Public testimony on the importance of Action Civics education, from Robert DeLossa, Social Studies department chair at Lowell High School

Testimony highlights best practices for teaching action civics

On June 13, 2017, Robert DeLossa, the Academic Chair for Social Studies at Lowell High School, submitted Public Testimony to the State of Massachusetts. Here he emphasizes the importance of civics education and the critical role it plays in preparing young people to be active and informed participants in our democracy. Read on!


Members of the Joint Committee on Education
Senators Sonia Chang-Diaz, Chair, and Patricia D. Jehlen, Vice-Chair
Representatives Alice Hanlon Peisch, Chair, Chris Walsh, Vice-Chair

Dear Colleagues,

I am writing with regard to the public forum today with regard to civics education in the Commonwealth. I cannot attend, due to commitments in my school, however, I would like to offer the following written testimony for today’s hearing. Background information on our school, our civics program and building-wide efforts, and my personal history that informs my remarks — all are included after the remarks in order to foster their contextual understanding. These comments are my own and do not reflect the official positions of either Lowell Public Schools or Lowell High School.

Observations

A. The core reason for engaged, experiential civics should be to equitably promote student agency and voice in the civic arena so that students can be responsible citizens of their local, state, and national communities.

  1. “Agency” here means the ability to influence communal affairs through participation in civic structures. “Voice” means the ability not only to cogently express oneself, but also to have the skills to ensure that one’s expressions are received in a way that promotes agency.
  2. The American “nation” and American “citizenry” both have been fluid in our history. Any civics program must recognize this fluidity and the ongoing expansion of those who constitute the nation and are able to exercise rights as citizens. For this reason, the promotion of civic agency and voice — the attributes of membership in the nation and basic rights of citizens under the First Amendment — should be primary considerations in Commonwealth legislation around civics.
  3. This core aim in civics education allows for the incorporation of previously marginalized groups to expand and enrich the citizenry of schools, municipalities, our Commonwealth, and the nation.
  4. It is important that civics programs, through their instructional practice, should reinforce and expand students’ ability to express themselves and make change in the civic arena. This requires experiential learning as a methodology.

B. Civics should not be seen as separate from “American/U.S., Commonwealth, or local history” or from the core goals of English Language Arts programs.

  1. Although history teachers tend to be anchored in facts and associated content, experiential civics creates a context and rationale for love of country, Commonwealth, and community, which in turn fosters the retention of those facts and associated content.
  2. Without the ability to put a student’s self into the narrative of history — which civic engagement does — there is no viable reason, outside of rote memorization, for every student to remember facts on, e.g., Constitutional rule of law or the reasons the prompted the Civil War. There are other reasons (e.g., love of facts, the romance of a certain parts of history, admiration for individual figures) to retain the facts of history, but for all students, the inability to see themselves in the narrative of history can be a major hindrance to retaining and cherishing the facts of our communities’, Commonwealth’s, and nation’s foundations, structure, and history.
  3. Although there is language about civics across the disciplines in some legislative proposals, a conscious push for civics in the humanities (that is, English Language Arts and Social Studies) makes the most sense.
  4. Legislation of civics should be synchronized with U.S. and Massachusetts history and ELA requirements so that one does not act in detriment to the other. There is a limited amount of social studies and ELA time in schools’ curricular budgets. Social studies teachers generally still tend to think in terms of content. ELA teachers will rightly be stressed about the potential impact of civics education on student preparation for MCAS, MCAS 2.0, or PARCC. Legislation should be cognizant of this in its mandates.
  5. If there is a desire is to see civics across the disciplines, it makes sense for legislation to establish a time-frame, e.g., five years, to promote civics education in the humanities disciplines and then to expand to STEM.

C. Experiential, action-based civics requires a public-private partnership. It also requires guidance and advisors for those new to action-based civics.

  1. The Lowell experience has shown that “buy-in” from community organizations, local law enforcement, local municipal government, the school district, State House representatives, and local businesses all are necessary, since all contribute to the civic processes that make communities, the Commonwealth, and the country run.
  2. The Lowell experience shows that teachers may need significant hands-on guidance in facilitating action-civics education, since the skills necessary for successful coaching and facilitation of action civics are not those commonly taught in education preparation programs.

D. A civics program works best when it is tied explicitly to building culture and instructional practice.

  1. At Lowell, our civics program has been developed in conjunction with the incorporation of a student-led school cultural competency committee that acts as an ombudsman and advisor to the head of school regarding on-the-ground school climate issues. This has created an in-house civic governing body that can act to address issues relating to the operation of the school and its impact on students as citizens of the school. In the first year, we already have had synergies between our Generation Citizen program (our civics curriculum), our traditional student representative bodies (student council, senior class officers), and our new school cultural competency committee. This has given students multiple avenues to give voice to, and influence, the climate and operation of the school.
  2. Active, experiential civics requires that instructional practice be “horizontal,” that is, that the teacher be a facilitator and guide, not a lecturer in front of the classroom. Traditional instructional practice was what is known as “direct instruction” — lecturing in front of students and having them memorize facts from textbooks and a variety of secondary and primary sources. If this type of traditional social studies teaching had facilitated the growth of strong civic engagement, the present legislative push would not have been necessary.
  3. Many students at Lowell have been drawn to bias-based concerns in their action civics work. This not only allows students to actively address issues of central concern to them, but it has allowed the school to better understand the climate of the school from our students’ perspectives. This further invests students with a sense of communalism, rather than antagonism, in issues of school climate.

E. Action civics can be an effective part of school curricula from at least the middle school.

  1. Lowell’s experience so far is that 8th-grade students are as successful in our civics program as our 10th-grade students.
  2. An action civics program acts in effective ways to promote verticalization of social studies programs in large districts like Lowell.
  3. The reinforcement of several iterations of the same action civics program reinforces critical citizenship skills before students graduate from high school.

F. Elements of traditionally expressed civics — governance structures, the Constitution and Amendments, flag etiquette, etc. — can be interwoven with action civics programs.

  1. At the end of our first full year and full-program action civics at LHS, our social studies teachers devised a plan whereby we will start the survey of US History with the Constitution and rule-of-law, and then work on Generation Citizen, while engaging all of the elements of traditional civics instruction. As a group, they felt that this approach would allow the action civics program to complement, rather than compete with, the material that we teach according to the MA Frameworks for Social Studies.
  2. A central difficulty of traditional civics has been that it creates a narrative that does not feel authentic to groups that have been historically marginalized and excluded from the full benefits of membership in the nation and citizenship. The act of combining action civics with traditional civics alleviates that problem.

Background information:

My position is Academic Chair for Social Studies at Lowell High School (hereafter, LHS). We have a permanent faculty of 31 social studies teachers at LHS in three departments: Social Studies, English Language Learner, and Special Education. In the past two years we have participated in the action-civics program Generation Citizen. This past year we went to scale with the program, embedding it in a U.S. history course that will ensure that all students graduating from LHS will have experienced an action-civics program during their tenure at LHS. Under the current administration at LHS of Brian Martin, Head of School, and Amy McLeod, Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment, we also have worked diligently to ensure that our curricular offerings and extra-curricular opportunities strengthen student agency and voice in the building. Finally, due to a bias-based event that took place at LHS in AY2016, we created an oversight and advisory body (the Standing Committee on Cultural Competency) at LHS to monitor school cultural competency and report to the Head of School with observations and recommendations. Again, key to our response to a serious bias-based event has been an emphasis on student agency and voice. Equitable empowerment of students through public education is the calling card of both Mr. Martin and Ms. McLeod.

LHS is the second largest high school in the Commonwealth. The student body, in terms of ethnicity and/or origin, is approximately 30% Southeast-Asian and South Asian, 10% African and African-American, 28% Hispanic, 30% European-American, and 2% other groups that includes an increasingly large Middle Eastern population. Students in our schools have over 60 different countries of birth and speak over 50 languages at home. Furthermore, we are socio-economically diverse, representing radically different neighborhoods within the city of Lowell. Finally, LHS currently has the largest Generation Citizen program in the country.

If the Committee has not been in touch with Dr. Peter Levine of Tufts University, who is germane to all these issues and has written with great acuity about them, I strongly urge you to do so.


Students present at Massachusetts Civics Day, Fall 2016
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