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.