The emphasis on core academics has seen a steady increase over the past number of years, but a discipline that has disappeared nearly entirely from our students’ curriculum is an education that emphasizes an understanding of citizenry: not only how government works at each level, but why engagement with the political process is critical. Students, as well as the rest of us, need to understand what social and economic interests are addressed by different levels and branches of government and the implications of a lack of engagement. Related valuable skills to hone include the ability to distinguish fact from opinion, discern the validity of sources, and engage in civil dialogue with those who hold divergent views.
Pundits and others claim that we have moved to a “post truth” era. Of course, there can be no such thing. Truth simply IS. I argue we are in a “post trust” era, wherein it is acceptable to dismiss facts simply by asserting that one doesn’t believe them: the concepts, the sources, or the implications. Without a doubt, the curious intellectual can be hard pressed to find truth. Much of the “news” on traditional and social media has a clear bias and intentionally—by inclusion, omission, or emphasis—creates a narrative in line with a particular predetermined worldview. Stanford University researchers recently released a study, “Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning,” that found that students from middle school through college had a difficult time distinguishing fact from fiction. Middle school students had trouble distinguishing advertisements from news stories. High school students reading about gun laws did not notice that a chart came from a gun owners’ political action committee. And college students failed to look beyond a dot-org URL to inquire about the potential biases of authors of a site that presents only one side of a contentious issue. In every case and at every level, the researchers “were taken aback by students’ lack of preparation.”
The link between digital literacy and citizenship is strong: it is imperative that students learn to read and think critically and analytically. In order to teach those skills, they must have a lens through which to analyze information they read: they must have a strong understanding of how government works and comprehend the duties and responsibilities of citizenship* with regard to each other as members of a political body and to the government that is supposed to represent them.
How can we accomplish this? Public school instructional minutes are nuggets of gold and counted just as carefully, so simply adding a civics class to grade level curricula is not the best option. Fortunately, Common Core does allow for some flexibility in content and proscribed skills can be mastered through a wide variety of content. School districts might consider any of the following options to promote civic engagement and related digital literacy.
Integrate aspects of civics at every grade level through social studies and history classes.
Adopt critical analysis as an interdisciplinary skill and integrate it within every area of study.
Focus student government and leadership classes on a civics curriculum as part of the work they do in school leadership.
Incorporate digital literacy across subject disciplines.
Award community service credits for participation in extracurricular civics lessons or internships in government offices.
Develop and offer elective credits for participation and completion of a summer civics program.
Expand opportunities for student participation in programs such as mock trials and Model United Nations.
Ensure that student government organizations are empowered to make decisions that have impact.
Focus on the intentional development of empathy as the cornerstone to civil, respectful conversation
Finding a way to increase civic engagement and digital literacy among our youth is quickly gaining favor. Currently, the nonprofit organization Civics Education Initiative is leading a grassroots effort to encourage state legislators to enact, as a condition for high school graduation, a requirement that students pass a test on 100 basic facts from US history and civics culled from the United States Citizenship Civics Test. Other organizations such as Center for Civic Education offer sample curricula. The Stanford History Education group is also creating civics resources for educators.
The experience of the 2016 election, not just the result, but the lack of meaningful conversation and factual accountability, as well as the very low voter turnout and lack of understanding of the implications of not voting, galvanizes me to work for meaningful change in this arena, both within my school district and across my broader community. Our future depends on this.
*In this context, I do not mean “citizenship” as the formal, legal description of status, but as an engaged member of a community.
Susan Ellenberg has worked as an attorney, an educator, and a community advocate. She is committed to strengthening her community and ensuring that all children have the opportunity to succeed. Susan currently serves as Vice President of the San Jose Unified School District Board of Trustees.
“Who are you?” was the most perplexing question anyone had asked me at the age of seventeen. A volunteer, a daughter, a dancer, a student . . . . I sifted through various positions and identifiers, offering a conglomeration to my English teacher as she sat expectantly in front of me. “Those are things you do,” she interjected, “but who are you?”
Before I could answer, she returned to the vexing task of reviewing my Common Application essay, moving from soul to structure. But her question, quick and incisive, endured—a seeming bolt of lightning amidst the fog of adolescence. As I sat in her blue office chair, peering into my future, a lifetime of thinking began—not only about who I am, but about who we all are, and why. I have since spent years amidst personal narratives—mine, as well as others—excavating lived experiences, extracting the extraordinary from the quotidian whilst marveling at the synonymy of the two. Of late, I’ve turned to matters of the classroom and wondered: Rather than utilize personal narrative writing as a tool for synthesizing past engagement, might English educators use the form to foster civic and philanthropic engagement in their students? Might writing spur action, rather than cap it?How? And why?
The “why” might lie in the wirings of our brains. Stories inspire action through empathy, as neuroeconomist Paul Zak reveals in his 2012 book The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity. He dubs oxytocin—a neurochemical produced in the hippocampus—a “moral molecule” that catalyzes empathic connection. His laboratory findings reveal that levels of oxytocin rise when one reads, watches, or listens to a story, reifying subjective accounts of narrative impact. “Those who received [synthetic] oxytocin donated, on average, 56 percent more money to charity compared with participants who received the placebo,” writes Zak, “[confirming the] causal role of oxytocin on post-narrative prosocial behavior.”
How might Zak’s findings inform matters of civic engagement in classrooms? The metacognitive nature of personal narrative writing instills awareness of positionality and circumstance, and his findings prove correlative action, indeed positing the ways in which self-articulation transcends the self. If we, as educators, ask the right questions—ground our students’ writing practices in productive and impactful inquiry—might we slice a bolt of lightning into their lives? Might they, too, ask of themselves “Who am I?,” not in a manner of self-aggrandizement, but rather in an effort to articulate their convictions, interrogate the etiologies of those convictions, and better conceive of the layers they comprise? Personal writing is the playground on which to challenge narrative skills, to discover and share one’s story with oneself so that one may better share that story with others—an exchange that creates the oral histories that bind us, that imbue both soul and structure.
What issues of injustice are depicted in your current classroom text, and when have you witnessed these issues in real life? How do characters in the text approach issues of civic engagement or allieship (or, if they do not explicitly, how do you presume they might)? Which character do you most identify with, and why? What matters to that character, and to you? How does “resistance” manifest in the classroom text; does “resistance” differ from action, or are the two terms synonymous? What levels of discrimination are present in the plot? How about the writing—how are marginalized identities portrayed through authorship?
Such questions are just the beginnings of possible prompts with which to spark personal writing. Once formed, students’ stories might fuel their actions—the sharing of those stories an action in itself.
Brittany Collins is the editor-in-chief of Voices & Visions, the only online literary journal to publish the visual and written works of students who attend women’s educational institutions worldwide. She studied English and education at Smith College, has experience teaching literature and writing in educational and extracurricular settings, and is a freelance writer with a focus on English education.
When I opened Twitter on the evening of Saturday, August 12, my feed was full of educators’ responses of outrage at what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the aftermath. I quickly closed my app. The rest of that night, I ignored Twitter, Facebook, even direct personal messages about the event. I didn’t turn on the TV. I couldn’t . . . or, more accurately, wouldn’t. I didn’t want to feel the deep sense of loss and sadness that was sweeping over me. I realized that I was acting out of white privilege, but I continued to shut out the news and my feelings. I could ignore these sad feelings, because for me the feelings would diminish as soon as the headlines found a new interest. For my friends of color, racism isn’t a 24-hour news cycle, but a daily reminder of the hate in our world.
It’s time to stop ignoring what’s going on. As a teacher, it’s my responsibility to help my students make a better world.
I’ve heard too many of my students use the same rhetoric as that coming out of the White House: “Both sides are to blame” or “it’s my job to de-escalate the situation, to keep the peace.” But an educator’s job is not that of peacekeeper. It is that of peacemaker. Peace is not made through a lack of violence, but through social justice, when the righteous are declared and the evil condemned.
Tolerance is a moral stance, not a neutral stance, calling for acceptance of difference but not of evil. Let us not fall prey to the paradox of tolerance; let us teach intolerance of intolerance.
Let us not teach critical literacy and poststructuralism to the point where students trust no one and nothing. Let us teach them to question what they see in order to seek truth. Their history textbooks may read that Rome had peace for 200 years, but a country wracked with oppression, even slavery, is not at peace. Let us teach our students that blanket condemnation of violence does not lead to peace. Peace is living in equality and harmony with others.
In light of recent tragic events in Charlottesville, it’s time to double down on our commitment to education for social justice. To give you the tools to follow through on your commitment to social justice this school year, here is a link to an English Education special journal issue guest edited by April Baker-Bell, Tamara Butler, and Lamar Johnson dealing with racial violence: From Racial Violence to Racial Justice: Praxis and Implications for English (Teacher) Education.
Shea Kerkhoff received her PhD in literacy from North Carolina State University. She now teaches adolescent literacy and young adult literature at Purdue University and is assistant editor of English Education.
What follows are two notes that Executive Director Emily Kirkpatrick and I sent to an NCTE member pertaining to concerns raised about the location of our Annual Convention—and upcoming conventions. The member’s concern mirrors the concerns and, yes, fears so many of us have always had and growing numbers are having during this tumultuous time in our country—indeed around the world. After much reflection and conversation with each other, we deemed sharing our two responses helpful for the entirety of our membership, for the concerns expressed in this member’s email invited us to drill more deeply and substantively into what NCTE, with its members, really represents to students and teachers around the country—our English classrooms, PreK–graduate.
Through this sharing, Emily and I hope we all begin to remember, reflect, and perhaps even rethink the importance of what we, the National Council of Teachers of English members, do in classrooms. Ours is most certainly critical work—critical work that cannot be allowed to stop.
We move forward—always forward.
From Jocelyn A. Chadwick, NCTE President, August 14, 2017
[Member], I earnestly understand your anger, your passion, and your position. I also understand that in every state in our country and in most every city in our country, angst, anger, hatred, and disdain exist to the point of despair. Juxtaposed to all of this exist students, PreK-graduate, and educators who must live and deal in these environs. You know this, too.
To run away is no longer anyone’s choice: not NCTE, not MLA, RSA, ALA, ILA, PEN America—there are no safe, untouched havens, even if we don’t read about them in the news, or through statements the NAACP, La Raza, the Jewish League, Urban League, or the Human Rights Campaign elect to issue citing one specific instance or events. Teachers and students and communities exist everywhere that need to see us, hear us, believe that we are not deaf, nor frightened, nor unwilling to show our efforts and work for equality, equity, and ethics in the classroom—in all classrooms.
You cite hypocrisy. It would indeed be and has been hypocrisy for NCTE in the past not to go into these cities of controversy, just as the civil rights workers of the past walked, as did my own parents. They did not run, cancel, or hide. They moved forward, forward—talking, modeling, illustrating for me and everyone else around this country what equality, equity, and ethics looked like, stood for, and the price it would cost.
So, we move forward, toward the controversy, toward any controversy that affects children’s right to lifelong literacy and our teachers’ right and ability to teach them. While you and I live in a very privileged and unusual state, you and I both know that South Boston, Roxbury, Mattapan, and Dorchester seethe every single day with the very same anger, hatred, disdain, and violence we see and read about across the United States. Knowing this fact, however, does not keep me out of Dorchester or South Boston, Mississippi or Louisiana, or even East and West Texas (my home state), although I remain incredibly frightened each and every time I go into any of these spaces.
As a colleague on the NCTE Executive Committee recently inquired: ask any African American to be honest and say just where do you feel entirely safe and secure in the United States of America, what would you hear? From me, I can show you the KKK cards I have received from students, my journal entries detailing what I have been called, asked, when I’ve been closely monitored, and my experiences driving while black. So I get it.
I will not quit doing what I am doing, and nor should you. But you have choice. Again, I have no choice. At this time and at this juncture in the United States, if NCTE is going to be of any worth to any teacher and student in this country, it, too, has no choice.
We move forward. I earnestly hope you will move forward toward this controversy and the many yet to come, with us, with NCTE. But I will always respect your decision in whatever you choose to do.
From Emily Kirkpatrick, NCTE Executive Director, August 14, 2017
Thank you for sharing your concerns with us. We value your forthrightness and take your concerns seriously.
Jocelyn’s response reiterates the policies of NCTE which drive our decision to stay in Missouri and to bring the values and principles of the organization to that space. If we have not done enough at our conventions to move the work of equity and civil rights forward, we need the wisdom of members like you to help us find new and better ways to do so. But now is not the time to retreat from that responsibility as an organization. We are living in a world that requires NCTE to show up and speak for what is right. Our teachers and students require that of us.
Your voice and your leadership are incredibly important to the work that lies ahead.
The members of NCTE’s Standing Committee Against Racism and Bias have felt an urgency since we each joined the committee to stand against racism and bias. We have been working on ways to encourage each member of NCTE to speak out against the systemic and individual acts of racism that disenfranchise our students in and out of the classroom.
We know that racism exists in our classrooms and in our communities. We feel that silence on these issues is complicity in the systemic racism that has marred our educational system. We see no place for neutrality and urge each member of NCTE to educate as many people as possible about the ways that systemic racism affects all of us in negative ways.
There is no apolitical classroom. English language arts teachers must examine the ways that racism has personally shaped their beliefs and must examine existing biases that feed systems of oppression. In light of the horrific events in this country that continue to unfold, and the latest terrorism in Charlottesville, Virginia, we would like to share resources that we hope will encourage all NCTE members to speak out against the racism and bias that have been a part of our nation’s fabric since the first immigrants disembarked from European ships.
Our Action Subcommittee has been working this year on creating classroom resources for teachers to use as statements of love and support. Printable classroom posters and bookmarks for NCTE members will be available at the 2017 Annual Convention, as well as available for download after Convention. Until then, we offer this incomplete resource to help continue the daily work that is antiracism. Please share other resources in the comment box below.
“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
Raising Race Conscious Children
“A resource to support adults who are trying to talk about race with young children. The goals of these conversations are to dismantle the color-blind framework and prepare young people to work toward racial justice.”
Resources for Teaching in These Times On June 14, 2016, in response to the Orlando shootings, NCTE began collecting teaching resources from its members that continue to build in relevance given the ongoing struggles and critical conversations taking place across the country.
White Fragility, Anti-Racist Pedagogy, and the Weight of History From Black Perspectives by Justin Gomer and Christopher Petrella, July 27, 2017
“One cannot begin to comprehend the relationship between race and racism without historical investigation. A historically-grounded anti-racist pedagogy, rather than a psychologically-oriented one, allows us to see US society ‘in the act of inventing race.’”
This resource was contributed by Kristin Beers Online PLC: Read Aloud as an Anti-Bigotry Tool Suggestions for using read aloud as an anti- bigotry tool with our youngest learners. This resource provides questions to prompt conversation, as well as a list of categorized titles that support this work.
Resources for Understanding White Supremacy
Southern Poverty Law Center “The SPLC is dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of our society. Using litigation, education, and other forms of advocacy, the SPLC works toward the day when the ideals of equal justice and equal opportunity will be a reality.”
Ten Ways to Fight Hate “Ten Ways to Fight Hate, which has been updated for 2017, sets out 10 principles for taking action, including how to respond to a hate rally that has targeted your town. It urges people not to engage white supremacists at their rallies. Instead, it offers tips for creating alternative rallies to promote peace, inclusion and justice.”
Oath and Opposition: Education under the Third Reich
“The Museum has developed . . . materials . . . to help today’s educators explore the pressures teachers felt under the Nazi regime, the range of decisions individuals made in the face of those pressures, and the relevance of this history now.” (This rich resource includes a number of case studies you could use with your classes.)
Anti-Defamation League (ADL) “Founded in 1913, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) is our nation’s premier civil rights/human relations organization. We have a distinguished history of reminding the world just how tenuous civil rights are and we mobilize people to engage in reasonable discourse as together we find solutions to serve our diverse society.” See their website’s extensive Education & Resources section as well as their definition and historical explanation of anti-Semitism.
Antisemitism and the Bystander Effect
“Students will watch testimonies from survivors of and witnesses to historical and contemporary antisemitism who describe the consequences of the bystander effect in their own lives. Students will construct a social media message for the #BeginsWithMe campaign that describes their own plan to counter bystander behavior.”
100 Days to Inspire Respect “At a time of heightened political uncertainty and polarization, middle and high school teachers are in need of easy-to-use resources that encourage their students to grapple with some of the most difficult but important topics: hate, racism, intolerance and xenophobia. ‘100 Days to Inspire Respect’ provides educators with 100 thought-provoking resources that tackle these challenging topics and more.”
The following book was recommended by Jenny Cameron Paulsen Hitler Youth by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
“By the time Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933, 3.5 million children belonged to the Hitler Youth. It would become the largest youth group in history. Susan Campbell Bartoletti explores how Hitler gained the loyalty, trust, and passion of so many of Germany’s young people. Her research includes telling interviews with surviving Hitler Youth members.”
The Charlottesville Syllabus “The Charlottesville Syllabus is a resource created by the Graduate Student Coalition for Liberation to be used to educate readers about the long history of white supremacy in Charlottesville, Virginia. With resources selected and summaries written by UVa graduate students, this abridged version of the Syllabus is organized into six sections that offer contemporary and archival primary and secondary sources (articles, books, responses, a documentary, databases) and a list of important terms for discussing white supremacy.”
7 Ways Teachers Can Respond to the Evil of Charlottesville, Starting Now By Xian Franzinger Barrett, AlterNet “As teachers, our job is not solely to pour mathematics, science, language arts or any other knowledge into the heads of our students. It is our duty to our profession, to our society and to the students to lovingly teach them to learn and grow as complete humans.”
The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (PISAB) “The People’s Institute believes that racism is the primary barrier preventing communities from building effective coalitions and overcoming institutionalized oppression and inequities. Through Undoing Racism®/Community Organizing Workshops, technical assistance and consultations, The People’s Institute helps individuals, communities, organizations and institutions move beyond addressing the symptoms of racism to undoing the causes of racism so as to create a more just and equitable society.”
Don’t Be a Sucker – 1947
“In this anti-fascist film produced by [the] US Military in the wake of WWII, the producers deconstruct the politically motivated social engineering of Germany by the Nazi regime.”
Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards “The Social Justice Standards are a road map for anti-bias education at every stage of K–12 instruction. Comprised of anchor standards and age-appropriate learning outcomes, the Standards provide a common language and organizational structure educators can use to guide curriculum development and make schools more just and equitable.”
The following resources were contributed by Susi Long on behalf of the Early Childhood Education Assembly
Anti-Racism Educational Consultants Network
“The ECEA is honored to present a network of some of the country’s most respected professionals. They are experts in helping educators examine issues of race and racism in schools, childcare settings, and teacher education programs as they consider new possibilities for practice and policy. They consult widely, each with extensive experience in classrooms and with teachers, administrators, and preservice teachers.”
Resources for Educators Focusing on Anti-Racist Learning and Teaching “Our intent is to continue building and expanding this collection but we offer it now as a beginning, in support of educators working to (a) deepen understandings about institutional and interpersonal racism and its manifestations in early childhood settings, (b) understand the depth and breadth of histories often left out of or misrepresented in our teaching, and (c) apply new awareness to transforming practice and policy.”
Articles and Other Readings
“These [three] special themed issues [of NCTE journals] explore and demonstrate not only the physical violence that Black and Brown children and youth and young Black girls encounter on a daily basis but also the symbolic and linguistic violence and the spirit-murder that are inflicted upon the lives and humanity of our children and youth of Color. In addition, all of these special issues provide the field with practical lessons and pedagogies for teaching in our current racialized and gendered context.” – Lamar Johnson and April Bell
From Racial Violence to Racial Justice: Praxis and Implications for English (Teacher) Education (a special issue of English Journal) Edited by April Baker-Bell, Tamara Butler,
and Lamar Johnson
“We come to this project bearing soul wounds and heavy hearts, anxiety and anger, tears and fire. We sifted through a series of events and melded our wounds into a project that could heal us, our families, our communities, and Black, Brown, and other marginalized youth affected by racial violence.”
“Beyond the Dream”: Black Textual Expressivities Between the World and Me (a special issue of English Journal) Edited by David Kirkland
“In the most basic sense, this issue is about acknowledging how Black textualities, like vulnerable Black bodies, are contested in American classrooms, complicated by competing interests that wrestle daily for an ethical place in the consciousness of English language arts. It is in English language arts classrooms, as this issue suggests, that Black textualities have the power to move our assumptions past beliefs that strip away the humanity of others.
Black Girls’ Literacies (a special issue of English Education) Edited by Marcelle Haddix, Sherell McArthur, Gholnecsar Muhammad, Detra Price-Dennis, and Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz
“We now must be urgent in interrogating hegemonic systems, English education practices, and educational policy to ask how we can experience a shift in the way we teach, talk about, and represent Black girls in school and society. In this way, English education becomes a site of possibility and disruption—a space to begin to ask these questions and respond.” – Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz
How Two Teenagers Created a Textbook for Racial Literacy From Facing History and Ourselves by Stacey Perlman
“Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi started the student-run organization, CHOOSE, to overcome racism and inspire harmony through exposure, education, and empowerment. This led them to collaborate with Princeton University on The Classroom Index, a textbook devoted to racial literacy.”
How America Is Failing Native American Students From The Nation by Rebecca Clarren
“When the United States signed its treaties with the Indian tribes, stripping them of their land, it promised to provide public services—including education—to tribal members in perpetuity. ‘For too long, the federal leadership has failed to honor that sacred pledge, leaving generations of Native children behind,’ said Washington State Senator John McCoy, a citizen of the Tulalip tribe and a national leader in Native education reform. ‘Institutionalized assimilation and racism remain embedded within our public schools.’”
The lessons were created by 10 excellent teachers, and designed to work in all kinds of classes with all kinds of students. These teachers are themselves people of different races, ethnicities, and religions, and they teach IB and AP, special needs, honors, and “regular” students in urban and suburban (mostly public) high schools in or near Washington, DC. These resources are also the product of CrossTalk, a yearlong community engagement project led by the Folger Shakespeare Library and funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities as part of their Humanities in the Public Square initiative. More info here
This resource was contributed by Emily Salinas Drop the I-Word Campaign
“Race Forward’s Drop the I-Word campaign to eliminate use of the word “illegal” was launched in September 2010 as anti-immigrant sentiment and hate crimes against communities of color had increased. Although the Associated Press, USA Today, LA Times, and many other news outlets and journalist associations have dropped the i-word, this racial slur in still being used in the media and everyday language.”
This resource was contributed by Melanie Gustafson Click! The Ongoing Feminist Revolution
“We aim to bridge the gap between those two clicks by offering an exhibit that highlights the achievements of women from the 1940s to the present. This exhibit explores the power and complexity of gender consciousness in modern American life.”
These resources were contributed by Jodi Derkson
Choose Your Voice (middle school)
Free online teaching resources and tools, curriculum-based for grades 6, 7 and 8, to help students speak out against racism, antisemitism and intolerance.
Voices into Action (secondary school and college)
“Designed by curriculum experts, this program utilizes a wide variety of media to present compelling information on a history of human suffering, stemming from social injustice that is still a growing problem today. Explore thought-provoking issues with your students by accessing our lessons and resources on antisemitism, racism, discrimination and stereotyping.”
These resources were contributed by Nadia Kalman “For contemporary global literature from Mexico, Russia, and other countries currently in the political discourse, along with multimedia contextual materials and teaching tools, teachers might try Words Without Borders Campus. Here’s a link to a blog post on building inter-cultural empathy and understanding.”