By Betsy Burrows
Everyday Education 

Preparing Students For Democratic Citizenship


December 5, 2016

More so than other elections, the recent presidential election has seen the country warring with itself with some of the most striking differences in opinion relating to questions about diversity: What does it mean to be American? Who is American and what are American values? Who teaches these values: teachers? parents? politicians? Educators in our schools are currently asking these questions as we deal with the impacts of this contentious election on our students and young people.

Since the presidential election, the Southern Poverty Law Center has received more than 701 reports of bullying, harassment and racist displays around the country with nearly 40 percent of these incidences occurring in K-12 schools and college settings. This increase of incivility and lack of respect for differences in our school communities should be a concern for all. Our schools should not only be a learning community where our children improve their cognitive and academic skills, but also a community that prepares students for democratic citizenship. In an increasingly diverse world, more than ever our schools must help our young people develop a civic character that values principles of democratic life, including diversity and equality.

One of the most important values of a democracy is equality and the belief that everyone in a democracy has the right to political, legal, social, and economic equality and to fair treatment regardless of race, sex, religion, heritage, or economic status. Another value is the belief that diversity across culture, gender, language, heritage and religion are not only tolerated, but also celebrated as strengths. Both of these values are violated when young people in our schools or individuals in our communities bully others based on their apparent differences or minority status.

So what are some of our local educational leaders and schools doing to help stop bullying and harassment because of differences and to prepare our young people to live in a diverse world? Three local examples highlight the way in which teachers can not only educate their students but also help them learn to be accountable for their actions in an increasingly connected world.

At Brevard College, students taking World Religion join together with the 21st Century Teachers and Learners Class to participate in a House of Worship field trip where they visit different religious institutions. This past year, teachers and students visited a Jewish synagogue, a Muslim mosque and a Buddhist temple to learn about diverse spiritual and religious beliefs. One student describes the field experience in her reflection paper in the following way: “Operating from the perspective that we are all more alike than different – which was reinforced for me on this recent field trip – is, I believe, an ideal foundation for teaching in a world rich with diversity. Going to the synagogue, mosque, and temple has impressed upon me that when you interact with people as individuals, rather than on the basis of ‘secondary differences,’ the connections are immediate and rich.”

Another educational experience occurred after bullying and racist incidents at Brevard High School last year. To help educate our students, community and educational leaders decided to proactively work with the local NAACP and with the U.S. Department of Justice to prepare our young people with strategies to improve communication skills, to establish programs to eliminate racial and ethnic misconceptions, and to develop plans to prevent conflict and improve intergroup relations among community members.

The Student Problem Identification and Reso-lution of Issues Together (SPIRIT) seeks not only to improve the local school community but to develop skills and processes in our younger people to help them prepare to be inclusive leaders.

Importantly, the SPIRIT program focuses on positive behavior and conflict-meditation processes, empowering and making individuals accountable for their community’s wellbeing instead of shaming them. A series of articles about Brevard High School’s SPIRIT program written by a student participant and submitted to The Transylvania Times will explain in more detail this program.

The third educational experience occurred at Brevard Elementary this semester when Brevard College teacher candidates, using non-partisan curriculum materials, partnered with fourth grade teachers to teach lessons on civic awareness and participation. Teacher candidates worked with classroom teachers to anticipate misconceptions about the election process, informing students about the various levels of government and leadership positions being voted on. Element-ary students learned about federal vs. state vs. county government.

In the end of the lessons, the lead teacher Carrie Norris, Brevard College students, and fourth graders organized a school wide voting opportunity. All K-5 students participated by receiving ballots, using a polling booth, and getting an “I voted” sticker. At one point during preparations, an elementary student remarked that his classmate should not be allowed to vote since he was Latino. The Brevard College student responded, “Yes, he is a citizen of our classroom and our school community; he will be allowed to vote.”

All three examples show the good work that our schools and teachers are doing to prepare future citizens with not only academic skills, but also democratic values of diversity and equality, values that will help our young people from their diverse backgrounds and perspective learn to grow, live and work in unity.

Hopefully our schools and teachers will continue to do the important work to provide our young people with many educational opportunities to recognize that integrating the diverse perspectives of its members strengthens a community. Hopefully, parents, educators and community leaders will recognize that not only are we role models for youth in our country but that our democracy, created and forged by a nation of immigrants, is strengthened by integrating the diverse perspectives of all its citizens. Our collective future depends upon this realization.

(Burrows is director of teacher education at Brevard College.)


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