Talk to Strangers

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Talking to strangers is certainly not something we encourage children to do, but importantly, talking with and understanding the “other” is essential for citizenship in a democracy.

American schools generally understand that democracies need active, informed and responsible citizens who are willing and able to take responsibility for their communities and contribute to the political process. For our schools to be incubators of engaged and effective citizens though, they require diversity. Being in a community of people with different ideas teaches students to listen, try on ideas, grapple with difference, develop empathy, and build compromise and cooperation skills.

Democracy requires that citizens respect the “other,” and regard them as one’s equal regardless of ideological or cultural differences. Citizenship requires the will to live with and for fellow citizens.

The 2016 election campaign symbolizes the current breakdown in public discourse that threatens our democracy – name-calling from both sides, and too much shouting without listening. Partisan media outlets (FOX, MSNBC, etc.), 24-hour news cycles, and social media has given everyone a megaphone to broadcast their views, and it is difficult to hear anything when everyone has a megaphone. The way candidates, pundits, and prominent individuals use media teaches young people that if they aren’t the loudest, their opinion doesn’t matter, and it shuts down opportunities for cooperation and understanding.

Schools can counterbalance this loudest-is-best, shout-without-listening culture. Our classrooms are places where students exchange and receive feedback about ideas. But too many of our schools are “echo chambers,” where conversations reinforce commonly held views. The lack of truly diverse opinions at some of our schools makes it too easy for students to hear their own opinions echoed back to them. Similarly, friendships in social media with people of like-minded ideas hardens beliefs and builds wedges against other ideas. The reaction by students in “blue” parts of the country since the election of Donald Trump helps illustrate that our echo chambers reinforce our own present world views, making them seem more correct and universally accepted than they really are. A democracy that descends into tribalism will not be a democracy for long.

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By engaging in civil discourse with people who share different values, attitudes, beliefs, and partisan identification, our students can learn to be citizens who know how to understand others, are more humble in their own beliefs, and are willing to compromise to work for the common good.

What is civil discourse?

Civil discourse is “robust, honest, frank and constructive dialogue and deliberation that seeks to advance the public interest” (Brosseau 2011). It is “the exercise of patience, integrity, humility and mutual respect in civil conversation, even (or especially) with those with whom we disagree” (Davis 2010).

Civil discourse does not simply mean being polite – argumentation is a social good. “Creating a culture of argument, and the thick skin that goes along with it, are long-term projects that will serve democracy well” (Herbst 2010).

How can a school that has a clear majority opinion develop a culture of robust discussion of diverse ideas? It’s a challenge.

On many occasions, I have joined classrooms together from around the country, across time zones, for discussions of common academic content, and to work on projects. When I taught for an independent online school, my AP Government students did this as a natural part of the course, and the conversations about politics brought forth a more diverse group of opinions than in any single brick-and-mortar classroom I have ever been in.

I am working on a project to join schools around the country to do this very thing. This election has proven to us the divisions of attitudes in this country runs deep, and there is a risk they will harden if we educators allow our students to imagine the worst about people on the other side of a debate.

I encourage teachers and administrators at all schools to look for ways to connect with each other across the country. If you want to join in this work, please use the contact form on my website to connect with me and I will include you in the project I am beginning.

 


References:

Brosseau, C. 2011. “Executive Session: Civil Discourse in Progress.” Frankly Speaking (October):http://nicd.arizona.edu/newsletter/october-2011#125.

Davis, J. C. 2010. In Defense of Civility: How Religion Can Unite America on Seven Moral Issues That Divide Us. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

Herbst, S. 2010. Rude Democracy: Civility and Incivility in American Politics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

 

Educating Through an Election

Today was a hard day at work, trying to help students make sense of an election that for nearly 2 years has shown us some of the worst of American politics.

An electoral campaign was in full swing in my first year as a classroom teacher (1992 election), and as a civics teacher I’ve had my fair share of election conversations with students since then. None of them have felt as bizarre as those that I have had in this 2016 election cycle. Few of the conversations were as hard as those I had with disillusioned young citizens today. In 2008, helping students understand why Californians passed a ban on same-sex marriage was difficult, but students were at least happy the nation had elected the first black president. The high schoolers I worked with today do not believe the 2016 election gives them anything at all to celebrate.

I have long known that my purpose as an educator is to prepare students for daily, active citizenship. The hardest part of that work may be to develop within students the capacity and inclination to seek to understand people with values seemingly opposed to their own. To have a truly functioning democracy, we all must be willing to talk to, and work with each other. The instinct to say that the supporters of an opponent are “stupid” because they don’t see the world the way we do is not helpful. Instead, we need to try to walk a mile in their moccasins. Considering the rights and interests of fellow citizens, and working to understand others’ perspectives builds empathy, critical thinking, better citizens, and a better society.

Educating students through an election requires us to model and coach them how to engage in civil discourse, not so they can prove they are correct, or to win an argument, but so that they learn how to seek to understand and to be understood. We need to make this even more of a priority in our schools over the coming weeks and months.

iBooks as Public Products

[pullquote]one exciting way to do authentic work with young writers is to publish books[/pullquote]Authenticity is central to excellent project-based learning. In a recent post I explained that to create a meaningful and effective PBL experience, teachers should envision a product that meets a real need, or one that is used for or by real people outside of school. By doing work that students understand has a purpose bigger than “just for class” – authentic work – they are more engaged and the learning outcomes are more profound.

Now that self-publication and distribution is easier than ever before, one exciting way to do authentic work with young writers is to publish books. In my U.S. History class, I recently gave my students a PBL challenge to research and publish stories about the Cold War as iBooks on the Apple Store (following the lead of my good friend and colleague, Peter Pappas and his students’ iBooks). In their reflections after the project, students expressed that they had never felt so engaged by a school project, and that they were able to understand twentieth-century American history in new, personally meaningful ways.

True, the writing of high school students about the Cold War is unlikely to break new scholarly ground or skyrocket to the top of best-sellers lists. But their work is original and valuable, and is a fresh perspective by a new generation on historical events that have helped shape their world.

Screen Shot 2014-12-29 at 2.01.22 PMTheir “Cold War Stories” iBooks – in Volumes I and II (available separately) – are the products of a 6-week project-based learning unit. Students were given wide latitude to conduct their own study of the period, and the chapters in the books show the variety of topic choices. What is common to each chapter is that the writing is original, and that the work is by students. Readers should of course not hold the work to the standard that they might for a book by a professional historian, rather, understand that these are books by students developing as writers and historians. Feedback so far indicates that readers are impressed by the quality of the work, and by the complexity of the students’ thinking.

iBooks are created using iBooks Author, an Apple application, and are viewable only on iPads and Mac computers. However, there are many publishing options in other formats, for teachers and students who work in non-Apple environments.

I invite you to read the books! And don’t hesitate to send me comments or to ask questions, using the discussion tool below this post.

Get “Cold War Stories” Volumes 1 and 2 on the Apple Store: itunes.apple.com

Get PDF versions of “Cold War Stories”: Volume 1, Volume 2

 

Creative, Appealing, Meaningful Learning

[pullquote]In Project-based Learning, students experience school as appealing and the work of their teachers and peers as innovative. In well designed projects, students explore different perspectives and create their own understanding of the world’s most meaningful topics.[/pullquote]Grant Wiggins has just written about a study released in 1983 – my freshman year of high school. The study’s conclusions fit what I remember about schooling:

“School curriculum is sterile. Topics of great human interest on the way to the classroom are apparently transformed and homogenized into something of limited appeal. Students scarcely ever speculate on meaning or discuss alternative interpretations. Teachers teach as they were taught years ago in their own schooling. All the messages received by them conspire to reinforce the status quo. The cards are stacked against innovation.” [emphasis added]

Grant’s post ends with “plus ça change“, and I don’t doubt that in many classrooms, if not in most in the United States, the curriculum is STILL sterile, and the work students are asked to do is STILL neither creative nor meaningful to them.

But many schools and teachers are doing innovative work. It’s not hard to be inspired by the great project-based teaching at High Tech High, the Science Leadership Academy, and at the New Tech Network Schools. In my own career, I’ve been fortunate to have the freedom to see the required curriculum differently, to be creative, and my students have benefited.

Here’s just one example.

In my U.S. History course last year, I wanted my students to think deeply about the cultural effects of the Cold War on American life. After a unit of study in which we explored many of the key political events and social trends through socratic seminar (try this method, here), I put some questions to my students:

  • How might you have been affected by the events of the Cold War, if you had been alive then?
  • How do you think these events in the U.S. and around the world affected individual Americans, and the culture in general?
  • What cultural trends do you notice in America that might have been influenced by the Cold War?
  • What more do you want to know about the Cold War’s impact on American life?

 

Students came up with some truly interesting responses, and raised a number of potential research and discussion topics. I challenged the students to consider if the topics were meaningful to other people, and how. I told them that if the topics passed my vetting process, they would be free to research them, but that they would have to share their answers with the world. They agreed.

By designing a project in which students pursue their own inquiry, what I was actually doing was asking them to speculate on what is historically meaningful and to develop their own interpretations of history. I asked them to be historians.

Here are their topics, in this Google Doc:

Sure, I had content goals for this project in mind before I gave it to the students. My challenge was to fit those content goals into the project’s design. Where there were gaps between the curriculum and the students’ interest, I designed some short socratic seminar moments and embedded them in class at key points during their research. By the end of the project, I was confident that my students were learning in ways that were creative, appealing, and meaningful to them.

In Project-based Learning, students experience school as appealing and the work of their teachers and peers as innovative. In well designed projects, students explore different perspectives and create their own understanding of the world’s most meaningful topics.

How can you see your curriculum differently?

 

Doing Authentic Work in PBL with iBooks

Much of the work that students do for school is just that – work only suited to school. A case in point is the traditional research paper. Where else in life will students have to follow a prescribed formula for presenting research that nobody besides a teacher or professor actually reads? Academic research papers aren’t bad, per se, they’re just rarely “authentic” for K-12 students.

[pullquote]A sure-fire way to create a meaningful project is to envision a product that meets a real need, or one that is for real people outside of school.[/pullquote]

Authentic work is work students do that is real to them. This is work that has personal meaning for the students, because it has relevance in their lives, or because it is for people outside of school. Sure, it can be argued that because school matters to students, any class work has some relevance, but my experience and a convincing body of research shows that truly authentic work produces remarkable learning outcomes. When students take on authentic tasks, they are more engaged, develop enduring understanding, and produce better work.

A sure-fire way to create a meaningful and effective project-based learning experience is to envision a product that meets a real need, or one that is used for or by real people outside of school. In my U.S. History class last spring, my students and I agreed that by researching and sharing stories about the era during which their parents and grandparents came of age, the students would do original historical work and create a niche for themselves in published Cold War histories. During the six-week project, students thought and acted like real historians, and created a two volume iBook set.

Cold War iBook Screenshot

View our Cold War Stories, Vol. 1 & 2 in iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/artist/mike-gwaltney/id950865027

In their reflections after the project, students expressed that they had never felt so engaged by a school project, and that they were able to understand twentieth-century American history in new, personally meaningful ways.

In future posts, I will share more about how I structured this project, and about how we used iBooks Author to create digital books now available for sale on the iTunes iBook Store. In the meantime, you can learn more about creating iBooks and publishing on my colleague Peter Pappas’s blog Copy/Paste.

Thinking and Acting Like a Historian with PBL

Screen Shot 2014-12-29 at 2.01.22 PMThere are many good reasons to teach history to high school students, and not the least of those is to teach disciplinary thinking. Professor Jeffrey D. Nokes expressed the correct sentiment in 2012 in his article for Education Week:

“Like their peers who provide opportunities for students to mimic professionals, history teachers need to design instruction that immerses students in historian-like reading, thinking, and writing. Just as students in a shop class use the materials, tools, strategies, and vocabulary of real-life woodworkers, students in a history class need exposure to the materials, tools, strategies, and vocabulary of historians. Such exposure is especially needed at a time when the Internet makes available to all readers a wide range of sources of varying credibility. Students must be equipped to analyze and evaluate such information. After all, this is how historians spend their time.”

Once you’ve made the decision to set aside purely academic endeavors, like content coverage and timed exams, students begin to understand history and how to think and act like historians. And their engagement and creativity come through in their work.

Here’s one way that I have used Project-based Learning in my U.S. History class to help students understand the 20th century and how to think and act like a historian. I presented the students with a challenging “Driving Question”, that suggested to them that they would need to become published authors about the Cold War. Their work blew me away, and you can see it on the iTunes Store (link at the end of this post).

Link to the students’ iBooks: https://itunes.apple.com/us/artist/mike-gwaltney/id950865027

Building a Better High School Government Course

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My students at the White House (2010).

An energetic young teacher spent the summer of 1996 preparing to teach Advanced Placement U.S. Government for the first time. This week, that teacher finished teaching his last AP Government course. After 18 years, I am done with “AP Gov” for the foreseeable future.

I am as passionate today about teaching citizenship as I have ever been, arguably more so, and I will be teaching a different kind of course in government and politics next year.

A Better Civics Course

Though my school isn’t offering AP, I have the unique opportunity in 2014-15 to teach a new and different kind of government course. One that drops some of the things I’ve never quite liked about the Advanced Placement program – the breakneck attempt to cram content, the standardization of everything (knowledge AND students), and the high-pressure exam culture. My new course will be inquiry-/project-based and in line with our school’s and department’s mission:

OES prepares students… so that they may realize their power for good as citizens of local and world communities.

The department… motivates students to raise, investigate, and respond to meaningful questions about human experience, so that they may become active citizens locally and globally.

A “better government course” will give students the chance to actually be citizens, engaged in the community, and not simply academics studying citizenship and preparing for exams. I imagine students will do work that is meaningful to them, while preparing for both university and a life of contribution to local and global societies.

What is a great high school level course in government, politics, and citizenship?

Any ideas? I could use your help in designing my new course.

Complete this form below, or use the comment tool on this blog post. In future posts, I will describe the process of designing this course, from soup to nuts, and key events in its roll-out in 2014-15.