The First Fifteen Days: Building Community Through Civic Experiences

In the third post of Shanker Institute Constitution Day 2022 series, guest author Shawn Fisch, a UFT Teacher Center Instructional Coach at Long Island City High School and a Shanker Institute Civics Fellow, asserts that the skills practiced by the Founding Fathers in building a consensus for a new model of government is the same thing teachers repeat each year with classroom culture and norms.

There is no other feeling quite like the first day of school. A bunch of strangers come together from different places with different ideas and have to create a classroom/school where everyone can work together. In a sense, it is similar to the issue facing our new nation with the Constitution. How do we ensure that the values of the country are reflected in our curriculum? The answer is civics. The way we feel on the first day of school (for students and staff alike) can impact how we feel about our classrooms, our schools, and our communities. This year back to school was a statement of fact. Many students were literally returning back to a physical school building for the first time in years. It has been fifteen days since the start of the school year at Long Island City High School (LICHS). I’d like to take you on a journey with me looking at those 15 days through the lens of civics.

First off civics is no longer a content term applicable only to high school social studies. Civics is for all students. In New York, students can graduate with a Seal of Civic Readiness. According to the New York State Education Department, “The Seal of Civic Readiness is a formal recognition that a student has attained a high level of proficiency in terms of civic knowledge, civic skills, civic mindset, and civic experiences.” Let’s unpack that for a second. Civic knowledge is how every teacher builds classroom community and routines.

It is why we raise our hands to ask a question. Civic skills are practiced daily in safety drills, pick up and drop off, and groupwork. A mindset in civics will usually be coupled with experiences that manifest as charity events, community building, and going beyond the classroom. These are present in every school if you know what to look for. Start to name them. No matter what the future brings, the skills students are taught through a civics-based experience will benefit students. Many of these skills are already being taught. Here are some examples of civics I have experienced as a veteran starting in a new school as both a teacher and a colleague.

As a new staff member, it was refreshing to see LICHS has a team dedicated to supporting new teachers. There is a mentoring system in place and a detailed staff handbook. New staff members had the chance to tour the building and take care of the little things like keys and photo identification. It is the little things that stand out and matter. The administration of the school provided lunch the day of the tour. They also made sure the new staff members received T-shirts and small learning community lanyards. Everyone was wearing school shirts when the students returned. That was intentional and by design. We are not a school that requires a uniform, but I have noticed the students (and staff) routinely wear clothes and accessories clearly announcing they are a part of the LICHS community. I see it on the bus/subway on the way to and from school. I smile at the students who notice my royal blue Academy of Wellness Education (AWE) lanyard and give a nod to the kids I see rocking their LIC Bulldogs clothes in the community. It is a roll back to an old idea where the school was a central figure in the community. With back-to-school night, families are coming to schools to meet with educators under a different lens. We are not so much concerned with updates for individual students, but rather giving out information on how the school can be more than a school.

My position at LICHS is unique. I am in the classroom, but I also support teachers through a United Federation of Teacher’s Teacher Center Site. My first day walking into the building, the security guards stopped me. After our introductions, I realized I was entering a community these professionals were serious about protecting That civic experience gave me an impression of the civic mindsets I would find at my new building. I have two room in LICHS. One is a classroom, the other a teacher support room. Both teachers next door to each room introduced themselves the first day and offered all they had to give in helping me get set up. Indeed, teacher set up was a civic experience. Principal Vivian Selenikas took us to a classroom where a colleague had created a warm and welcoming student-centered environment. We were given clear guidance as to what things should be included and what things would be looked for (during learning walks) regarding to our classroom preparation. Then we were given time. Time to focus on preparing our classroom to benefit our students.

While it is possible to engage students in civics within the classroom, with the support of school administration it can go even further. Our school had an assembly where Dr. Yohuru Williams and Michael Long hand-delivered to 9th graders signed copies of their book Call Him Jack: The Story of Jackie Robinson, Black Freedom Fighter. It was done with the help of community partners such as the Queens Public Library and Zone 126. Working together to create opportunities for students is at the heart of what an education grounded in civics can deliver.

Our students came back to a school that gave them each lanyards identifying them to their small learning communities (we have four). Our students can join community organizations to help others. Our students were given the opportunity in English class to explore the theme of “Identity.” This was by design. By allowing the students to communicate who they are, it creates a sense of community in the classroom. I was the outsider in my classes. The students already knew each other more or less. I allowed myself to become immersed in their worlds. I wanted to hear their pandemic stories and read their thoughts. It sounds poetic, but in terms of pedagogy it just meant being explicit when modeling “turn and talk” and “journaling.” It has only been 15 days, but it worked. I know my students and they know me. We understand each other and we have a working relationship that all parties can agree to. We are working on presentations modeled after “Where I’m From” by George Ella Lyons. The choices the students had were by design. As a class we looked at the curriculum. As a class we decided on the assessments. Very much like the Constitution, we also decided to leave room for adaptation and change within the working norms we agreed upon. The pandemic taught us all the things can change fast and we must stand ready to adjust accordingly.

It has only been 15 days. My students were surprised when I mentioned it. Our class feels comfortable and familiar. We have inside jokes. The students complain about not getting their choice of sticker and try to decipher my comments on returned assignments.  I know who plans on college and who plans on trade school. I learn more each day about the ones who share and open up, while trying to figure out new ways to help the rest of them still trying to make sense of the pandemic world. Civics in the classroom and the school community works. Fifteen days in my new school and I feel a part of the team. My ELA team, my AWE team, my mentees, and the secretaries. Those who know, know that secretaries and office staff run the show. The principal’s assistant knew me by my email address. My new best friend in the main office said, “That’s Shawn Fisch” as she spelled out my name correctly for my new school ID (and guarded my munchkins, but that is a story for another blog.) After these first fifteen days, I am excited for what comes next.

I should also mention I am the new secretary of the PTA at my son’s elementary school. First picture day, then coming soon, civics from the parental side. Whether adults or children, the skills practiced by the Founding Fathers in coming together to build a consensus for a new model of government is the same thing teachers repeat each year with classroom culture and norms. Being civic minded just allows for us to be explicit when drawing the parallels.

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