SCUSD Observer

Sacramento, California

Improving the District, step by step…Teaching Citizenship

Last week the Sacramento Bee printed an article about Beth Tinker, now a 57-year-old pediatric nurse, who as a teenager was one of the plaintiffs in a seminal United States Supreme Court case concerning schools and democratic speech.

While the Bee focused on the person and the politics, it is actually the language of the Court’s opinion that warranted attention.  We talk a lot about what we want to transmit to children through education.  Scholastic aptitude and academic achievement are foremost.  But we also want our school system to impart certain skills and knowledge that will help our children grow and prosper throughout their lives.

Many education advocates discuss education in terms of the skills and knowledge that are relevant to the 21st century economy.   And economic security and prosperity are essential goals of the system.  But the Tinker case highlights another important facet of our education system.  Our schools train our children how to be active, participatory citizens in our local and national democratic communities.  The court’s opinion realizes a schoolhouse that teaches youth the skills and knowledge to contribute to our democracy.  And, this citizenship lesson is relevant still today.

The court finds three principles that our schools embody in teaching citizenship.  First, students are an integral part of our collective political community.  Children should engage in policy discussions.  Political arguments about leadership and community values necessarily include youth and children.  They can be taught pertinent facts and learn to articulate their opinions in light of them.  School children are fundamental to our national political dialogue.  Children are important members, and thought of as citizens who should concern themselves with pressing contemporary policy and political issues.  They are not second class persons when our community debates its collective future.  Political speech is safe in these young hands.

Second, democracy includes arguments about what is best for our community and its future.   Engagement in free speech brings forth a dialogue, which at times leads to disputes.  For children, especially teenagers, personal opinions are at the forefront of their existence and imbue their relationships.  These opinions exist and generate responses and disagreements from peers.   Democratic conversation is not necessarily quiet nor does it fail to provoke reaction.  Learning how to take part in robust discussion is central to acquiring the knowledge and skills necessary to become an active participant in our community.

Last, students must act responsibly in our democracy.   The student must respect the rights of others surrounding him or her.  Unavoidably, students come into contact with one anther, where identity, ideology and policy considerations lead to arguments about how best to advance certain public goals and goods.  Children must act and speak responsibly.  They must respect political dialogue.  They must interact and speak from knowledge and with purpose. Schools can educate children to speak sensibly and maturely with others.  They can teach children to respect differing opinions and points of view while not betraying the child’s own particular viewpoint.

The court in this case, then, teaches a great lesson about what our schools can and should be imparting to our children regarding democracy and public speech.  Schools can lead youth away from apathy and inaction and motivate them to act responsibility within our democratic community.  They teach youth to be a responsible part of our national dialogue and participate fairly with one another.  Moreover, the lessons learned in responsible speech will teach each child the skills and knowledge necessary for a healthy, vibrant country.  It is through trial and error and thereby growth that students develop skills utilized in the public sphere.  When our schools become active contributors to these lessons, this particularized knowledge becomes a part of the child’s day-to-day existence.  Our students learn to be good citizens, involved in their community and robust neighbors essential to the proper functioning of our body politic.

One fine example of this lesson occurs at Kit Carson Middle School.  This school offers a class where the skills and knowledge essential to our democratic community are taught.  The class focuses on leadership and active listening and participation around specific issues and problems.  Students take on various roles and debate in accordance with the viewpoints they inhabit.  Reasoning, active listening, and a focus on articulating one’s opinions buttressed by particular facts is practiced and honed.  The teacher takes an active role in the process, leading the students through the discussion and reminding them of the responsibility each has to treat one another and each point of view with courtesy, not contempt.

When I observed the class, the students were excited and energetic, engaged in the ongoing debate.  Hands flung in the air as quickly as the teacher could call on them.  A dialogue between the students took on a life of its own, with each student challenging the prior assertions of his or her classmate.  Students felt important and part of a debate that transcended the classroom.  The students challenged themselves as well, learning and internalizing the skills and knowledge necessary for future citizenship.

This class is but one example of how our school district can teach the skills and knowledge essential to our democracy.  These lessons are a direct product of the vision of our schools and classrooms the United States Supreme Court had in the case involving Beth Tinker.  As we weather these tough budgetary times, we must remember that our schools are the training ground for tomorrow’s leaders.  And leadership is a learned skill.  We must not fail to teach our school children how to engage in their community, because the future of Sacramento depends on it.


Written by jeffcuneo

May 12, 2010 at 8:13 pm

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