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Building Democratic Classrooms: Cultivating Civic Competencies

May 25, 2018 / by Heather Van Benthuysen

Question for you: If the health of our democracy depends on the people, then when do we learn the skills of participation?

Hopefully, your answer was the most transformative space on earth... school! Since the inception of American public schooling, we have considered school to be where participatory citizens were made. You probably have the words “community” or “citizen” in your school mission statement. Yet, preparing students for college and careers tends to take priority over that “third C”... civic life. Our schools develop the people, we are the people, and it's time that we fully realize our role in revitalizing civic life.

We can start by looking at how our schools and classrooms model democracy every day. We can’t expect to fully prepare young people to participate in a democracy from within undemocratic systems. That would be like teaching someone how to swim without ever putting them in the water. Developing a civic identity, like any complex skill, takes time and practice in varied contexts to achieve mastery.

If we want our young people to participate effectively, then we need to get them in the water early and often.

Breathing Civic Life into All Classrooms

Our classrooms are powerful communities. They exhibit values, teach guidelines and expectations of participation, and communicate who has power and who does not. At the same time, we want our students to have agency and ownership in their learning, to collaborate with others, to be critical thinkers, and powerful creators. It makes sense that we look to the principles and values of our democracy in order to build our learning environments.

This blog post is the first in a series that will explore ways we can create intentional spaces for students to practice democracy and develop civic habits by working towards #DemocraticClassrooms. Each post will explore civic-centered questions, share tools, and highlight classrooms that are working towards a more democratic classroom culture.

VIDEO: Preparing Youth for Civics & Politics in the Digital Age

Reflecting on Democratic Class Culture

As this school year winds down, I hope you'll use the following questions to reflect on this year, renew your own commitment to participate, and consider what you might want to integrate or expand upon in your classroom next year:

Young female student pointing at white board with a student and teacher looking on.

  • What kind of community norms, values, and expectations do you and your classroom systems convey to students? Do they reflect and practice values like the pursuit of happiness, justice, and the common good? Do students understand their individual role and value in the health of your community?
  • Who rules in your classroom? Is it a democracy (ruled by many)? Oligarchy (ruled by a few)? Tyranny (ruled by one)? Or even at times an anarchy (ruled by none)? Who has power over policy in your classroom? How are rules amended? Who gets to decide?
  • Whose voices are present in your classroom? Is youth experience and expertise valued and sought out? Do you continually work to really know your students? Do you strive for equal representation in your classroom content? Do students see and hear varied perspectives by gender, age, race, etc.? Do students understand and practice advocacy?
  • Do students practice discussion, deliberation, dissent in a way that builds their capacity to collaborate across differences? Do they practice debate and argumentation to win, or to build understanding? Does your classroom value multiple perspectives and see diverse ideas as a strength? Do students practice organizing and consensus building?
  • Are students media literate? Do they practice evaluating and creating media for democratic means? Are there opportunities to explore how media impacts and relates to your course content? Do your students exhibit media-smart habits? Do you utilize their expertise in managing and creating media?
  • When do students engage with real topics and problems that impact their lives and the lives of others? How are students applying the skills and concepts they're learning in your class in real-world situations? Do they reflect together, and with you, and make plans and goals using those reflections?

Class Culture Survey

If you have time, administer an end-of-year reflection assessment to consider as you plan for next year. Here's an example of a Class Culture Survey that uses the questions above. Once you click on the link, make your own copy so you can edit and save it to your files. You can modify the assessment as appropriate for your students.

I’m grateful and excited to continue this journey with you and connect through classroom stories. Please join me (@VanCerny) and the conversation on Twitter. Share your thoughts and ideas on these questions, engage others in your survey findings, and together let’s start a movement to #DemocraticClassrooms.

Topics: Professional Learning, Class Culture, Social Justice, Social Studies, Educating for Democracy, Civic Engagement

Heather Van Benthuysen

Written by Heather Van Benthuysen

Heather Van Benthuysen is a veteran English teacher who has spent her career trying to figure out how classrooms and schools can help students realize their power as readers, writers, thinkers, creators, and community members. Heather is a National Board Certified English educator and trained administrator with almost 20 years experience as a teacher, coach, and youth advocate. She is passionate about teaching literacy skills for civic life, and the transformative effect of a civics learning culture on all school stakeholders. Heather is the Civic Education Manager for Chicago Public Schools and a Teaching Channel Laureate. She really wants to hear your powerful classroom stories. Connect with Heather on Twitter: @VanCerny.

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