community, “getting there,” and schools

A few weeks ago, Kareem Abdul Jabbar gave a speech following the unveiling of a statue in his honor.  To be honest, I’m not exactly sure why I started listening. I have a great respect for the game of basketball but I’ve never really gotten into following it.  Jabbar said something, though, that made me pay attention pretty quickly; “No one gets to this point of greatness without working with other great players.”  There is no doubt that he is one of the greats… even I know that. But there is something in this statement that I think we can translate from the court to our conception of education. Indeed, Jabbar believes that his education continued through his work, learning from the other greats that he played with.

In civics education, especially action civics, students are often asked to think and write about the community. Within the four walls of the classroom, students might learn about a community issue through Internet research, guest speakers, and information that they bring with them to class (e.g., community surveys). As a unit, students build their civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions, preparing them for future actions they might take as adult citizens. Jabbar pushes us to think about shifting our thinking from about to with. What might action civics look like if students were made responsible for part of a larger civic initiative rather than devising the whole project themselves? What would that do to/for the students, the teacher, and the community partner?

I’m not convinced that such a model is scalable or appropriate for all students and/or all ages but I think it is interesting enough to think about. If civic preparation is like sports, where you actually have to practice and get your reps in if you want to be good, then maybe it is important to get a couple reps in with community members who are doing work with real responsibilities and consequences for the community. These community members might not be any “greater” than the classroom teacher but, as Jabbar’s comments suggest, it was in working with greats that he became great. Such various and alternate interactions might be important for our students to become great citizens.

So, what might this look like? I’d suggest that teachers, especially action civics teachers, take some time to get back out into the community, making connections with content-relevant community organizers, business leaders, and public servants. Learning their craft and the spin that their work puts on curricular content might inform (in an authentic way) the ways we approach action civics instruction. Then, with time, trust, and expertise, it might be worth experimenting with giving students real community responsibilities (e.g., doing a survey analysis of attitudes surrounding an issue important to the local government and presenting recommendations to elected officials as part of their strategic plan). Working with the “greats” and practicing civics for the community might be more educative than thinking about them and/or practicing alone.


You are not an activist!

As the semester comes to a close, my students and I have been having increasingly deep discussions about what terms like activism, grassroots advocacy, and civics mean. This past week, focused specifically on the term epistemic closer (the idea that individuals may close ourselves off in our “ways of knowing”) to explain why some (many?) people are not able to be “open,” as Preskill and Brookfield (2008) describe in Learning as a Way of Leading. My students were quick to make practical linkages to the recent elections and to broader social, political, and economic concerns that the United States is facing. However, when we got to the question, “So, what can we do today to remedy our own epistemic closures?” it was interesting that my students’ only responses were about how we could connect with others in person; you could hear crickets chirp when I asked about our online activity.

That discussion reminded me about once again of the disconnect between our epistemology of citizenship and of the digital world. What a disconnect! Despite excellent research describing the civic skills youth learn by playing online games (e.g., Ito et al.’s (2009) work), youth I have spoken to suggest that the circles they find themselves in online rarely expose them to thoughtful conversations about the world and their connection to it. Even more difficult, though, is how to expand those networks, as my freshmen students pointed out this week.

Beyond the question of expanding students’ interactions online as well as developing those online citizenship skills, we need to also explore the ramifications of epistemic closer for building (or not building) students’ capacity to be effective citizens… digital or otherwise. To this end, one of my students sent this video as a way of explaining the problem.

Moving forward, we need to work with youth to develop an understanding of the best ways for them to break the epistemic closer bubble. They might:

  • Begin following political leaders on both sides of the aisle.
  • Add two different media outlets to their Twitter feed.
  • Link to local arts councils that explore culturally diverse programming
  • Link their RSS feeds to international news organizations.

These certainly aren’t cure-alls. However, without meeting people online with divergent views, participatory civics will only be “that injustice over there,” without any real connection. Before we ask students to “do,” they have to “know” and “feel.” Only then, can these three be iterative processes.