I Don’t Like History... But I Love Civics

In the second post of the Shanker Institute's Constitution Day 2022 Blog Series, guest author James Dawson, a UFT Teacher Center Instructional Coach at Paul L. Dunbar Middle School in the Bronx and Shanker Civics Fellow, contends that by infusing the concept of civic readiness into lessons, we are able to impart civic knowledge while encouraging civic engagement.

When I first started coaching my school's social studies team, I was excited and naive. Excited by the chance to share my enthusiasm for (and, if I flatter myself, my considerable knowledge of) history Old World and New, ancient and modern. I was surprised to discover that my retention of the latter was considerably less than I had envisaged; I was surprised and dismayed that only a few students shared my enthusiasm. The narratives of the human experience that had drawn me to my history classes, my teachers’ descriptions of the earthier and less celebrated sides of well-known historical figures, their ponderings on the “could-have-beens” that would changed the course of the river of time, enthralled me.

So why did it leave my students cold? They were intelligent, hardworking, and active in their English Language Arts (ELA) classes, especially when addressing injustice in their social issues unit. Why was the passion so evident in those classes, so glaringly absent from ours?

I began to gather data; through informal conversations, with individuals and groups, both in class and out. I learned that, while some students acknowledged that history was important, they didn’t see themselves in the class. As a person of privilege in the United States, the story of my people was reflected throughout my education, even if my forebears had arrived in this country, defined more by what they lacked that by what they had. Despite our efforts to adhere to a culturally responsive curriculum, why didn’t my students see themselves in history classes?

They didn’t see themselves as part of the flow of history, because we hadn’t guided them to take part in it. By infusing the concept of civic readiness into our lessons, we were able to impart civic knowledge (the role of the activist, the specific components of a particular movement, the ‘hidden history” of several movements that are superficially studied) while encouraging civic engagement that intensified over the course of the year. Studying the Founders debate over Constitutional representation for historically underrepresented groups primed the students to plan and implement a voting rights drive for both the school and the community it lives in. Classroom debate around the question, “Is the cherished immigrant ideal of the American Dream achievable, and if so, who is favored to achieve it? found expression in a Q&A on immigrant rights with our state senator, who generously complimented our students when he admitted, “I wasn’t prepared for these difficult questions!”

The history of the United States, with its conflicts and challenges, its wrongs and attempts to right those wrongs, is a dry and dusty page without the necessary energy of civic expression, akin to watching newsreels of great baseball players and then claiming to play the game. As we continue at Paul L. Dunbar to pursue civic readiness for our students, we will be challenged to provide our students with the opportunity to see themselves, not just as players, but as champions:

  • Their discussion was
    • Purposeful
    • Questions
      • Why?
      • How?
  • Leading vs. showing
    • Balancing my input with letting them discover
    • Teach how to find information, not what that info is
  • The importance of civic engagement and action vs. via book learning
  • How to activate? Theory to practice
  • Natural student need for fairness.