Civic Responsibility

This post is a newsletter I am sending home to our elementary school families. Let me know what you think in the comments! -Matt

It is hard to believe that November is already here! It’s been a busy two months of building our learning community at school, connecting with kids, staff and families, and discussing our goals. For this school year, we are focused as a faculty on reading instruction, specifically thinking about the text. This includes thinking critically about what we read and analyzing the writer’s craft.

It can be challenging for schools to maintain a singular focus on a building-wide goal. Public education receives many requests to implement initiatives within the school day. It’s an honor to been viewed as a central tenet of a healthy community and society. Yet we cannot adopt everything deemed important. If all ideas are essential, how do we determine what is taught and learned?

One topic that has come up a lot recently is civic responsibility. Schools are being called to action to reverse the trend of Americans not participating in civic duties, for example a decline in people voting. In an article for Phi Delta Kappan, educator Michael Rebell goes as far as to state that preparing students for capable citizenship is the school’s primary responsibility.

Schools must create environments that respect and harness both pluralism and individualism while adopting instructional practices that promote civic agency, critical inquiry, and participatory experiences.

(You can access Rebell’s article at this URL: http://www.kappanonline.org/rebell-preparation-capable-citizenship-schools-primary-responsibility/)

When I first started reading this article, I felt a little defensive. How can we take on this responsibility?, I thought. No doubt we teach social studies. That said, literacy and mathematics are what we are tested on every spring. What gets measured gets done first. In addition, we do worry about discussing topics with students that are deemed controversial by some. How can we take civic understanding to a deeper level of understanding in an agreeable manner? Factor in the constraints of time and you get the picture.

As I read on in the article, my thinking started to shift. For example, are the “3 R’s” – reading, writing, ‘rithmetic – mutually exclusive from social studies? They can appear like separate entities with the hyper focus on literacy and math standards. Yet Rebell points out that for students to become more civic-minded, they need to have developed in the very areas we are focused on as a faculty: critical thinking, effective speaking and listening skills, and understanding how a writer uses text structures to convey meaning.

Many American students who have basic literacy skills have yet to master the critical-reasoning and deliberation skills needed to appraise one-side or false information, assess policy alternatives, and enter into fruitful conversation with people who have opposing views.

The author almost suggests that for someone to truly be literate, they have to be able to take a critical stance toward text, as well as consider multiple perspectives at the same time. This would seem especially pertinent in a connected world where anyone can publish their thinking without the guidance of an editor to question one’s position or sources. Here again, Rebell addresses this issue by connecting media literacy and the role of the school.

Accelerating use of new digital media presents an additional challenge. Schools need to create and adopt curricula and instructional practices that enable all students to develop media-literacy skills to identify sources of information, distinguish accurate from fake facts, and engage in deliberative online discussions.

The community can also play a role in teaching students to be more civic-minded. This is part of our strategic plan: community engagement. Classrooms have already developed instructional plans that address this area. For example, students interviewed Mineral Point city officials about the governing process. The learning that occurs through these experiences is being measured through more authentic means, such as essays and video creation.

The Rebell article was a good reminder for me about the purpose of public education: to develop responsible and contributing members of society. Literacy and mathematics are in service to the larger goals and ideas for our students and for our community. They work hand-in-hand. Are we responsible for every individual’s actions once they leave the PK-12 world? Of course not. But we are responsible for developing a curriculum that gives every student the best opportunity to successfully navigate a changing world.

Author: Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is an 18-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th-grade teacher in Rudolph, WI. He now serves as an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District (http://mineralpointschools.org/). Matt also teaches online graduate courses in curriculum design and instructional leadership for the University of Wisconsin-Superior. He tweets @ReadByExample and writes for ASCD (www.ascd.org) and Lead Literacy (www.leadliteracy.com).

4 thoughts on “Civic Responsibility”

  1. Hi, Matt-
    Great post. It seems so overwhelming sometimes with all we have to cover in a school year, but that shouldn’t mean we don’t at least try to do as much as we can. Any place we can bring in books or discussion around the topics of being a good citizen is a good thing. We were able to pull in the election tomorrow by having the students collect political cards and pamphlets and have a discussion around point of view, perspective, and using our critical literacy lens to determine what message was being sent. The students were able to pull in their reading skills, discussion skills, and social studies content. We know this can’t happen with every lesson but it sure feels good when everything comes together for the greater good. There are so many great read-aloud titles that can fuel great discussions around this topic while building comprehension skills at the same time. Great message and reminder for all!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Very true, Jen. Time is a big factor especially when trying to plan for this type of instruction. Teachers in the U.S. don’t get enough time or support to develop the curriculum necessary. We try by offering subs for teachers, and by reminding our faculty that this type of work does fit within the PLC framework (we have Wednesday afternoon for this).

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  2. Matt, This is a very important post. If we are not educating students to be informed, active, and knowledgeable voters and advocates for a fair and democratic society, we are failing them. The only way to “fit it all in” is to embed literacy teaching into the content areas. In Literacy Essentials (2018), I make explicit–along with teachers I collaborated with–how we took the standards and expectations in the social studies and science curriculum and used local and global issues– such environmental stewardship, climate change, and human rights–such as the right to clean water–as the foundation for teaching reading and writing and much more. That deeper teaching involved many of the actions in your post, such as researching, considering multiple perspectives, communicating to real-world audiences through essays, editorials, video, and multi-media. Today is Election Day and, hopefully, a more engaged, educated, and thoughtful citizenry will impact our democracy in a positive, hopeful manner.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Regie for your comment. I couldn’t agree more. The example that you provide in your book is excellent, a plan for instruction that is a model for any teacher looking to create a literacy-rich content curriculum.

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