Teacher Control and Letting Go in Civic Action Projects

When students choose issues of importance to them and make their own decisions about how to proceed on civic action projects, they become highly engaged in the work. But this can be challenging for teachers — what if the students bog down, get stuck, or simply don’t do the work? Letting go is not easy, and the kids don’t always appear to act responsibly. Further, there are skills and kinds of knowledge they need.

So how can a teacher thoughtfully balance between instructing and letting students proceed on their own? This blog has discussed the question before, but this is an important part of teachers’ expertise, so here are more ideas.

Using structured lessons. If you’re a teacher who prefers clearly structured activities, you can still incorporate plenty of student choice and initiative. The Mikva Challenge organization offers a complete set of lessons, Issues to Action, for this (it does cost). One example of how their curriculum strikes a balance is the lesson on mapping community resources and challenges:

  • The lesson begins with a “quick write,” “I dream a community . . .”
  • The students then use charts (provided in the curriculum) to investigate and fill in the many types of organizations, services, people, and conditions in their community. The curriculum offers a variety of ways for the teacher to structure this process.
  • The information thus provides a basis for students to make an informed and thoughtful decision about the issue they will address.

Providing skill lessons based on student decisions. If you’re a teacher who is comfortable improvising, you can arrange for focus lessons as the need arises. One teacher who has done this called it “chasing the dragon.”

  • Example: students decide they want to visually document a problem — deteriorating physical conditions in their neighborhood, or dangerous intersections on kids’ way to and from school. They may need lessons in effective use of still or video photography, provided by a colleague of yours with that expertise.
  • Or perhaps students wish to write letters to their local aldermanic board. You want them to think carefully about the arguments they employ, so it’s time for a lesson on using strong evidence in presenting their case. But the issue and decisions on the action, proposed solutions, and the arguments to present are still theirs.

Letting students work to solve challenges — up to a point. This is when teachers use their best professional judgment.

  • On one hand, if we solve every problem students encounter, they don’t get the experience of solving it themselves. They have less ownership of the work, remain more dependent on us and don’t discover their own abilities. Meanwhile, teachers who guide this kind of learning often find that students use their knowledge of the school or community to find surprising and creative solutions.
  • On the other hand, we don’t want our students to grow so bogged down and discouraged that they give up or tune out. So there are a variety of strategies for intervening. One is to ask questions that invite further thinking. Ex.: “So how can you find someone outside our classroom who can give you more information on your problem?” Another is to bring in outside experts. In one school, the teachers invited leaders of local community organizations to visit and talk about how they deal with roadblocks and discouragement. This was very inspiring for the students.

Insuring that everyone participates. No teaching strategy is perfect or guaranteed to work with every student. So while most young people get deeply engaged in civic action projects, there may still be some who are more hesitant, particularly when the initiative is their own rather than dependent on a teacher’s demands. We do need strategies to get some young people moving. All teachers have these, but here are a few of our favorites:

  • Self-reflection. Students write in journals or exit slips to discuss their own effort, and if it’s flagging, what help they need, and how they can work to get more involved.
  • Team problem-solving. This is not about blaming a disengaged individual, but discussing what everyone can do to help their fellow student step up. Perhaps job assignments need to be changed, or a partnering arrangement made. If this is happening for more than a student or two, a lesson/activity on teamwork may be in order.
  • Which brings up team-building. Smart teachers address engagement proactively by using team-building activities to cement small-group or whole-class working relationships, so students work well together from the start. A good source of these on the Web: http://www.cre8iowa.org/2014/10/01/team-building-activities/ . Or see Harvey Daniels and Nancy Steineke’s Teaching the Social Skills of Academic Interaction.

Hope this helps! Let us know how you are helping your students to take control of their own civic effort.