Civil Democracy in the Classroom

It’s an election year, and as the school year begins there will be much emphasis on politics and American democracy. A presidential election is a perfect opportunity for students to witness democracy in action and encourage their active participation.

There will also be a storm of chatter among students who have been exposed to political commentary, satire, melodrama, negative campaigns, and pundit viewpoints. Under the big top of the media circus, it’s no wonder that many young people are hard-pressed to find the relevance of politics in their lives.

A study conducted by the Education Testing Service (ETS) found that only 27 percent of American fourth-graders know the purpose of the U.S. Constitution. The study, “Fault Lines in Our Democracy,” draws a connection between the students’ lack of civics knowledge with their apathy and general mistrust in our democratic government.

Educators will be challenged to help students step outside the circus tent and connect to the importance of the political process. The difficulty will be in allowing the open discussion of diverse perspectives, and directing students toward thought-provoking, unifying dialogue.

A return to civil democracy is possible, and the David Mathews Center for Civic Life partnered with A+ last week to conduct a Civility Project workshop, showing educators and leaders how to facilitate healthy discussion in their communities and classrooms.

“Often when people start talking about what they have in common, their differences can be overcome and more focus can be given to real, positive action,” said Chris McCauley, executive director of the Mathews Center in Montevallo. “The strategy with sensitive debates is for a neutral moderator to help them discover common-ground solutions.”

One workshop participant unintentionally summed up the project’s objective; “I didn’t think about it that way until you mentioned it.”

The goal of the Civility Project is for citizens to come to “public judgement for community action,” according the McCauley.

During the workshop, to help participants experience first-hand a dialogue in which alternatives are considered, McCauley lead the group on a discussion of the troubling high school dropout rate. He presented three “approaches,” or possible solutions, which were derived from real public forums. First the participants were lead to identify how the high rate of kids dropping out of school affects them personally. Then the group went through a mock forum with each approach to better understand the group dynamic, and experience how a moderator can bring about fruitful discussion. Although participants had fun role-playing different community perspectives, the end result was a list of realistic and actionable approaches with which the group could agree.

“Public forums are critical for democracy,” said participant Beth Sanders, social studies teacher from Tarrant High School in Jefferson County. “Students should not only learn to respect each other’s differences and opinions, but also to actively listen to each other. By opening their minds to understand someone else’s perspective, they can work toward consensus to improve their community as a whole. No matter where we come from or what we’ve experienced, we generally all want the same things – a happy, peaceful life in a thriving community.”

The youth of today are the game-changers of tomorrow, explained Sanders, who co-created Youth Converts Culture, a summer program facilitated by A+ in Perry County. This workshop revealed the power that youth have to transmit, post, share, blog, and Tweet their viewpoints, which can either promote a unified voice for change or just add to the chattering chaos. Efforts like the Civility Project can provide direction for educators and leaders to foster positive communication and civil action.

Sanders and the other workshop participants plan to expand these efforts in their classrooms this fall by facilitating mock public forums with their students.

Participant and teacher Scarlette Gaddy said, “Our Civility Project will be a great way to introduce students to civic engagement through grassroots action. Many thanks to the workshop organizers for providing Civility Project members the opportunity to practice the deliberative framework that will enable us to teach students to be more engaged citizens.”

To find out more or to get involved, contact the David Mathews Center for Civil Life.