How to Encourage Active Citizenship During an Election and Pandemic

Remember you are teaching students, not a curriculum

McGraw Hill
Oct 23 · 6 min read

By Ryan Fan, Special Education Teacher in Baltimore, Maryland

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As a 9th-grade Special Education Teacher in Baltimore City, I have had some hard conversations with my students recently.

Recently, a bus driver got shot and killed about five blocks from where I live after a confrontation with a passenger. In Baltimore, at the very beginning of our school year, a 14-year-old got shot and killed. It happened in the area where my students live, and one of my students, who knew the kid, made sure to correct the news report:

“He wasn’t 14. He was 15.”

Every start of the class, we talk about current events to encourage active citizenship. I’ll mention the latest Trump news or coronavirus news, and much of the news will ring hollow to a disengaged group of students. I’m talking national news, while my students are talking local — where they often hear the news is Instagram. In Baltimore, their favorite place to get the news is an Instagram page called Murder Ink, which documents much of the local crime and killings.

Students Must Care About Civic Engagement

When I think about how to encourage active citizenship during election season, and especially during the tumultuous time of the pandemic, my students teach me as much as I teach them. What they perceive as distant really matters — like Donald Trump’s Supreme Court pick, the election, and the latest news surrounding COVID.

I struggle frequently to apply what seems so distant to their lives, and still I have to try — not only because it’s in the curriculum or my lesson plan, but because active citizenship does have implications for their lives.

Currently, my students and I are reading a book called Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, a bildungsroman about a young girl’s coming of age story during Iran’s Islamic Revolution. I have personally struggled to connect what’s going on in the book to my students’ own lives growing up in inner-city Baltimore. However, it’s gone better than expected — in the early stages of the book, which cover the first half of the Islamic Revolution, there are many protests against the ruler of Iran that are cracked down upon brutally. My students and I have connected those protests to protests going on today in America, especially following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Jacob Blake.

According to Suzie Boss at Edutopia, students in America need to understand their role in democracy. According to Boss, projects are a great way to get students to understand their role in citizenship.

While many tout the importance of voting, the reality is many students can’t vote right now. And we’re also living through a pandemic, so opportunities for civic engagement are limited in the virtual setting — at least for me.

Start with Digital Citizenship

Active citizenship may look like digital citizenship. According to Buchholz et al. at the Journal for Adolescent Adult Literature, digital citizenship during COVID is difficult, but possible. Using social media is one step towards promoting citizenship — hashtags have promoted limiting the spread of the pandemic.

But Buchholz and the authors go even deeper — they propose many practical steps. One of these steps includes the classroom invitation — students should work in small groups, possibly through Zoom breakout rooms, to discuss and jot notes in response to questions. The authors put a picture of USDA food deserts in the paper, with scaffolded questions and a question build to first get students to comprehend, but next to get students to think deeply about the question.

“Digital citizenship includes evaluating multimodal texts on the move and making meaning by positioning texts alongside other texts,” Buchholz et al. say.

Above all, the authors stress that digital citizenship involves critical and collaborative thinking. Doing notice and wonder tasks of a current events topic is one thing, but constructive discourse in the classroom is another. With 2020 being particularly a contentious time for discourse, it’s important to keep discourse not only civil but constructive. Students learn from other people’s experiences and must show sensitivity to other students who are facing different challenges.

Through social media, teachers should also emphasize hashtags and social media platforms that have a big impact on events in the community — and utilize social media as much as possible to reach kids. I and many of my peers keep teacher Instagram pages to reach students, and social media pages are a great way to sustain community even in a virtual setting.

One teacher surveyed in the paper, Ms. Borders, acknowledges the difficulty of excessive screen time to not only students, but to teachers, too. Borders includes differentiated assignments for students to be able to complete projects in print format so screen time isn’t so much of an issue.

Connect to Current Events

For my self-contained English class, I review current events in the local news and national news every day for our welcoming ritual for improving student social awareness. These are our social-emotional learning rituals, and it’s important to not only incorporate the events, but keep student voice in mind. What do students feel about Donald Trump’s diagnosis with the coronavirus? What do they feel about the latest event in the community? How do they feel about the current situation with school reopening?

Encouraging active citizenship in the digital setting has not been easy, but for me, it’s important to keep a growth mindset.

Virtual learning and engaging students in the current events of our tumultuous world has been more engaging and far better executed than the spring — when I would have many classes where no students logged on. Now, I consistently have two-thirds of my students logged on and be engaged throughout the whole class.

Adapt, Adapt, Adapt

The last note I want to end on is the importance of being able to adapt. I have a curriculum that hasn’t taken into account the pandemic, lockdowns, and civil unrest of the past seven months. As a second-year teacher, I am still relatively inexperienced, but I’m much better at going off script and adapting a lesson to what works and what engages the students than rigidly following the curriculum. I wish I knew this during my first year, but I am teaching students, not a curriculum. Encouraging active citizenship during virtual learning requires being similarly adaptable and resilient.

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Ryan Fan is a believer, Baltimore City Special Education teacher, and a 2:40 marathon runner. He’s a diehard fan of “The Wire,” God’s gift to the Earth. You can email him at ryanfan17@gmail.com

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To be reminded why your work is so very important and for more stories and advice, visit our collection of teacher perspectives at The Art of Teaching.

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We apply the science of learning to create innovative educational solutions and content to improve outcomes from K-20 and beyond.

Inspired Ideas

Resources, ideas, and stories for PreK-12 educators. We focus on learning science, educational equity, social and emotional learning, and evidence-based teaching strategies. Be sure to check out The Art of Teaching Project, our guest blogging platform for all educators.

McGraw Hill

Written by

We apply the science of learning to create innovative educational solutions and content to improve outcomes from K-20 and beyond.

Inspired Ideas

Resources, ideas, and stories for PreK-12 educators. We focus on learning science, educational equity, social and emotional learning, and evidence-based teaching strategies. Be sure to check out The Art of Teaching Project, our guest blogging platform for all educators.

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