Inspiring Active Citizenship Across Disciplines

A recent one-day professional growth workshop epitomized what I hope students will take away from my classes: a sense that their well-informed communication can change the world.
The event, Poetic Convergence, was on a Saturday, and it took more than an hour to drive to the Sepulveda Pass from my house in the foothills of L.A. However, I couldn’t imagine a better place to be, surrounded by high school teachers and students who cared deeply about language.
In addition, I had an immediate reason for going: I wanted to learn more about poetry to support a project my eighth-grade U.S. history students were starting. Over the next several weeks, each of them would be creating a spoken word poem about a current issue.
The workshop was sponsored by Get Lit, a Los Angeles organization that makes classic and contemporary poetry meaningful for teenagers. Most of the students there attended public schools, but I had come with a sophomore from my school who had delivered spoken word poetry at speech tournaments the year before.
Throughout the day I kept taking notes—on poetic conventions and on teaching technique.
What, for instance, made a two-hour pedagogy session for teachers feel like 45 minutes? How did every presenter keep me on the edge of my seat? Why did the power of art appear so clearly throughout the day?
The answer to all of these questions was the same. The speakers mixed teaching methods that asked us not only to listen and discuss, but also to create and revise and confer. They expected us to be engaged. They expected each of us to enrich the sessions.
We stood up, sat down, stood up again, filled in sentence starters, listed everyday objects, brainstormed metaphors, laughed. We wrote and wrote and wrote.
Even during a keynote address, former poet laureate Robert Pinsky asked us to draft a poem, offering a prompt that combined sound and sense: Write about something that you feel you can’t write about because it’s too important or embarrassing, and use repeated consonants in some way to express through sound what the poem is trying to say.
The day reminded me how easy it becomes to want to learn skills when there’s a reason to do so and a community offering support. At every moment, I felt that nothing was more important than shaping words for impact.
That Monday, I could hardly wait to bring this excitement to my eighth-graders. I shared one of my own poems from the weekend, hoping to show my own vulnerability.
Over the next weeks, the students filmed themselves with iPads or phones, reciting poems, packed with passion for an issue and rigorous research. They convinced their classmates to view a topic differently, with more empathy. The results often sounded unusually mature for eighth-graders.
Lotte wrote about abortion:
I want to tell you
We are not going back to coat hangers or throwing ourselves down the stairs
Egbert wrote about the uses and misuses of nuclear power:
Nagasaki and Hiroshima suffered
Because countries sought peace and stability
Regan wrote about foster care:
463,000 children like me in my country, the “Land of the Free”
But am I free?

Active Citizenship in Challenging Times

Since the November 2016 election, teaching about current events and citizenship, even through something as exuberant as spoken word poetry, has been difficult. When I talk with colleagues at my school, in our city, and across the country, we often sigh as we deconstruct the divisions, spoken and unspoken, that we encounter daily in our classrooms. Nothing feels neutral. The mere mention of certain topics feels political. And we are only human.
Yet we as teachers can work to ensure that all students make their voices heard, in activities that feel authentic to them. We can encourage empathy to bubble up where it seems the fault lines might be too deep to cross, and we can serve as mediators and interpreters when difficult topics arise.
With active projects and assignments, we can also teach the skills necessary for public engagement, those that our young adults will need to attend protests, write petitions, run for office, and agitate for change.
In other words: We can encourage active citizenship by fostering literate citizenship.
To inspire our students to become civically literate in meaningful ways, we need to create assessments that make them want to learn the skills and knowledge they need to become informed citizens—research, citation, writing, public speaking, collaboration. Such individualized assessments may end up enticing us as teachers to look forward to grading them. As educator Heather Wolpert-Gawron writes in Just Ask Us: Kids Speak Out on Student Engagement, “Think about the tests or assignments you don’t mind spending time reviewing over your own coffee table at home. Which ones do you prefer? I would argue that if you are engaged reading them, the students were probably engaged developing them.”


Creating “Coffee Table Worthy” Assignments

Wolpert-Gawron’s “coffee table test” has become a litmus for me in designing engaging skills-based projects that I want to grade. Here are a few examples, with the caveat that they are still evolving every year:
  • A refabbed research paper. First, students write about a social reformer’s personality, strategies and tactics—the elements that allowed the person to affect change. This paper includes an annotated bibliography, parenthetical citations, and electronic note cards through NoodleTools. Then, students join forces to design a campaign for change that their reformers would have agreed with. They pitch their idea to their classmates, and the top campaign in each section earns a real-money donation to give to a related nonprofit organization.
  • A letter to a representative, inspired by Abraham Lincoln or Harper Lee. A classic way to get students involved in government is to have them research a current bill on the House or Senate website, or on Students mine information about both the bill and their senator or representative, and then they pack their letter with details that might make the politician’s staffers pay attention. An English teacher and I also have worked together to encourage students to focus on the language and not just the facts. After reading Civil War speeches by Abraham Lincoln in my class and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird in her class, we ask students to be inspired by the authors’ tones, themes, persuasive tactics, or anything else they find useful.

Going Interdisciplinary: It’s Not Just About History

Although I teach history, creating skills-based assessments that tackle difficult issues is not just the purview of history teachers. So many classes across departments, not to mention co-curricular clubs and affinity groups, engage in well-informed conversations about controversial topics every day. Here are some examples:
  • World language teachers explore how language can connect cultures and people.
  • English teachers study the human condition and encourage reflection on our actions.
  • Math teachers connect statistics to social justice and problem-based learning to engineering.
  • Science teachers grapple with how to address ethical issues, such as climate change or cloning, in ways that spur students to action.
  • Performing and visual arts instructors tackle difficult topics, such as gender fluidity, mental illness, and family dysfunction, leading to intense discussions during rehearsals or open studio sessions.


Giving Students Agency

The poetry workshop has stayed with me because it reminded me that learning skills through meaningful projects feels less like work and more like play. These are projects students can do on their own, or with some but not too much guidance.  
As education professor Meira Levinson writes in No Citizen Left Behind, our students need our support, but they also “need us to understand when we should get out of the way. We need to recognize when it’s their turn to make the phone call, speak up at the meeting, or make the video that’s destined to go viral.”
With such agency and experimentation can come new meaning, a sense among our students that they will be able to change the world now and someday, through both skills and knowledge.
As teachers, we also can try to remember what it feels like to channel a cause or passion for the first time. Poet and music critic Hanif Abdurraqib admonished in a morning keynote address at the Get Lit conference, “Don’t begrudge young writers for trying to find a message in something.”
Our students are hard at work figuring out their own messages. If we give them the opportunity to discover their role in change—through authentic assignments—they may, in turn, ask us to help discover their world with them. What could be better?
Sarah Cooper

Sarah Cooper teaches eighth-grade U.S. history and is dean of studies at Flintridge Preparatory School (California). She is the author of Making History Mine (Stenhouse, 2009).