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TEACHER VOICE: Finding civility in an eighth-grade civics classroom

'I threw the original syllabus out the window and changed my approach'

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Every time I turn on the news, I think about my eighth-graders.

As I look back on my preparation for my first year as a teacher, in 2018, my fears, ideas and overthinking now seem whimsical at best. When it was confirmed that I would be developing and piloting our school’s first civics course, I began to think about my eighth-graders more intently.

I, Mr. Billups, would be entrusted with the task of teaching civics in a politically polarized atmosphere at a culturally and racially diverse school in Boston. It was a challenging, and ultimately rewarding, environment in which to spend my first year in a classroom.

Civics education had just become a required part of the curriculum in Massachusetts, and I looked forward to offering my students the tools and techniques needed for honest discussions and debates, teaching them critical thinking skills, and educating them about their duties as citizens.

I wasn’t surprised to find my classroom was a microcosm of our society at large: deeply divided, suspicious of one another’s views (and mine), and generally cynical or apathetic about their ability to effect positive change. Unlike most urban classrooms, the ones at Boston Collegiate Charter School are evenly divided among white and black/brown kids and include first-generation immigrants, Irish kids and African-American kids from Dorchester — all from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds and neighborhoods. They are politically diverse as well, split about 50/50 when it comes to conservative or liberal beliefs.

Below are a few key things I observed, as well as responded to, throughout the 2018-19 school year:

I quickly realized it would be difficult, if not impossible, to keep politics separate from learning about how our government functions. I observed that students cling to partisanship as a means of making sense of what they see and hear; in 2019, partisanship has become this generation’s lens. Often, what they hear isn’t reflective of their actual beliefs, but they nevertheless tend to echo the viewpoints they hear at home or talking points from partisan news sources.

The syllabus for my class was based heavily on civic history and government. But when I would start teaching about a general topic, like how a bill becomes law, we would almost immediately shift gears to topics that were more on my students’ minds — like abortion laws recently passed in Alabama, or headlines about U.S. immigration policy.

So, I threw the original syllabus out the window and changed my approach, aiming to offer historical parallels to current events. Current events catered to students’ interests, and historical parallels gave them a more objective lens through which to examine current events.

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It seemed many students would rather opt out of difficult conversations or find an echo chamber that backed them up. As a whole, they held a lot of contradictory views. This was clear when conversations about racism arose, but also ones about income inequality, the wealth gap and unequal pay. Students reflected on these quite a bit during our unit on political parties. They were tasked with exploring the pros and cons of the institution of political parties and asked to reflect on their own political ideologies.

Many students acknowledged pressure from their families to believe certain ideas, despite the students themselves recognizing that they didn’t quite believe the same things. Students already felt these differences in beliefs, but exploring historical actions and the influence of political parties on others’ ideologies ultimately gave them language to better understand and articulate their own positions in this political context.

My students wanted to be informed, but it was obvious that they were overwhelmed by the amount of misinformation and multiple opinions pinballing around the media. That’s why I believe media literacy should be a primary component of any civics syllabus — as well as civility, and the art that is civil discourse.

The civics classroom is the best place to teach students how to have a civil and responsible political conversation with people who disagree with them. But we must also recognize that students walk into class well aware of the current political climate, and so they may collectively (or selectively) deem civility and civic discourse in particular as “soft” or “unrealistic” if we do not teach the skill in a manner that is mindful of and/or applicable to our current political climate.

It is also necessary for students to develop a true sense of our societal disposition. If we’re keeping it real, civil discourse is not our specialty in 2019. We have to get students to recognize the journey ahead of them in an empowering manner. Honesty without exaggeration is essential here — these kids already feel like they’ve been lied to. Civility is not a baseline, it is a benchmark. Getting students to see civility as a goal to strive for has the potential to alter an entire generation at best, and positively change the landscape of an educator’s classroom at worst.

Midway through the year, we had a breakthrough during our discussion of the film The Birth of a Nation. A conversation about blackface arose, and a couple of students brought up the Virginia governor who was being pressured to resign after photos of him in blackface surfaced from his college yearbook. One student said, “Yeah, but he was just making a joke, it doesn’t actually mean he’s racist.” This was met by “snaps” of approval from the more conservative half of the classroom.

Frankly, as a black male, I was flustered by the snaps. I quickly turned his comment over to the rest of class so I could keep my body language neutral. After a 10-second pause, one of my quietest students spoke up. She vehemently opposed the student’s comment in a way that inspired others to speak up, both for and against the original comment. Civil discourse and ideas were exchanged for the remainder of the class.

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I believe this moment of engagement was a turning point in the class. Given space to hash it out, students organically used the civic discourse tools I had previously offered them as a mechanism to think through this “controversial” moment that seemingly had just two opposing sides. It’s worth noting that the neutrality of my body language wasn’t about hiding my beliefs from students, but rather about signaling to them that they could think through this issue on their own. How we handle moments like these set precedents for whether or not we have any more of them.

For the remainder of the school year, my students’ understanding of what civil discourse is, and how to engage in it, was rather impressive. They developed a stronger sense of empathy, learning to check their own biases and be more comfortable with others checking theirs. They also developed the body language necessary to offer ideas that lend themselves to achieving a desired result.

Civics education in 2019, and in the decades ahead, has an opportunity to be different. I believe it must be, if we are to prepare our children to become an informed electorate, savvy consumers of information, and good citizens in their communities and far beyond.

This story about middle-school civics was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our newsletter.

Závon Billups is an eighth-grade history teacher at Boston Collegiate Charter School in Dorchester, Massachusetts.

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Závon Billups

Závon Billups is a first-year, 8th grade civics teacher at Boston Collegiate Charter School in Dorchester, Massachusetts. See Archive

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