In Ontario, only 48% of eligible voters voted in the most recent provincial election. Pathetic.
That said, StudentVote (an organization that enables mock-student election to run concurrently with real elections) ran elections in more than 50% of all schools. Their participation is climbing.
And that’s why we came together. Well, kind of.
Last Saturday, I participated in the StudentVote Post-Election Consultation where a group of 60 or so teachers from across the country and across the educational landscape got together and talked about the future of civic engagement.
How do we move students from apathetic to engaged? The question sounds familiar because, of course, we struggle with this in every facet of education. But this was different.
Organized and run by the StudentVote staff, the consultation was structured, yet free-flowing. Basically a moderated discussion about what has worked, specifically our successes with StudentVote, and how we can engage students in further civic duty.
It was refreshing to hear so many ideas connecting our joy of democracy and ways to make learning about it, and engaging in it, more authentic.
And that’s where my head was, “Give me something real.” Not “school-ized”.
There were a few solid ideas:
- A day where students can “grill” MPs or MPPs. Get them in the classroom and don’t describe what you do, defend your [party's] positions. Students would have to be informed on the issues and be able to intelligently ask questions. Will do this for sure next semester with my FFP.
- Democracy boot camp – This was run by the StudentVote people, but I didn’t participate. From the brief snippets of info that I got I see it as a one day all inclusive bombardment of our political system including panel discussions with representatives from the parties. I like this idea. I think students can get involved and maybe run one for a feeder school, or maybe multiple feeder schools, if not our school. Heck, we could invite parents and the community. Lots of potential with this one, though right now, many random thoughts.
On top of all the discussion we had a fantastic guest speaker of Alison Loat (@alisonloat) from Samara. This organization looks at civic engagement and is a “research, think-tank” (take a gander at some of the reports they’ve published). She spoke that the civically disengaged aren’t necessarily apathetic, but often they have negative experience with bureaucracy.
How can we move politics closer to democracy?
A few questions I had going in and coming out of the day:
1. How do we keep students (heck, everyone) engaged in matters of the state between elections?
2. What “simulations” / “games” / “events” are there for students to participate in meaningful authentic ways with parliament?
3. How can we make citizenship, both digital and otherwise, part of all curriculums, not just that in Grade 10 civics?
4. Does StudentVote really work? Does it really make them voters in the future?
The truth is, I’m not a civics teacher. I teach it as an element of the Futures Forum Project, but it’s not my baby. Being civically engaged and an advocate for our civic rights and responsibilities is my thing.
How do we create meaningful, authentic learning opportunities for our students and allow them to experience success/ownership of the direction of our country/province/city? How do we include them in our community?
My other line of thinking is for a possible follow-up post, but here a few quick random thoughts:
- (1)The professional development was geared towards helping this non-profit organization. How does this effect teacher engagement on a Saturday? When professional development (or any learning) has a clear and direct goal are people more inclined to over-engage? Is that possible?
- (2)The consultation was also “paid”. We each got money for showing up. How does that affect the commitment to professional development? How would have the turnout/engagement been different?
- It was difficult to determine the hierarchy of the group. Sure, there was the organization who was “leading” the discussions, but it was a flat organization. How did this affect people’s willingness to share?
- StudentVote was open to back channelling, yet it didn’t really happen. How could this have enabled more sharing? What is our hesitation? Are these the people to start that push with?
- If a teacher is engaged in one element of school life (civics, elections, politics, sports, drama, etc.) are they less effective in other venues? Should we promote teacher specialization or breadth learning?
This blog is all over the place, I know. There are so many good, creative thoughts that came out of the day for me and I feel like this is the way I need to express them. Hope it is readable.
It would be a long way from Sunday to Wednesday. We were 19 students, 4 supervisors, 10 canoes, 35 kilometres, 7 portages, 1 experience.
We set out.
We left it all behind. A complete escape into ourselves. Our own energy transformed into movement.
As the black flies gathered, so too did the expressions of transformations.
For many of these students who travelled the rivers and lakes, it was there first time setting course in this manner. Sure some of them had camped, but “really pansy camping,” as one of the boys told me. Few of them had left their security behind and had ever left themselves so vulnerable. And it showed.
A student who is known for being “the tough guy” who many teachers ‘warned me’ about before the trip, often asked for guidance and support. He was left in situations unfamiliar, where he asked for help to set up his tents, help to pry a few leeches from his feet, and he was left to talk openly about his relationship with his father.
Typical social hierarchies never left when nature is involved. And sure enough, on the last day, after battling the high winds and very precarious paddling, it was the entire group of 23 people who were hooting and hollering as we each found our own success.
The trip was magnificent.
It made me reflect on how I respond and react to fearful situations, like the student who stood on the dock half-way through a tough paddle uttering expletives, refusing to get back in the boat. His anger was his method of dealing with his fear. After letting him bluster, he got back into the canoe and championed on. Do I put my back up when I’m confronted by my fears and when I take a risk? Are students’ reactions to school-related fears met with discipline, rather than understanding?
It made me reflect on time and space. Giving ourselves the time to connect with each other, away from social norms, allowed many to explore parts of themselves that are often kept hidden. You can’t hide yourself in the trivialities and mundane nature of the day to day when you are disconnected. You must reveal parts of yourself. And, it is okay.
Ultimately, after four days of hard work, paddling against a fierce wind into white-capped seas, each student walked out transformed from the experience. Some humbled, some strengthened, some softer, some more connected, this was learning at its finest.
The nature of transformation is that you can often find it in nature.
I believe that classroom culture is of the utmost importance. It defines the learning. Some people would argue that classroom culture is determined within the first week. Some say, “you must set it early.” I tend to disagree.
Classroom culture in my estimation is constantly in flux. Events that happen within the context continually change culture. I think surprise is one of the most powerful tools of classroom culture.
Although routine is important to a student’s ability to deal with the ‘learning’ work, the unease of not knowing what will happen raises awareness and I believe engagement.
This speaks to the idea that lessons should not be planned weeks in advance. Not for the reason that you might not get through the material, but because surprise is as powerful for the teacher as it is for the student. Surprise lets teachers be in the moment.
Sometimes the surprise comes when a student who thinks he’s going to be in trouble finds the teacher laughing alongside him.
Sometimes the surprise comes when the expectation is altered mid-stream.
Sometimes the surprise is nothing but a change in the routine.
I think by allowing for surprise, using surprise, and maintaining the will to be surprised, classroom culture will be rich, trusting and effective for learning.
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