From Circletime to Civics: Involve our Youngest Learners in Civic Engagement

Early childhood classrooms are a surprising yet ideal site for introducing meaningful civic engagement. Schools, particularly preschools, are often the first institutions where children must work alongside others, beyond the members of their families and their immediate circles. With the somewhat shocking change that entering a school environment brings, there is also the opportunity to introduce and practice good civic skills. Think about it, at the blocks center, children begin to develop their negotiating and compromising skills for a limited set of resources. At dramatic play, children navigate competing interests, advocate for themselves and their ideas, and navigate big emotions as they are experienced when they don't get their way. Do these skills sound like they should be applicable outside the classroom? I hope they do, because they are the foundational skills for engaging in civil discourse and participating in the democratic process. This is more than just voting on what to name the classroom pet fish—democracy, in its purest and most beautiful form, is woven deep within the seemingly mundane play interactions children engage in and teacher-supported instruction. Too often, we observe children developing these skills without giving the experience the acknowledgment it deserves: lived experiences that cultivate civic capabilities and a developmentally appropriate understanding of equity. These skills, and the acknowledgment of these skills, are more critical now than ever.

National Civics Day: Civics in the Classroom

Today is National Civics Day. For the last year the Albert Shanker Institute has been working with a team of accomplished educators to create high quality civics and democracy lessons, written with state standards in mind, to share with educators via our partnership with ShareMyLesson. While an unproductive debate about what to teach our students simmers across the country, these lessons serve as an example of how seriously teachers take their responsibility to create healthy teaching and learning environments and lessons where students are introduced to founding documents, like the US Constitution, and the honest history of our country in ways that foster critical thinking. Today we wrap up our 2022 Constitution Day blog series with one example of how these lessons are framed to give readers a glimpse of the work our educators do in their classrooms to meet the academic expectations of students. For more lessons and examples, please visit our Educating for Democratic Citizenship Community on ShareMyLesson.
-- Editor

Student Free Speech Rights: A Lesson on the Constitution

In the fourth blog of our Constitution Day 2022 series, guest author Stephen Lazar, a national board certified teacher and a Shanker Institute Civics Fellow, uses his students' natural interest in their free speech rights in school as an opportunity to teach them about the Supreme Court's role in helping to redefine and enhance the rights enshrined in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

I always tell my students that (other than the Dred Scot case of those of a similarly evil tilt) Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier is my least favorite Supreme Court Case, as it’s the only one that’s ever been used against me. I was editor-in-chief of my high school paper and was set to publish two op-eds that were critical of the school. The Hazelwood case enshrined a limitation on students’ freedom of speech in school-sponsored publications, deeming them school projects that therefore are subject to complete editorial censorship by the school administration. Our advisor took the critical pieces to our principal, who told me I could not run one of them and had to make edits to the other, that I had written.[1] I was livid, but swallowed my pride.

Over two decades later, when I teach students about their free speech rights in school, my primary aim is to help them embrace and understand the rights they do have in school—particularly for political speech—as well as the fact that their free speech rights are not absolute.

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.

Education for Democracy

From 2005, Unionism and Democracy, sponsored by the Albert Shanker Institute in cooperation with the AFT International Affairs Department (edited). Given the fight for democracy today—given the assault on universal suffrage, on workers’ rights, on a free media, and an independent judiciary—it is worth revisiting this piece.

Within the AFT’s motto—“Education for Democracy, Democracy in Education”—are several important ideas. One is that the common good is served by the creation, through a public education system, of an informed and knowledgeable citizenry. That is why post-colonial Americans first agreed to pay for the education of other people’s children. Second is the idea that, beyond the democratic content of such an education, the public school system—as a common place for educating all children equally—transmits and promotes a democratic sensibility and culture. And third is the idea that if education is for democracy, then education system should be democratic itself and that free teachers unions can play a unique role promoting democracy, not only in the classroom but in the workplace. Teachers and other educational employees should, therefore, be fully empowered through the unions of their choice and that they control.

The Constitution Holds the Government Accountable

In this first Constitution Day 2022 Blog Series post, Guest author Sean Thomas, a Shanker Institute Civics Fellow and National Board Certified Teacher, encourages his students to develop a deep personal relationship with the U.S. Constitution because when students become aware of how to exercise their democratic liberties, they can accomplish amazing things.

Democracies work best when the citizens of a nation hold their government accountable. In democracies, the people must take responsibility for their government, its actions, and its laws, because we are the people who put our political leaders in power. The personal responsibility to hold the government accountable is a benefit to all of society. John Locke said, “…by consenting with others to make one body politic under one government, puts himself [people] under the obligation to everyone in that society.” In order to do this, the people must be aware of the role of government and the job it’s supposed to fulfill. The citizenry must also be aware of when the government is overstepping, so it can check the government’s power. For the United States, the rule of law that establishes the role and limitations of government can be found in the seven articles and twenty-seven amendments contained in the U.S. Constitution.

As a teacher, I encourage my students to not only read the U.S. Constitution, but also to have a deep, personal relationship to it. If students develop this relationship, they have the ability to understand the debate around what the different clauses in the Constitution mean. They can develop an informed position on the rights that are ensured to the people and they can challenge and discuss the variety of interpretations presented to them by politicians, media pundits, and other parts of society. It also helps my students realize that interpretations change over time and allows them to advocate for issues and causes they are passionate about through constitutional arguments. Most importantly, it teaches my students not to be controlled or overly influenced by people who provide interpretations of the Constitution to support a specific political agenda.

Renewed, Recharged, Ready for the Fight

This keynote Speech was delivered by guest author Norman Hill, President Emeritus, A. Philip Randolph Institute at the 2022 APRI Annual Conference in Baltimore, MD (edited). Normal Hill was also the staff director for the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. 

As I approach 90 years young, it is especially gratifying to do so here in Baltimore. You know me as president emeritus of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, which I was privileged to help organize and lead for 37 years, from 1967 to 2004. I traveled the country to 200 APRI chapters we founded to mobilize Black trade unionists, to organize voter registration and participation campaigns, to build the essential coalition of labor and the Civil Rights movement, and to pursue the struggle for racial and economic justice.

iCivics, A Trusted Resource For Teachers

Our guest author today is Amanda Setters, who taught middle and high school social studies courses, including U.S. History, World History, AP U.S. History, IB History and Government, in Cincinnati, Ohio for over 20 years. Amanda loved iCivics so much during her teaching career that she recently joined the team as a Curriculum Associate in 2022 to support the creation of new resources and curricular materials for teachers and students nationwide.

When the COVID-19 pandemic upended so much of what was taken for granted in people's lives, not even our children's education was spared. But, for the love of their students, teachers did what they do best—found a way through. That way was to pivot, pivot, and pivot again.

The move from in-person to hybrid to remote (and even quarantine) learning has put teachers and students in a constant state of flux. Administrators, families, and teachers have worked incredibly hard over the past two years to make difficult decisions for the well-being of students and the larger school community. The lingering needs of students now need to be addressed.

As a teacher, I definitely felt that pressure. We had to keep both feet on the gas to maintain pacing and make up for lost instructional time. But we also faced classrooms full of students who needed assistance with school routines, skill development, and social-emotional needs unlike anything we’d dealt with before.

Amidst the chaos, I relied heavily on iCivics resources to relieve the pressure I was experiencing. The high-quality and low-prep materials from iCivics lightened the demands of lesson planning and creation, and helped me teach my high school World History and AP U.S. History classes. It was also extremely valuable as the need to provide literacy instruction to help fill instructional gaps in reading and writing skills (which has been huge in the last few school years). I’d particularly recommend iCivics for teachers who may be struggling with the following areas, like I was.

Teaching The Constitution As A Living Compact

In honor of Constitution Day (September 17th), this blog series invites teachers and leaders in the field of civics and democracy education to address the question: Why is it important to teach the Constitution? Our final guest author in this series is Randi Weingarten, president of the Albert Shanker Institute and the American Federation of Teachers. Other posts in this series can be found here.

At a time when the future of American democracy hangs in the balance, how should we teach the U.S. Constitution?

The Preamble to the Constitution, where the framers laid out its purposes, provides us with six words that help answer this question. The Constitution was intended, its authors wrote, “to form a more perfect union.” With this phrase, the framers made it clear that they did not conceive of the Constitution or the republic it established as a finished product, perfect and complete for all time, but as a work in progress, in need of continuous renewal and “re-founding.” By the design of the founders, the Constitution is a living compact, changing and evolving with “we the people” who authorize it and give it legitimacy anew with each successive generation of Americans.

Why Teach The Constitution?

In honor of Constitution Day (September 17th), this blog series invites teachers and leaders in the field of civics and democracy education to address the question: Why is it important to teach the Constitution? Our guest author today is Zeph Capo, a public school science teacher, president of the Texas AFT, and member of the Shanker Institute Board of Directors. Other posts in this series can be found here.

Collective bargaining is the cornerstone on which we built the middle-class. As a labor leader, it is the best tool used by workers to earn a seat at the table as equals with their employer. It is also how we develop a contract outlining one another’s roles, rights, and responsibilities in the workplace. As an educator, I ask: How do we expect workers to understand the process and power of collective bargaining if they don’t understand the power and process of governance as outlined in our Constitution?

I believe teaching the Constitution is vital, because it is the premier collectively-bargained contract present in our lives. The rights, responsibilities, and regulations set forth in the Constitution serve as the bedrock on which we develop all other aspects of the agreements governing the many facets of our society.