“We have a clear mandate that our end of high school learning goal for our students is to create empowered and engaged citizens. Every piece of our model, every skill in every competency we teach culminates in how does learning lead to empowerment and engagement outside of the classroom in all of the communities you belong to? Because this is our mandate, when the outside world intrudes into our classroom, we are never deviating from our learning goals. This is our ultimate learning target.”

Building 21 Social Studies & Civics Teacher

Empowered and engaged citizens. This has always been our ultimate goal. It proves more critical now than ever.

While our country of diverse communities reacts to the insurrection at the Capital and works to find a way forward through the chaos and hate so visibly demonstrated that day, our young people watch. While we as educators share our perspectives on the events, influenced by our own racial identity and experiences, our students listen. While the media necessitates a new form of literacy to navigate polarization and propaganda, our students form their beliefs. In our classrooms, our future citizens and leaders grow up before our eyes. Their education shapes their engagement in and the future of our American democracy. 

The historic words and warnings written by past thinkers and leaders remind us of the fragility of democracy and the imperative of an educated nation of citizens to carry it forward.

“The establishment of a republican government, without well-appointed and efficient means for the universal education of the people, is the most rash and fool-hardy experiment ever tried by man. Its fatal results may not be immediately developed, they may not follow as the thunder follows the lightning; for time is an element in maturing them, and the calamity is too great to be prepared in a day: but, like the slow-accumulating avalanche, they will grow more terrific by delay, and at length, though it may be at a late hour, will overwhelm with ruin whatever lies athwart their path. It may be an easy thing to make a republic; but it is a very laborious thing to make republicans; and woe to the republic that rests upon no better foundations than ignorance, selfishness, and passion!”

Horace Mann, Report No. 12 of the Massachusetts School Board, 1848

“The function of the university is not simply to teach bread-winning, or to furnish teachers for the public schools or to be a centre of polite society; it is, above all, to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, an adjustment which forms the secret of civilization.”

W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903

“The devotion of democracy to education is a familiar fact. The superficial explanation is that a government resting upon popular suffrage cannot be successful unless those who elect and who obey their governors are educated.”

John Dewey, Democracy and Education, 1916

“Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education. It has been well said that no system of government gives so much to the individual or exacts so much as a democracy. Upon our educational system must largely depend the perpetuity of those institutions upon which our freedom and our security rest. To prepare each citizen to choose wisely and to enable him to choose freely are paramount functions of the schools in a democracy.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Message for American Education Week, 1938

“The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not.  To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity.  But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around.  What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society.  If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish.  The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it – at no matter what risk.  This is the only hope society has.  This is the only way societies change.”

James Baldwin, A Talk to Teachers, 1963

This responsibility to educate our young citizens is paramount and one that our Building 21 teachers and school leaders hold dear.

When current events are on the hearts and minds of our students, our teachers do not hesitate to redesign lessons and create safe spaces for processing. While some schools may need to pause their content-driven curriculum and ask permission to incorporate current events into their lessons, Building 21’s model is designed for this pivot. Our teachers seize the opportunity to directly confront challenging issues in real time. It’s expected that the world will make its way into our classrooms and that, with a firm commitment to student voice, restorative community, and cultural competence, teachers will guide students to learn and grow.

We spent time reflecting on the intensity of this moment in history with some of our lab school Social Studies and ELA educators. Our takeaways illustrate our teachers’ commitment to and passion for civics education and their unwavering belief in the agency of our students.

Our ultimate learning goal. Reflecting on our model, competencies, and learning.

Throughout our discussion, teachers credited their students’ ability to have hard conversations to the Building 21 competency-based model, anchored by Restorative Practices. This approach gives students the tools they need to learn passionately and process constructively. A teacher reminded the group: “Unfortunately it takes moments of stress like this to test their skills, but they pass the test when it happens.” 

It’s hard to imagine a more challenging time to navigate high school. Even while learning apart from one another in the midst of a global pandemic and political unrest, our students continue to demonstrate the skills outlined in our Social Studies continua, such as analyzing multiple perspectives and evaluating the importance of people’s actions in shaping outcomes. As our teachers work to virtually support our students, here are some of their reflections.

“[Teaching Civics right now is] stressful because you have to address the things that the students are bringing in, like their frustration with the government. At the same time, it’s exhilarating because you can actually say, ‘This is what impeachment looks like. This is why it’s important for you to understand who is representing you in the House of Representatives and in the Senate.’ So all of the things that we are looking at right now tie into the things that the kids and trying to understand and deal with. I’m a strong believer that the best way to learn is to be able to connect what the student knows to what you’re about to present. And so I’ve found it’s been really easy now to make these connections. I can say, ‘This is what I’m talking about. This is what it looks like.’”

“For me as a teacher, at this moment, it was very important to look back to our work over the summer developing themes and essential questions [for our studios]. One [theme] that we came up with is this idea of truth and what that is. And here was an opportunity for us to delve into that. What is truth? What is civic responsibility? Oftentimes, we talk about community and what that looks like for our students. These are all themes that we talked about as we were thinking about building our studios. We are seeing this come full circle.”

“We are asking important questions like: What are the stories that we put out there and want to put out there about America? What should America be? How do we get to the point where we have civic responsibility? How can we get to the point where we can actually truly have these discussions and speak truth to power? And also where are the opportunities for reconciliation and growth? [It is a] great opportunity to have conversations, create these safe spaces, and for our students to have a voice to speak truth to power.”

“Our kids are used to practicing the thinking skills that are in our continua. It becomes natural. As our students get older, they’re used to thinking this way and investigate what’s going on. It makes it easier in our program than maybe it would be in other programs.”

“There are a lot of teachers around the country who are being told that what is happening outside of the school building is not an appropriate topic to bring into the classrooms. That providing space for students to have the kinds of conversations we are describing is not what they are supposed to be teaching. That social studies teachers should not focus on current politics. That if you teach a class called US government and politics, that pivoting to what’s currently happening in our country is not part of your curriculum. And I am thankful every morning that I wake up knowing that I teach in a place where that conversation would never happen.”

“If you’re interested in being part of the solutions to massive problems, you have to choose where you’re going to jump in and where you think you can have an impact. Education is the undervalued, long-term investment in American democracy. The ideas to make democracy succeed are there; we just need to drastically improve on the execution. The same could be said about education. So what better investment of time than to try and work on both at the same time?”

Relationships and safe spaces.

Relationships create the foundation of our model. Given this, our teachers’ first reactions to the Capital riots included considering: How will these events impact my relationships with my students? How do my relationships with my students support my work as a teacher?

Our teachers reflected on how the riots trigger trauma and distrust within students. How students may call into question the relationships they have with their teachers because of the actions of others who look like them. It is important to our teachers that they create a safe space to process this distrust, disillusionment, and fear. Right now, they find themselves relying on their Building 21 TriChange skills to establish the space for the hard conversations and community healing.  

“The actions of others can damage the relationships of other people in completely unrelated situations. Students start to wonder, are all white social studies teachers the same?”

“Being responsive and allowing students a safe space to speak their feelings and allowing them to understand what is going on and how to move forward. We’ve spent a lot of time on how to heal from this and right now the students don’t see a clear path. So [it’s important to] really allow student voice in the classroom.”

“Treating students as people first becomes that much more important. Ensuring mental health, social emotional learning and being intentional about carving out spaces for that becomes that much more relevant and important. This is always something that our school values but it’s something that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and reading about when [the pandemic]  hit, in the summer, and now with these events.”

“We provided students an opportunity to express themselves and process everything that happened. We put the content that was planned for the day to the side. … I expressed my feelings to them openly. I shared what I felt as an American, as a Black man looking at that. … I opened up to the students and that opened the floodgates and gave the students an opportunity to share how they felt. TriChange is about giving students an opportunity to have a voice.”

“[I am] trying to teach my students to find the language to talk about it. Because for me and a lot of people, that’s the hardest part. I know what I’m thinking but how do I say it? We focus on ‘I feel’ statements.”

“Students [have been] disillusioned by teachers they have had in the past and this impacts their current relationships. … [This can] happen everyday, through a thousand paper cuts, through microaggressions, and we have to do better. We need to talk about bias and how whiteness affects our classrooms.”

“I didn’t want to push it because I think there is definitely some fatigue with everything that’s been going on. But I definitely addressed it and then came back to it. On [the following] Tuesday, I revisited it: ‘We just had Martin Luther King Day, do you think what he was doing was done in vain based on what we saw on January 6th?’ That drew a different conversation. So really talking about it, not stopping [the conversation] after one day but following up with it. … It’s all about giving the students an opportunity to share their voice, to be real and say, ‘this is how I feel about it.’”

Confronting our own perspectives, bias, and room to grow. 

For some, the events of January 6th may have been one of the first times they felt shock and anger over political polarization and radical action. For others, this event may be just one in a constant barrage of events witnessed and experienced over a lifetime. When the reaction of many white people is amazement and shock, it only serves to amplify the pain BIPOC people feel, as their voices are continually dismissed, racism remains systemic, and calls for justice go unheard.

As a community of educators, it is imperative that we understand our collective perspectives, our bias, and the impact they have  on our students. Our model embraces a framework of adult development, which includes growth in our understanding of race and class. While these introspective conversations have been a part of our practice, we continue to push ourselves to expand them. Our teachers reflected on our room to grow as an anti-racist organization committed to embracing the same skills we teach our students.

“People with black and brown skin can say, these are things that we’ve dealt with and we’ve felt and had to endure and show resilience. We teach a lot of brown and black students that sit in front of us. They’ve experienced this. Their families have experienced this in some shape or form.”

“I think this is also an opportunity for us as adults and teachers, to be able to question. What is our role? What are our struggles? What are things that we didn’t know that we are now learning? And challenge ourselves. Maybe I am a part of the problem? Maybe I didn’t open my eyes enough or listen enough? Maybe I have room to grow? This gives us all an opportunity to examine ourselves and to see how we can contribute to this idea of growth and reconciliation while also recognizing that these are ideas that our students struggle with all of the time.”

“As a teacher, I need to stay neutral. I can’t say, ‘I’m affiliated with this political party.’ You need to look at things from the sense of providing [students] with information and opportunities to look at both sides of it. But at the same time you’re also addressing things [and suggesting] ‘let’s look at this.’ One thing I notice is that students of color are not monolithic. I’ve had students in my class who are avid republicans and they will fight to the bitter end and share what they see and their particular experiences. So you can’t go in assuming everyone is a democrat.”

“Building 21 encourages those hard discussions. It’s not a school that shies away from it because they understand, if you shy away from it, you’re not doing the students, who you serve, justice. Because they are not able to shy away from it.”

“I don’t think that people have the language. I don’t think enough staff at any school have the language to talk about things like this. … We need to do something at every level to be anti-racist and learn how to have these conversations with our students because it matters. It matters so intensely.”

“What we teach includes the skills of being a lifelong learner, of constantly reflecting and challenging ourselves. …We as educators are always engaging in the same process that we are asking our students to learn to engage in. Moments like this make it so clear that we are teaching and modeling for students things that we consider still valuable no matter how long ago we graduated high school. …Our model doesn’t just tell us what we expect students to do. It reminds us constantly of what we are expected to do. And if we live it, we’re better at helping our students.”

At the end of our conversation, a teacher of senior students offered her reflection for the group: “I wish you could sit on the wall of my classroom. …[You would see] all the skills in our model were manifested in our students’ thinking after four years of practicing these skills and it’s these moments that always convince me that we’re on the right track. Our students are developing these critical thinking skills that are so important to having agency as a citizen.”

Our students give us hope that the future of our American democracy is in their courageous, informed, and empowered hands. Our appreciation for our teachers is endless. We thank them for their commitment to the hard work of Civics education, to ongoing personal development and growth, and to creating safe spaces for our nation’s young citizens and future leaders to learn and grow.