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Students Share Insights on Teaching Current Events, Service, and More

This post, part of our STUDENT VOICES series, is long; but once you read it, you will see why. Educators: Please share comments on the students' ideas below.

Last week, sandwiched between the midterm elections and Veteran’s Day was the annual United States Senate Youth Program, (USSYP) a chance for some of the best and brightest in Utah schools to come together and compete for one of two $10,000 unrestricted post-secondary scholarship, and an all-expenses-paid week in Washington featuring leaders and dignitaries. I joke with these students that the day is a little like American Idol for civics. These students are devoted to service, know a great deal about the issues of the day, and are outstanding exemplars of the end goals of Utah's Portrait of a Graduate.

In Utah we do USSYP in a unique way, asking students to submit a portfolio of their service, academic successes, and leadership, and then invite them to the Utah Capitol where they write an essay on demand, then engage in small roundtable conversations, and participate in extemporaneous speeches about randomly assigned current topics.

These students EAT THIS DAY UP. Their phones are nowhere in sight. They love the chance to learn from and listen to one another, and they cheered the selected finalists with a genuine affection and gusto.

But they also had sage words of advice. Their essay prompt elicited fresh ideas about how to encourage more civic awareness in schools (see below). They had, for example, a lot to say about the need for more service opportunities. Their timing is just right: The Utah Civic Learning Collaborative will be holding a December 7 webinar (register by December 1) on academic service-learning for educators.

But another huge takeaway is a desire on the part of many USSYP students to engage in discussion of current events. Not necessarily a debate, although these students are often fans of debate classes. But they see a real need for upping our game when it comes to discussing current events in the classroom.

Of course, this comes at a particularly fraught time for all of us in education. Over the last year I worked with Judi Hilman, my co-facilitator of the UCLC, to conduct a listening tour with educators across the state regarding civics education (see REPORT.)

There are a number of key takeaways found in the report, but one of the central findings is that educators need clarity, support, and guidance on teaching current events.

Please notice that I am not saying “sensitive topics” or “contentious issues” or “hard history” or any of the other terms you hear. Why use the term current events? Because teachers have taught current events since there were teachable moments. I would guess there was a classroom discussion somewhere about the unexpected death of President William Henry Harrison.

I am also using the term current events because by the very act of teaching current events, educators are helping students enter the free marketplace of ideas, and of course that means there are going to be contentious, sensitive, and difficult issues jockeying for position.

It is important, then, to remember:

  • Teaching current events is a long-held, traditional practice.

  • Teaching students the skills necessary for informed civil discourse is central to the civic mission of schools.

What, then is “new” about teaching current events?

I don’t think anyone can deny that the political “temperature” has been raised regarding teaching current events. Couple that with general confusion about what can and cannot be taught or what should or should not be taught; add to that the real worry that a current events discussion – often decontextualized -- can become an unintended viral moment, and you have an environment where it just seems easier to avoid teaching current events.

But one of my favorite sayings is “Teaching is easy if you don’t know how.”

It is undoubtedly easier to avoid teaching current events.

But avoidance does not prepare our students to engage civically in this Republic. Civic engagement requires us to lead out with respectful and productive classroom conversations. The USBE has a resource page devoted to this work that educators may find helpful. This recent article outlines one framework for the process, with multiple steps. It is a clear reminder that teaching is easy if you don’t know how, because there are so many things to take into account in order to get this right.

Civic education is defined by statute as the cultivation of informed, responsible participation in political life by competent citizens committed to the fundamental values and principles of representative democracy in Utah and the United States. Our academic standards support and reinforce this attention to civic education and the skills and dispositions necessary to engage in the hard work of responsible citizenship. Our Utah Portrait of a Graduate further emphasizes the need for respect, critical thinking, collaboration, and civic literacy – just to name a few of the ideal characteristics we aspire to in K-12 education.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and by filling that vacuum with clear communication, by clearly connecting academic outcomes to the study of current events, and communicating those outcomes to families and administrators, you will position your pedagogical decisions in a more defensible space.

I recently had the opportunity to speak at UVU. I said that school was fun for me, and that it ought to be fun for every kid. It ought to be a place of wild creativity and problem-solving, full of laughter and excitement and challenge.

And often it is. There are great examples everyday of outstanding education.

But lately that raised temperature I mentioned can make schools less likely to include discussion of current events.

In fact, I have been asked for the “list of topics” that are “off the table.”

There is no list.

There is guidance about how and when to engage in meaningful discussions, and there are academic standards to hew to, but there is no list.

The discussion of currents events is at the center of our work in social studies, not at the margins. We must continue to help students engage in civil discourse and problem solving.

It’s important to remember that robust civics education, including preparing students to be informed participants, is reaffirmed time and again in multiple ways...

  • At the Utah legislative level with HCR 15. This concurrent resolution emphasizing the importance of civics education included this language:

WHEREAS, Utah's students should be taught skills in constructive civil debate, critical thinking, media literacy, evaluating the credibility of sources, and recognizing the dangers of the dissemination of misinformation and sowing distrust in fundamental civic institutions.

  • With passage of a new ethnic studies bill. Senate Bill 244 provides fresh opportunity to expand the standards in our schools and make them more inclusive.

  • At the Utah State Board of Education level with R277-328. This board rule sets forth parameters and guard rails for teaching and professional learning around equity issues. This statement provides helpful clarification for discussions of current events:

R277-328-5. Rule Interpretation.

  1. No part of this rule shall be construed by an LEA or educator to:

(a) prohibit or ban discussions of events, ideas, attitudes, beliefs, or concepts, including those described in this rule, from the general sharing and participation in the marketplace of ideas fostered in a learning environment; and

(b) promote one ideology over another regarding a topic, including those described in this rule.

  • With the state board’s Portrait of a Graduate, which emphasizes civics, service, collaboration, critical thinking and problem solving, honesty, integrity and responsibility, creativity and innovation, among other things.

  • Within our own academic standards, and our emphasis on foundational practices for civic preparation.

  • And within the community. A solid majority of Utahns surveyed in a 2021 Civics Education study by the Sutherland institute found that “the top priorities for civics education include teaching students to sift through information and decide for themselves what to believe.”

As one teacher noted from our civics listening tour, “I’ve totally seen the crisis in faith in American institutions, but that is my whole purpose in being a teacher: to say you cannot give up on yourselves, you cannot give up on this world. You’re old enough to see the problems and there are many, but there’s still good in the world and we want you to be a part of that."

Please know that there are layers of support for helping students learn civics skills, including learning how to discuss and engage in civil dialogue about current events. Reach out to your LEA and administration for support and guidance, engage parents and families in the conversation, and of course follow best practices for neutrality and avoiding bias. If you desire more professional learning on facilitating difficult conversations, let your LEA know, or reach out to me, and we will provide professional learning opportunities as needed.

Finally, please enjoy fresh inspiration from the students' essays...

Excerpts from the Students' Essays

“If students felt more involved and that their opinion mattered, they would be more eager to engage civically.”

“Civic engagement is a skill, just like math or writing, so how can we expect students to be civically engaged if they have never been taught how?...From my own experience of organizing a service project and gathering volunteers from schools, I have found that there are a lot more students that want to give service and volunteers than I expected….considering the second part…staying informed and caring about current issues….I believe that the best way to do this would be to incorporate current events into school classes.”

“At my school we have lots of history classes we have to take, which is important…but I do not think it’s as important as learning about current topics and problems…there is only one class that covers this area and it is only a half year class. While this class is great and I’ve learned so much I believe students need more classes like this.’

“I don’t think that school should influence student’s political partisanship, but I do think it is a school’s duty to keep the students informed with current news, issues, and opportunities to be involved in the community…many students coming out of high school have little knowledge of political science. This makes them more subject to propaganda…schools [should] set up interactions with city board members…city mayor and other representatives…Schools and teachers could set up class community service activities.”

“Understanding current issues, actively participating through community service, and critically thinking to articulate your position and letting your voice be heard: This is a core value of the United States. Civic engagement must be taught to students over time, starting in kindergarten…civic engagement must be taught through action. Field trips can involve going to the polls on election day…or speaking to the local city council about an important issue…”

“Another way to increase civic engagement is to broaden the diversity of curriculum…for example, there is a deep Native American history…essential to understanding how far we’ve come as a state and as a country. By increasing curriculum about historically oppressed minorities…schools could increase empathy in their students and then they will want to use civic engagement to make the world a more equal place for everyone.”

“Have guests tell stories of their service…help keep the spirit of service alive…to get more students engaged in current issues, teachers may share about these things (issues) in class as unbiased as possible…or schools can hold events to spread awareness of certain events such as the war between Ukraine and Russia, the Black Lives Matter movement, the Stop Asian Hate movement and many others…schools should avoid making service events and…current events mandatory/homework. There is already a very negative stereotype surrounding homework in schools.”

“The first step in encouraging students is to educate them and raise awareness on the current issues our community is facing…provide resources in schools – a chance for the students to contribute. An example…would be the fundraiser done to raise money for kids with cancer.

“Civic connectedness is strained today by the polarization that exists in our country and community, and I believe the root cause is a dependency on social media…there is a constant bombardment on youth from fake individuals or communities that put up a façade to entice youth into the mindset that their lives are not what they could be…we need to tear down these phony barriers and tell them the truth and be transparent with them, because it can be difficult to decipher what is real and fake…If schools go directly to students with issues…students feel incentivized to engage in their community and connect with one another….and our country and community….can be, as President Ronald Reagan said “A beacon on a hill.”

“Educational institutions must use empirical examples to show students that the world of politics is not the distant land they imagine…schools should cooperate with political figures, host round table discussions with students, and empower them to realize their potential…teach students about our country and how its political, economic, and social systems operate…students who know much about civic engagement…may not choose their life around it…because they find the horrible partisanship of this country frightening…schools can do much…in all humanities classes [schools] must make a clear effort to objectively educate students on all sides of current issues and teach students to empathize with the other side…"

“The main thing that can be changed…is the social studies curriculum. What is not covered in these classes…is what is happening in the world around us. Students often have very little knowledge about current political events, such as midterm elections, political debates, local politics, or even how our government works as a whole….one of the best ways for us to get more civic involvement from high school students is to inform them, impartially, about what really goes on in our local and national governments…We should go over our local politicians ballots and voting history, and then maybe when we graduate and turn 18, and have the power – the duty – to vote, we will know how…if we shifted focus from the minute facts and numbers about things from the past, to what is actually happening today, we could make a difference.”

“The first way to encourage learning about anything is teaching why it matters…students need to be shown just what it means to be in government…give more students opportunities like Boys and Girls State, Senate Youth.”

“Teachers should inform their students about big days such as our midterm elections…I have not heard one teacher at my school even mention the midterm elections. This lack of educating the youth about important national days, events, and topics has led to a politically ignorant student body…I feel as though students are scared to explore the world of politics and debate because they fear conflict…It’s important to remember that we will not always agree, but that we are all human and have our own political autonomy…If we raise the level of respect that is given/received by people with opposing views, it makes the whole political atmosphere more welcoming and enjoyable….If we want to have a bright hope for the America of tomorrow, we must get our youth involved and educated.”

“Politics in the U.S. are extremely polarized…this is definitely a deterrent for many…who don’t want the possible ruining of relationships…engaging mock government and voting exercises definitely show how politics doesn’t need to be a reason to end a friendship or start a family feud.”

“Make information more accessible…news could be highlighted in a newsletter put together by current issues classes in each school…teachers could help students be civically engaged [with]daily conversations on current events. This would allow students a safe environment…students also need an easy way to begin serving.”

“The greatest thing a school can do to increase civic engagement is teach the impact…I’ve heard my friends say ‘I don’t care about politics because it doesn’t affect me’…When my best friend said that I was shocked…By teaching the personal impacts teachers would be teaching the need to care…we can increase civic connectedness by early voter registration drives…Election day should also be a holiday…Open political discourse can do more for students than any textbook ever could. In February I and many other high schoolers in Utah lobbied for a Utah house bill that would allow 16-17 year old students to vote for their school board. Although this bill didn’t pass, it would have increased civic engagement in people my age. Humans are creatures of habit, the earlier the habit of voting is instilled the greater effect it will have.’

“To incentivize civic participation, we need to give students greater opportunities to get involved…we have hosted politicians to speak to the student body and have even held a political debate between candidates…schools need to aid in the process of registering to vote…there needs to be a system where schools and teachers walk them through the process…similar to schools promoting FAFSA for college…we need better resources in the schools to receive information and get involved locally. I believe local government is going to play the biggest role.”

“Schools can better engage civic connectedness…by promoting a debate team…and directly incorporating current events into argumentative essays. Why not have them analyze a candidate of their choosing’s political ad or speech? Showcase how politicians have to budget and be financially smart. There are a plethora of ways…by just adjusting their amazing curriculum…teachers can promote service by asking students to write simple notes to one another…showing kids service is something simple and can be done anywhere and anytime…schools can show that being part of politics doesn’t have to be hard by doing mock trials or the legislative process”

“If a teacher preaches about voting, but when the time comes does not vote they are ultimately a hypocrite and need to rethink their values…schools need to promote the qualities they are seeking. This can be done by bringing in candidates that are running or have run for local, state, or national government…the school needs to be careful in not promoting its own biases…keep students informed on current issues and not shy away from controversial topics…have civil debates in the classroom…this will bring students away from polarization because they are able to communicate effectively.”

“Students need guidance on how to develop critical thinking skills…For example, lessons on credibility and source analysis are important…Teachers can implement argumentative essays on social issues, Socratic seminars discussions, and debates to foster a value of connection, service, and civic engagement.”

“Teachers should provide students with service projects that relate to a serious issue…Another way to encourage students civic engagement is to open talk and discuss current issues…effective discussions must take place for students to gain a deeper understanding of these topics…Lastly, students must be discouraged from groupthink.”

“Most high schools have things like NHS [National Honor Society], etc. but the key focus is merely about the hours spent doing this service. A better way is encouraging students to seek out service that can help the whole community and to focus more on why they are serving and how it helps others…involvement through youth city council…Another thing I think is so important is that we start incorporating more current events into our curriculum.”

“We must get students excited to learn….we have a weekly show and what if we had a little section explaining what’s going on around the students outside of school…the next step is engaging students in role play…we used to have sophomores run a town for a day and teach them basic lessons like how to vote…what if there were a competition like USSYP at the school level and more students could be given the opportunity to engage?”

“One way to increase civic engagement is to see if the Center for Advanced Professional Studies (CAPS) has a public policy option…Teachers, administrators, and counselors should be informed of these programs, like the Period Policy Project, Governor’s Youth Council, US Senate Youth, and LIA, so they can inform their students on ways they can get involved and make a change. Participating in programs like these has completely flipped my perspective and instilled in me a desire to become civically engaged.”

“Schools could teach civic engagement by making the election process for student council more like the real thing. Students could register to vote, get a mail-in ballot, and drop that ballot in a drop box. Other students could volunteer to be election workers.”

“Teachers and schools could start by giving their students resources and just answering questions. There are so many people that have questions that get shut down because the school doesn’t want to push an opinion or teachers can’t answer it because the school district many not allow it…People just need to realize that having difficult conversations will spark more interest…students just need people to have conversations with, they need a non-judgmental place for them to share their thoughts and emotions about civics.“

“Most students are not yet concerned with things like taxes or elections, but if the school were to provide a method in which students could impact their extracurriculars, school environment, and curriculum they would be far quicker to engage…one way this could be done would be through town hall style meetings with the principal…my government teacher sent out information on how to vote as some members of the class were eligible…advertising things like service projects, city council meetings, youth programs, and voting on a school level would have a massive positive impact…”

“In general, schools tend to steer clear of political discussions in class for fear of projecting biases onto their students. However, it is exactly these types of discussions that will foster a desire to research and contribute to the political side of civic engagement…get students into the habit of watching or reading the news…”

“Hands-on, real world activities are an amazing way to engage students…we create our own political party with a group of students, build a platform and a campaign…another hands-on activity that teachers could facilitate is a community service project…our teacher asks ‘What is one problem in our community high schoolers can solve?’”

“One way schools can encourage students to be civically engaged is to increase students’ exposure to a wide range of perspectives, i.e. schools should not succumb to pressure to censor material. One of the greatest harms a school can inflict on its students is to inhibit their ability to become nuanced and critical thinkers, key skills in civic engagement.”

“In my school we have a program called We the People where we discuss politics and talk about the Constitution…being able to take this class has enforced the idea that I’m so proud and lucky to be an American.”

“For some people Politics or Civics means an argument…for youth it is a topic we feel we can’t talk about in school. Teachers feel uncomfortable talking about global issues in fear of an argument…We shouldn’t stop ourselves from having conversations about sensitive topics.”

“I believe the first step to increasing civic engagement in the US is to create citizens that care within schools…studies show that volunteering is extremely great for boosting self-esteem and overall contentment…another great way is by giving daily announcements on current events. When students are given information about what’s going on in the world, they not only remain well educated, but also will care more.“

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