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Reflections on Teaching for Civic Engagement

July 14, 2017 / by Matt Colley

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

Each year, I'm so impressed with what my students produce as a result of their work learning about civic engagement and the culmination of that work, the Taking Action Project. As I close the Teaching for Civic Engagement series, I'd like to take the time to reflect on the successes of the Taking Action Project, as well as the challenges and possibilities it presents.

Projects that earned some attention this year included a proposal to improve the library at our school, a boycott of products with microbeads, a website to share stories and resources about sexual harassment, and a website to centralize all the counseling and mental health resources available at my school.

Previous projects have included a flyer targeted at helping residents of Chinatown resist gentrification and illegal evictions, a petition to end unfair taxation of products for women, and a zine about eco-feminism. The latter has flourished far beyond the classroom walls into a full publication with a website and a fundraising effort.

These are certainly examples of some of the most impactful learning my students engaged in over the past few years. However, while the Taking Action Project is one of my favorite parts of the year, it also presents a number of challenges.

Challenges

First and foremost, the amount of group work is a struggle for some combinations of students. One of the interventions I've tried is to have groups begin by creating group agreements they're willing to be held accountable to. I've found that this can be an important document to reference when trying to defuse a group conflict or get a group back on track.

This year, I was also much more diligent about recording daily participation grades. I let students know at the end of the day why they might have lost points for a particular behavior, such as violating group agreements or clearly being off task. One thing I'd like to improve upon for next year is creating a weekly reflection journal. Students could write about what they accomplished during the week, evaluate themselves on their contributions, and the extent to which they followed the group agreements.

Another challenge presented by the Taking Action Project is that it's difficult to assess. Since the types of action steps are so varied, it's difficult to design a rubric that would work for all the different groups. In order to address this issue, I've focused more on assessing students’ thinking and planning rather than the actual action step itself.

In collaboration with history colleagues from across my district and supported by the Educating for Democracy in the Digital Age initiative, we developed a Theory of Action rubric to assess students’ thinking, planning, and justification of their action step. Assessing the students' thinking more than the action acknowledges that there are many factors outside of their control with regard to the action step (for example, many students never receive email responses from adults they contact), but what the students can control is their own planning and approach to taking action. I do have plans, however, to work with my colleagues to try to create a rubric for the action step.

Cross-Curricular Partnerships

One thing I love about this civic engagement work is that it opens doors for cross-curricular partnerships. Teaching can often be an isolating experience and since civic engagement crosses over, in some way, to every discipline, working on civic engagement projects with colleagues can be an exciting way to build bridges and new curriculum.

  • This year, I partnered with the computer science teacher at my school for help with website creation and Google form administration. We're hoping to build out our work next year by including a focus on studying and intentionally creating a social media campaign.
  • Next year I'm also hoping to work with the math teacher on my team to build in some work on graphing, predicting impact, and how many people might be reached through various tactics.
  • I've also discussed building cross-curricular reading and annotation strategies with the biology teacher on my team to support students in analyzing scientific texts and research articles.

Conclusion

Overall, I'm pleased with the way this year’s civic action projects unfolded. Each year, the students ask for more time to work on their projects. Part of this request is that they procrastinated until the end for some things and realized they could've used their time more productively. However, in these comments, there's also a desire to invest more time in the project.

Next year, I'm going to try to adjust my calendar to start the project earlier so students have more time to reach out to community members and hopefully, receive a response.

I'd also like to develop a focus on communications. This year, I noticed that too many groups simply asked their peers to “sign a petition,” without having a formal pitch or presentation about the content of the petition and why someone should sign it. With more time, students could develop and practice a more formal outreach plan.

Finally, I want to continue developing the unit prior to the action projects to focus even more on tactics that others have used throughout history to create positive social change. The more tactics students are aware of, the more options they have to choose from during their project. Last year, I focused much more, for example, on the boycotts used by the United Farm Workers in the 1960s and 1970s. Not surprisingly, more groups last year discussed boycotts as a possible action step. A boycott can be a powerful way for a community to speak in a language that's understood by those in power. I'd like to continue to push my teaching to more clearly and effectively teach about tactics that my students can feasibly implement.

It's been a rewarding and challenging experience to write this blog series. I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to take a step back, reflect, and share my thinking. I hope you've found something useful in these posts. Teaching for Civic Engagement has helped me stay inspired and engaged as an educator and, ultimately, it's helping me teach in the way that I know I want to and must. I hope your journey with civic engagement is similarly rewarding and fruitful. 

Topics: Equity, Social Justice, Social Studies, Educating for Democracy, History, Civic Engagement, Project Based Learning

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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