Students as Citizens: An Experience in Civic Life

On Wednesday, April 5, 2012, twenty students from Dadeville High School, accompanied by counselor Cheryl Bynum, assistant principal Pam Holloway, and AU counseling intern Noelle Johnson participated in a workshop on Students as Citizens: An Experience in Civic Life.

The workshop, held in the AU Student Center, was part of our collaboration with the David Mathews Center for Civic Life and the University ofAlabama’s New College.  Auburn student Stephanie Grant, a Jean O’Connor-Snyder intern with the Mathews Center, helped develop the workshop’s components, which introduced deliberative democratic practices to students. O’Connor-Snyder intern Joy Porter assisted with the event, as well as Cristin Foster, program coordinator for the Mathews Center.

Stephanie assigned students to tables randomly, since we all benefit from working with others whom we may not know as well as our best friends.  Students enjoyed a few rounds of Apples to Apples, the game where you have to think about making comparisons based on another person’s perspective. The first group challenge was to build a tower using marshmallows and spaghetti, not an easy task, and the second exercise was a quiz using questions from the United States naturalization exam.  After all, if we ask immigrants to learn U.S. history and civics information for entry into the country, shouldn’t “born citizens” know the same?

The second group challenge was deciding as groups where to go on vacation for the summer, and each student was assigned a factor that complicated the situation.  Deciding where to go as a group is challenging when the participants are diverse: one person won’t use air transportation; another person is eighty years old; someone doesn’t want to spend much money, one person has three screaming toddlers; and a final person can only be gone for four days.

A table facilitator guided students through the next exercise, a slideshow of random people, places, things, and ideas.  Five facilitators from Dadeville High School were Adam Blackburn, Julia Hendricks, Leslie Rewis, David Langley, and Andrew Thomas. The goal was for each person to express reactions and thoughts to the item on the slide, while the facilitator asked exploratory questions. Answering “I hate peanut butter and banana sandwiches” was not enough, for example, so the facilitator might ask, “What do you not like about it?  Have you tried it?”  The questions vary, especially for topics such as Lady Gaga, seafood, the death penalty, etc., but the purpose of the exercise is to orient students to listening to why others might have a preference different from their own. While many of us may never completely understand why someone may love Brussels sprouts, it’s important for us to listen and learn, developing ourselves into citizens who have the willingness and skill to “walk in another person’s shoes” for a while.

The skills we are trying to develop in young people are related to what some practitioners called deliberative democracy, a powerful way of expressing the interactions that take place among people who agree that a problem in society ought to be solved and must decide what to do.

The problem for our students is bullying, which has received more and more attention from educators and policymakers over the last several years.  We began our deliberation with a short movie preview from The Bully Project, followed by a slide show of news headlines describing deaths that stemmed from school bullying. At individual tables, students talked through three different approaches to the issue, each representing a different perspective. Approach one relates to stronger consequences for bullying; approach two deals with student empowerment; approach three suggests parents and community members should be more involved.  Community solutions require a health mix of all three approaches, of course, but the purpose of deliberation is to weigh the pros and cons of each approach and talk through the troubling aspects and possibilities for innovation related to each.

From deliberation we moved to action design. The company IDEO has a unique, democratic approach to design, so we introduced students to their work using an ABC News Special documenting the design of a shopping cart.   Then we gave teams 30 minutes to design a response to the issue of bullying based on what they heard each other saying throughout the deliberation.

Each team presented the following plans:

1) A bully prevention class and policy changes that would include student i.d. badges for the bathrooms; bully reporting boxes in every classroom;

2) Hall monitor program where “undercover” students would be tasked to report bullying to administrators;

3) An exciting school assembly event held for the purpose of empowering students to stand up to bullies;

4) Electronic Bully Box, a program on school computers allowing students to anonymously report instances of bullying. One sub-point of one of the presentations included electronic card access to school restrooms to document occurrences of bullying.

We were pleased with student participation in this event, and we believe the activities helped develop students as citizens, people who are willing to talk through various options, perspectives, and interests related to an important issue and act together.

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