Trayvon Martin’s death five years ago ripped through my classroom. My sociology and government students were completely baffled; they could not understand how a kid who seemed like a student they may encounter in our schools’ hallways could be murdered for walking home alone. My students’ frustration and yearning for context and understanding started a personal dedication in my own classroom. At the end of each year, after all other instruction is over I devote the final month and a half to the study of race relations in America. Key to this unit is a detailed analysis of American history and politics that requires students to examine their conceptions of democratic values such as majority rule, minority rights, rule of law, limited government, equality, and liberty.
Because the discussions of race and class in America today is transectional and relevant, this unit is necessary. I have experienced my own struggles in doing the research, writing, and sometimes even being white and teaching this when I have no relevant life experiences to inform my instruction. I know what I know through text and talk... and talking to my own students (of all races, religions, classes, genders, etc.) has been instructive for myself. These experiences, in turn, influence the unit.
As the narrative has evolved over the past five years, my unit has grown. Originally it examined just the fallout from events like Trayvon and Michael Brown. Responding to my own students’ questions and reflecting on their own level of understanding, I decided to broaden the scope to examine the entirety of identity politics in America. In the summer of 2015, I was introduced to the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) and Common Core C3 Framework and Inquiry Arc. The framework requirements, particularly the requirement for informed action – and the opportunity for students to share their experiences with the community – was the perfect design for this unit.
Students examine how history, law, politics, economics, and geography shapes the choices they make and the communities in which they live. I feel as though this unit helps my senior government students understand the reasons why and to what extent equality of access for all is elusive in our community, our state, and our nation despite participation in a democratic society. This is particularly important after the election of 2017, in which race and class became a seminal issue in national voting patterns. My students live in a very multicultural and economically diverse school district, in which students have the opportunity to interact and learn through personal relationships about these challenges. They struggle to understand these issues from a national perspective.
Project-Based Learning is incorporated through the several out-of-class assignments students select from, which include options for learners of all types. These options require research beyond what they are exposed to in class and are expressed in some form of writing that requires college-level non-fiction writing skills and advanced reasoning. In addition to these research and writing skills, it also grants a level of choice to my students in how they want to present their learning, from reading and research to some original composition in the fine arts. By structuring my unit on a culminating activity that allows student choice, my students are finding ways to interface with race and class while engaging community leaders from our backyard to the nation’s Capital.
In previous years, students responded most profoundly to the “privilege chalk” component of the unit, which happens on the first day and asks students to reflect upon the concept of privilege. They most strongly correlate privilege to material goods, and fail to understand the correlation between the compounding effect of access and privilege. Especially difficult to see without discussion is that access to good health care and food sources; thriving, well-resourced, and safe neighborhoods; and quality education lead to successful careers and therefore inter- and intra-generational wealth accumulation.
Class-time is dedicated to examining race and class through the lens of history, civics, economics, and geography, a key component to the C-3 inquiry arc. Each day in class has a theme encapsulated in a supporting question, and requires examination of primary and secondary source documents, including narratives, laws, histories, databases, maps, tables, movies, and audio files. These documents reflect supporting questions that investigate components of the unit’s compelling question, Is Diversity and Equality Possible in America? Discussion explores how scarcity of access impacted different races and classes through American history, as well as how society was structured to promote the benefits of opportunity for limited classes in America. At the end of the class time, students have to reflect with a summative performance task (a short essay) that requires them to answer What will it take to find racial equality in America?
Students work outside of class to come up with some form of an informed action as the final step in the Common Core C-3 curriculum model. Their projects (which also reflect a problem-based learning format) have to reflect an answer to the C-3 compelling question, What will it take to find racial equality in America. This requires them continuing the exploration of themes in the unit in a way that complements their personal policy interests, as well as observing race and/or class themes beyond the curriculum. Here, curriculum highlighting the successes and setbacks of the African American civil rights movement can either be explored more fully or be used to juxtapose with other races or classes in American history. Students have options presented to them for further study that require them to apply what they have learned in class to their topic. This informed action ranges from researching a policy option presented in a non-fiction narrative to visiting the Smithsonian African American History Museum to creating some kind of media presentation of local, state, or national policy issues. Students are encouraged to take their policy recommendations to elected officials like the City Mayor, State Delegates and Senators, and Representatives and Senators in the United States Congress. Engaging elected officials with concrete policy recommendations enables them to connect what they learned in their US Government class to policy issues that are meaningful to them. The impact of direct and personal application of learning is meant to take any negative feelings students may have about scarcity of access in America and plug it into a means to a solution.
In the past, students have shared an appreciation for a deeper understanding of privilege, access, and equality. They are able to attribute problems with equality in America to scarcity of resources, limited avenues for access, and relative signs of privilege that fluctuate from community to community. Discussions and reflections show more consciousness about persistent problems in communities that are historically, geographically, economically, and politically underprivileged and are able to begin to examine solutions to these problems on small and large scales. For instance, students are more conscious of considerable hurdles for the underprivileged like food deserts, discriminatory and predatory housing policies, and limiting access of mass transportation into affluent neighborhoods.
Walking through this unit with my students is an incredibly rewarding experience. Discussions are respectful during class time, allowing students the opportunity to ask questions they have never been able to ask. Students who have never participated in class discussions have engaged me privately to learn more. Students who live with scarcity of access are able to find their voice and their audience is more able to listen. Conversations frequently circle around identifying dog-whistle politics, civic engagement of their community to have these conversations in a broader context, and even the empowerment of students to continue these studies in college. What I feel makes this unit the most successful is the discussion of scarcity of access as it relates to class, as well. The experience of other minority groups, religious minorities, women, and low-income white communities is connected to the history of Black America in a way that students are able to empathize and evaluate.
The benefit of this unit is that students are given opportunities to apply their content knowledge on our federal governmental structure, think critically about our collective history, identify policy areas that are meaningful to them, make recommendations to elected officials within our communities, make connections with diverse groups within our communities, and seek common ground that acts as a catalyst for the creation of a community and a nation that they want to live in.
I want to start by thanking Mr. Snowden and Mr. Greenwald for their uncompromising dedication to giving the NSA violations air time and transparency. I wanted to share some of the most important things I have learned from this book bef...
tagged: nerdcation and to-read
tagged: nerdcation and to-read
tagged: nerdcation and to-read
by Bill Bishop
tagged: nerdcation and to-read
I lovgov. LOVE IT! I love teaching government, learning about it, debating, discussing, asking questions about government. And not the standard boiler plate questions, but the hard ones that are NOT in the books.