Civility, Citizenship Education, and the Challenges in a School Community Setting

Spring 2020

By Robert von Glahn

Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife.—John Dewey, “Self-Realization as the Moral Ideal,” The Philosophical Review (1893)

Listen to any graduation address and you will undoubtedly be reminded that we are depending on this generation of students to solve all sorts of problems. Climate change, economic inequality, and pandemic diseases—it all seems to be up to this generation to solve. With an increasingly complex future in front of us, we have been told that our priorities as schools and as teachers need to shift to match these demands.

STEM/STEAM, creative problem-solving, design thinking, and entrepreneurship have all been touted as a means to prepare our students for an increasingly uncertain world. While all of these approaches may have a place in our schools, it is curious that political discourse has, in general, been left out of the hierarchy of training that our students need. Do our students benefit from maker spaces or an emphasis on scientific problem-solving and design in our schools? Certainly. But are these the skills that all of our students need in order to be productive and empowered in life? Most of our students are not going to be developing the new generation of solar panels, redesigning our infrastructure, or inventing new forms of artificial intelligence to solve the problems of the present and future. All will have the opportunity to engage with these problems primarily as citizens and participants in our political process. They are going to be voting in elections, debating with their neighbors, attending school board meetings, and writing to their local representatives. In addition to fostering creativity, problem-solving, and “21st century” skills in our students, we also need to be nurturing old-fashioned skills like citizenship. It is these skills that will enable most of our students to engage in civic life and contribute to the politics we need to solve the problems we face and create a more just, moral, and safe world.

But how do we teach these skills? What are these citizenship skills anyway? A number of answers come to mind. Certainly, critical thinking, information literacy, and communication skills are essential. Students need to think independently, understand and judge information effectively, and communicate their ideas to engage in civic life. There seems to be more to the recipe for effective citizenship; however, is Twitter effective civic life? There is much critical thinking on Twitter and plenty of analysis of information from various perspectives. An effective post on any social media platform needs to be concise, deliver a point of view, and capture an audience. What is missing on Twitter, other social media, and, increasingly, our national discourse is a sense of productive civility where citizens can disagree with one another in fundamental ways and gain understanding and respect for one another through discourse.

With the goal of nurturing productive civility, I went about redesigning our AP US Government and Politics course. I wanted to design a course that allowed students to practice citizenship skills in a democratic classroom. There was content that needed to be explored and foundational academic skills that needed to be developed, but where could civic behaviors like active listening, inclusivity, and productive disagreement find a place in the curriculum? I drew from a number of sources that have long informed my teaching and work on leadership with students at our school to develop some sort of framework to intentionally teach and emphasize civic behaviors and citizenship. The concepts of difficult conversations outlined by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen,1 emotional intelligence from Daniel Goleman,2 and servant leadership articulated by Robert Greenleaf3 all gave me windows into how listening, humility, and reading social cues could be used to teach civil discourse. With these concepts providing a framework for what I thought productive civil discourse could look like, Alexis Wiggins’ Spider Web Discussion4 gave me a tool for measuring these skills and delivering feedback.

I created a gradeless rubric for my students and a recurring formative assessment in the form of student-led current events discussions that would give them a chance to test their skills and receive guidance from me. Students would pick the topic for the day’s class, supply an article or video to their classmates for background knowledge on the topic, and then lead a class devoted to exploring their ideas. These student-led classes generally took the form of discussions—discussions that could be structured in any way they chose. My role was to take notes, not on the content of the discussion but on the citizenship exhibited by students, and then share those notes and additional feedback with the class.

After a rough start, I found that my students made rapid progress in many of the civic behaviors I was looking for them to demonstrate. The key to this improvement was the feedback they received. What was most valuable to students was not the notes or the neatly drawn “spider web” diagram of their activity, but rather oral feedback delivered immediately after their discussion or, with some students, after class. At times, these conversations were difficult. I highlighted and celebrated civility, inclusion, and respect, but I also identified specific instances of negative behaviors including interrupting, listening to respond rather than to understand, and grandstanding. The students had never received feedback like this before (nor had I ever given it), and some were shaken when they realized the habits they had formed. I made it a point to meet with the students who were having the hardest time to give greater clarity to expectations; deliver further advice on how to improve; and, most of all, make sure they knew that they had my support and respect for engaging in the work. It was clear that they wanted to develop new habits and behaviors, and, by about halfway through the year, the class had steadily improved in many of these areas. Our conversations and collaboration with one another became much more civil, inclusive, and respectful.

While they have been happy with the progress they have made in terms of civility, my students have struggled to take advantage of opportunities to explore fundamental disagreements they have with one another and bring depth to our discussions. One of our goals was to discuss core questions regarding the role of government and foundational political values. Civil conversation was not enough; we wanted to discuss difficult—or in their words “heavy”—topics about real issues like freedom and justice. They have struggled to shift to these heavier, foundational topics. Why? They had done hard and humbling work to develop greater civility in how they discussed politics. Why was it so difficult for them to express and engage in conversation about abstract concepts? They excelled in writing about these concepts, yet struggled to translate the skills that were demonstrated in their written work into productive conversations.

What I feel is happening in my classroom has a lot to do with the nature of independent schools in general and our school in particular. Independent schools tend to pride themselves on their sense of community. This is ingrained in our students and has tremendous benefits across the life of the school. This sense of community undoubtedly spurred my students to develop more civic-minded habits in class. Once they had a mirror held up to their behaviors and we took class time to address and work on improving those behaviors, they worked hard to adapt to the standard. However, when we would benefit from questioning each other more openly and disagreeing on foundational political ideas, our sense of community seemed to work against students growing as deeper political thinkers. Disagreement about what really matters—our political values and how we define our political lives—is much more difficult for students, particularly in a school that values community and a shared sense of values.

Teaching politics and preparing students for citizenship is difficult work. Many aspects of independent schools help facilitate this work, such as space in the curriculum, a tendency to value discussion-based classes, and the freedom for teachers to experiment and shape their expectations to meet the goals of citizenship education. These aspects give us a tremendous starting point to begin this work. From this foundation, teachers should be clear with their goals; provide direct, actionable, and difficult feedback; and create spaces for students to consider, analyze, and critique various political perspectives. However, our tendency to value community and cohesion can be a difficult obstacle to this work. So what is the correct balance? How can we not only draw on a sense of community and shared values as a strength but also push back and create spaces where it is safe to disagree with each other in fundamental ways?

We have a responsibility, as John Dewey suggested over a hundred years ago, to teach in ways that support democracy. We should include civility as a core component of citizenship, and my experience tells me that when we put the time and energy into teaching civil discourse as a specific skill, our students can make significant gains in developing positive habits and behaviors. To prepare students to be full and contributing members of a democracy, however, we must also give them opportunities to practice disagreeing and regulating the discomfort that comes with disagreement. Independent schools seem like fertile ground for civility, but we struggle when we are asked to be uncomfortable with one another. For our students to find themselves as full participants in political life, we should continue to look for ways to create classrooms that both honor respect and civility, while also including the discomfort that comes with diverse viewpoints and fundamental differences.


  • 1 Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (New York: Penguin, 2010).
  • 2 Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ (New York: Bantam, 1995).
  • 3 Robert K. Greenleaf, Servant Leadership: A Journey Into the Nature of Legitimate Power & Greatness (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1977).
  • 4 Alexis Wiggins, The Best Class You Never Taught: How Spider Web Discussion Can Turn Students Into Learning Leaders (Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2017).
Robert von Glahn

Robert von Glahn ( teaches US Government and US History and serves as the grade 12 dean at The Potomac School in McLean, Virginia.