On Tuesday, June 12, 2012, an excellent group of eleven 7th and 8th grade boys at Drake Middle School in Auburn participated in a “Students as Citizens” workshop, thanks to teachers Angela Babb and Sheena Bell and interns Ashley and Katelynn. We believe students must learn the arts of citizenship–listening, collaboration, deliberative decision-making, etc.—since being a citizen requires more than voting.
Dr. Mark Wilson, Director of Civic Learning Initiatives in the College of Liberal Arts at AU, and Cristin Foster, program coordinator for the David Mathews Center for Civic Life, began the workshop with two groups playing Apples to Apples, a game that requires participants to make decisions based on the perspective of someone else around the table. And to mix things up a little more, we directed students to form a human knot, though they figured out how to untie themselves in record time.
Following the game, students tried to answer some sample questions from the U.S. Naturalization Exam. If we ask immigrants to KNOW some things about government, history, and society, then certainly all of us should know these things. Adults would be pleased to know that students answered many questions correctly, although Alabama Governor Robert Bentley might be dismayed that nearly all students believe Bob Riley is still in office.
Citizens can’t work together effectively unless they work to understand the perspectives of others. We led students through a slide show of images that tend to evoke passionate responses, either negative or positive: Lady Gaga, peanut butter and banana sandwiches, Kanye West, seafood, Call of Duty, etc. A few of the slides contain some serious statements: changing driving age from 16 to 17; the death penalty; bullying.
Bullying is the topic for the next iteration of Alabama Issues Forums, a program of the David Mathews Center for Civic Life. The nation’s attention has moved toward the topic over the past several years, and we believe students have a role and responsibility for creating and maintaining bully-free environments. Students viewed a trailer for The Bully Project, along with some headlines related to bullying incidents from around the nation—including from Alabama. Students weighed the pros and cons of various approaches to the issue and discussed some of their experiences.
Deliberation of issues must include decision-making, so we divided students into four teams (plus a team of teachers!) to design responses to the bullying issue based on what they heard each other saying. But the plans can’t be for someone else to implement; students must be willing to commit to act together.
The plans were unique and represented what students considered most important in the issue. One plan suggested that students (not just bullies) watch episodes of the show Good Times and talk through examples of how the Evans family deals with conflict. Another plan designed a student-led event highlighting the effects of bullying and strategies that have promise. Another plan suggested that the school build an underground jail cell accessed by a tunnel from the principal’s office. While that particular plan might be closer to imagination than reality, the students believe that a real-life experience in a jail cell could help many of their peers realize where a life of bullying (or being bullied) could lead. The teachers presented a plan that works to employ community assets—agencies, programs, volunteers—to make a difference in bullying. Some of the students indicated a commitment to act on the issue.
A class of Drake Middle School girls will participate in the same workshop in July. We look forward to that day, and we hope a collaborative project will emerge where students are citizens who work alongside non-student citizens on the issue of bullying.