Teaching Habits for Democracy
By Tyler Pare, 8th Grade American History Teacher
Writing in 1788, in favor of America’s experimentation with self-government, James Madison posited,
“[a] dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”
By advancing this observation, Madison was keenly aware of the two pillars that were needed for the establishment and perpetuation of democracy in America. That is, the democratic experiment that America formulated would thrive or perish upon the strength of its government’s institutions and the habits of the people that these institutions were established to govern.
While lessons and classroom activities in the K-12 environment about our three branches of government, the Constitution, and our rights and responsibilities are plentiful and well constructed, another type of civic education is however needed to bolster our experiment in self-government. This type of civic education is the type that Madison presupposed and predicated his drafting of the Constitution on during the Convention of 1787.
That is, a civic education that forms within its citizenry the democratic habits needed to make the American experiment in self-government not only successful but to prove such a government was even possible.
Equip Students with Strategies to Stay Informed
During Madison’s time, the American experiment in self-government was still in its incipient form and many Americans and the politicians that served them in government struggled with the idea of how to make democracy stand alone without the help of a noble class or constant violent revolution. Needless to say, the democratic habits Madison wanted American citizens to form were a long while off.
Though we are over 230 years separated from the writing of the Constitution, the thoughts of Madison bear consideration in the modern world if we as educators are to prepare students as they graduate from our institutions and become voting members of society. Consequently, there is one habit of self-government that Madison stressed which is most significant for our students in a world of increasing information overload. That is: stay informed and consume knowledge to govern ignorance. While simple sounding enough, this can be a significant challenge today for most of our students due to the ways they intake information through social media and the amount of information they consume or do not consume on a daily basis.
While there is a good chance that we will not be able to break the dependency our students have on social media and their “tech,” what we can do is equip them with a habit-forming strategy to process information so that they may become curious, discerning, and responsibly active citizens. The very type of civic habits we need to perpetuate our experiment in self-government ad infinitum.
Teach Literacy & Writing as Civic Engagement
The most efficient and fruitful way we can foster this type of citizen is through teaching literacy and writing as forms of civic education.
The teaching of literacy and writing naturally lend themselves to the establishment of the habit of staying informed. When being taught literacy and writing techniques, students naturally learn to increase their neuroplasticity and come to terms with information they did not know nor originally understand.
In my classroom, I have leaned into this natural propensity to teaching literacy and writing and have developed my own scaffolding, outlines, rubrics, and peer-review checklists to maximize my students’ learning potential and habit formation.
Foster Argumentation Skills
All of the writing lessons in my eighth-grade American History class are presented to students as opportunities to sharpen their argumentation skills when faced with new and sometimes daunting information and topics. I am clear with my students from the first day of my class that I am not concerned about what they argue for, but how they learn to argue and engage large volumes of text and information. This is a critical point for my students to grasp. By setting the stage for learning this way, students are not worried about voicing their opinions, nor are they worried about being ridiculed for their opinions. Rather, they focus on gaining the best critical insights into the topics and questions that we cover about American history. It is in this vein that I hope students transfer the writing and literacy habits they learn while in my class to the unfathomable amount of information they are confronted with in the world today.
Scaffold Writing Exercises
One of the scaffolds I use in hopes of enabling students to develop lifelong skills, stay informed, and assess the information they are presented with is the use of a standard writing guide. This writing guide uses the MEAL format approach to constructing paragraphs. That is, each paragraph starts with the main idea followed by evidence, analysis, and a link (concluding) sentence. This approach to teaching writing requires students to focus the majority of a given paragraph or paper on evidence and analysis of evidence to substantiate their opinion. By learning how to write this way, students learn the importance of backing opinions with evidence and analysis regardless of what they are arguing for because by approaching thinking and writing this way, they must come to terms with the limits and foundations of their opinions. Hopefully, this approach will start to build the nascent habit of basing their future political opinions on sober, reasoned arguments to improve our impoverished political rhetoric as a country still experimenting with self-government.
This type of teaching does not just have to fall to English Language Arts and Social Studies teachers; it can and should be a school-wide approach. If we are serious about giving our students and democracy the best chance they both need to thrive, we must consider every teacher as a teacher of literacy and writing.
Meeting the Challenge of Civic Education
The political experiment that the summer of 1787 set into motion will struggle to endure if we leave civic education to just the memorization of our government structures and the number of Representatives we have in congress. While such institutional knowledge is necessary for understanding the mechanics of our government, it is an incomplete approach. Democracy is a living, breathing form of government that requires the formation of civic habits in its citizenry if it is to thrive and maximize liberty for all.
The French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in the early 1830s to examine our prison system and in doing so made some astounding observations about the state of our experimentation with self-government. While Tocqueville has been categorized by some as a friendly critic of democracy, he remarked with wonderment at the democratic habits that had formed in America in such a short timespan as contrasted with European democracies. He stressed the success of American self-government was predicated on the civic habits its citizens formed and not necessarily on its governmental institutions alone.
As educators, we should strive to draw out such habits from our students. If we can do this, we will have met the challenge with civic education that Madison saw at the onset of our democracy and will furthermore act as good stewards for our students as they gain hold of the reins of our still-developing experiment.
Tyler Pare is in his 10th year as a history teacher and currently works at Hollis Brookline Middle School in Hollis, New Hampshire. Passionate about civic education, Tyler enjoys helping students make connections between their lives and American history. Always looking for his next academic journey, Tyler has begun to focus his career on making sure students understand the importance of their role as the next generation that will have their say in the actions of American government.
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