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Teaching for Civic Engagement: Individual and Systemic Responsibility

February 10, 2017 / by Matt Colley

See Matt’s Video on Teaching Channel: Encouraging Students to Take Action

In order for students to take powerful and meaningful steps toward addressing problems in our society, I believe they need to consider the root causes of those problems and the role individuals and social systems play in creating and perpetuating them. Considering the dynamic nature of individual and systemic responsibility for problems in our society is challenging intellectual work, but ultimately I think it’s necessary to help students break down a problem and begin to plan approaches to solving it. I approach this work in my classroom using a mix of discussion, analysis of a memoir and documentary film clips, and a critical thinking framework called “structured academic controversy.”

The larger unit within which these lessons are housed is called “Environment and Place,” and in my English class, we focus on how environment shapes identity. Our focal text is Always Running, a memoir by Luis Rodriguez about his experiences growing up and coming of age in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 70s. In the preface, Rodriguez explains that his work is “an argument for the reorganization of American society -- not where a few benefit at the expense of the many,” and “an indictment against the use of deadly force, which has been the principal means this society uses against those it cannot accommodate.”

Throughout the text, he explores the root causes of gang formation in Los Angeles, including the role of segregation in his schools and neighborhood, the impact of racial profiling and police brutality, and the role of poverty and economic discrimination. Rodriguez also discusses the evolution of what he calls “clicas,” or social clubs, into what the government, police, and media would later recognize as full blown gangs. Alongside this are his personal struggles with drugs, violence, and mental health challenges. The book concludes with Rodriguez’s politicization, the decision to leave his gang, and his involvement with the larger Chicano Movement, including participating in the anti-Vietnam War Chicano Moratorium, and the walkouts that swept through schools from students demanding an equal education.

As a pairing with Always Running, we also study Stacy Peralta’s documentary film Crips and Bloods: Made in America, which analyzes the origins of African-American gangs in Los Angeles, the suppression of the civil rights and Black Power movements, the legacy of housing and employment discrimination, and the impact of the current prison system in African-American communities. Taken together, the two provide multiple personal and historical examples of the ways in which problems in our society, specifically gang violence, originate and develop over time.

The Role of Individuals and Social Institutions

After finishing the book and watching the documentary, I ask students to consider who or what is responsible for the problems of gangs and gang violence. Students immediately have lots of opinions. I ask them if the responsibility lies more with the individual, in this case Rodriguez and the individuals depicted in Made in America, or if the responsibility lies more with social institutions. At first, students aren’t quite sure what I mean by social institutions, so it’s helpful to brainstorm a few examples. I ask them to name all the systems people interact with that are made up of large groups of people. I usually cite schools as the primary example, and then we brainstorm others, such as the police, the judicial and prison systems, and banking and real estate industries.

Once the nature of the question has been clarified, I ask students to put aside their initial impressions and try to keep an open mind. I ask them to challenge themselves to consider the question from multiple perspectives, before committing to their opinion and trying to defend it. All too often I think we ask students to defend, prove, and justify their opinions before we fully challenge them to consider multiple perspectives. In an effort to teach the very important skill of proving an argument, sometimes I find myself jumping ahead and not providing enough time or support to explore and question their own thinking.

After clarifying the question and asking students to place their initial answers and assumptions aside, we start the structured academic controversy. This is a technique that encourages discussion, not debate, and exploration over justification, to develop a more nuanced understanding of a topic. I explain these goals to my students and then explain the process.

Structured Academic Controversy: The Process

The process entails students working in groups of four, which are composed of an A pair and a B pair. Students keep a record of their evidence and conclusions on this Individual vs. Society Reflection Guide throughout the process. At first, each student works in their pair. Each pair is tasked with finding and analyzing one piece of evidence on either side of the question -- in this case, explaining whether the origins and problems of gangs is an individual or systemic responsibility. Each pair then prepares a short presentation for their partners, where they have to explain the context of the quote and how they believe the quote demonstrates evidence of individual or systemic responsibility. While the other pair is listening, they're adding to their notes. After each pair has shared out, the pairs switch perspectives and are asked to find new evidence. After the second round of sharing out, each student has four pieces of evidence, with analysis, that represents different perspectives on the question. I repeated this process with the documentary serving as evidence, so students had eight pieces of evidence at the end.

During this process, some very intriguing things can happen with students’ thinking. Some find it very difficult to engage with a point of view they don’t share and struggle to find evidence that supports this alternative perspective. I believe it’s vital for students to sit with this challenge and I ask them to reflect on why it was easier or harder to find evidence depending on their perspective. This process demonstrates that sometimes it takes a conscious effort to step outside of our pre-determined opinions to consider other perspectives. Often, students don’t see this type of thinking modeled in our society, nor is it valued in a school system that demands that they be sure of themselves and to defend, not question, their thinking. I believe providing opportunities for students to step into other perspectives is crucial if they're going to be effective advocates for positive social change.

Another phenomenon I observe frequently in my class during this activity is students will select the same piece of evidence for the two different perspectives. In other words, they will find a quote and argue that it demonstrates both individual and systemic responsibility. This type of thinking is productive and beautiful for a variety of reasons. First, when this happens, students begin to see that one’s argument is a matter of perspective. Second, students begin to consider the ways in which individual and collective responsibility overlap and coexist together.  Finally, analyzing one piece of evidence from multiple perspectives pushes students to develop their close reading skills, as they are challenged to really dig into a quote and thoroughly explain how it can prove seemingly divergent viewpoints.

Structured Academic Controversy: Discussion

After going through this step-by-step process of finding and sharing evidence, I ask students to take a step back and engage in a discussion, considering all of the evidence, in order to explore and decide for themselves who or what bears responsibility for problems in our society. At this point, students are no longer asked to take a particular perspective. Now, the goal is to explore their own thinking, listen to their classmates, and ultimately answer the focus question. This process relies heavily on the small group discussion strategies I described in my previous blog post, Teaching for Civic Engagement: Academic Discussion.

Conclusions

Overall, the structured academic controversy format and the question of individual and systemic responsibility are important steps in developing students’ thinking about civic engagement, because both formats help them consider the root causes of problems in our society. Through the structured academic controversy and the individual writing that follows the discussion, most students come to the conclusion that both the individual and society are to blame at some level. In their discussions, they begin to explore which aspects of the problem specifically are the result of individual versus systemic action. Understanding the various root causes of a problem fundamentally shapes the actions students will take later in the year, and later in their lives.

Addressing a problem looks very different if one is approaching the problem from the lens of individual versus systemic responsibility. In the end, both approaches are necessary to enact social change.

How might you use a structured academic controversy in your classroom? What texts do you study with your students that raise questions about individual versus systemic responsibility?

Topics: Social Justice, Social Studies, Educating for Democracy, History, Civic Engagement

Matt Colley

Written by Matt Colley

Matt Colley is in his fifth year teaching ninth grade English and history at Oakland Technical High School in Oakland, California. Before coming to teaching, he worked in youth leadership programs and for KQED public radio in San Francisco. He is passionate about preparing students to critically analyze the world we live in and to actively collaborate to help make our society more just and equitable. When he’s not in the classroom, Matt enjoys swimming, surfing, and hiking.

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