received today!
Have you ever tried service-based learning? How can we help student to develop a passion for civic life?
You can find more information about the Edward M. Kennedy Institute here.