In this post, Eve Rifkin, co-founder and director of college access at City High School in Tucson, talks about the climate she and others have worked to create at her charter school and how educators work to instill the ethics of civility in students. Rifkin is also a public voices fellow with the OpEd Project, an effort to increase the range of voices and quality of ideas in the public square.
It is not a lucky coincidence that the students at my school demonstrate respect toward — and curiosity about — each other, especially during discussions about controversial topics. It is the product of intentional choices that are made at the classroom and school levels every single day.
For the past 13 years, my school co-founders and I, along with our entire teaching staff, have made the choice to cultivate an environment of tolerance, respect and civility. Our school’s student-generated norms include these: “allow others to openly share their ideas without fear of ridicule” and “be open-minded and patient with others.”
In classrooms, student working groups are intentionally designed so that students with diverse backgrounds and opinions have opportunities to collaborate. But those structures are still not enough to ensure civility in our school environment. We need to periodically push pause and ask students to collectively reflect on whether they are feeling supported by their peers and what they are doing to contribute to a meaningful learning environment.
That’s why students are meeting in their small action research groups this week to talk about mental health care, queer youth advocacy, school policies and other issues they have chosen to examine. A privileged student who has benefited greatly by the current educational system is working alongside a classmate who has been sorely underserved. A transgender student will be collaborating with a politically conservative Catholic student as they seek to understand how youth have been affected by local health-care policies. My students will not be examining their topics as abstract constructs at the national level, but rather how they and their communities have been privileged or disenfranchised in various ways.
Although my students are likely to face some real challenges as they think together about issues with which they’ve had very separate experiences, I know they will do so carefully and skillfully. They’ve been taught how.
The problem is that in many schools across our nation these same choices are not being made, and our schools and students are suffering. Not a week goes by without news of some middle or high school students engaging in some highly disturbing behavior. Last month, a group of high school cheerleaders in Utah made racist comments on a video that went viral. Less than a week later, The Washington Post reported that a group of white middle school football players pretended to rape their black teammates. School district leaders in both instances were, of course, shocked. But these two instances, while highly concerning, are not isolated examples of a few unsupervised kids gone bad.
The middle school football players of Henrico County will be encouraged to develop “civic responsibility” by participating in their district’s Community Service Learning program. The Utah cheerleaders are required to take a civics class to graduate. Yet despite these districtwide efforts, none of these students seemed to think twice before engaging in such incivility last month.
A recent UCLA study titled “Teaching and Learning in the Age of Trump” found that in addition to rising stress and anxiety on high school campuses, roughly 25 percent of teachers who responded to the researchers were experiencing increased levels of hostility among their students. The study sought to determine the degree to which the tone of current national political climate was contributing to incivility in our schools and classrooms.
Teacher participants in the study did report increased incidents of students openly expressing racist perspectives and/or religious intolerance toward certain peer groups, and many agreed that the incivility of the discourse at the national level was largely responsible.
But at least as responsible is ongoing failure to educate students for true civil discourse. While there may be plenty to be anxious and stressed about, incivility does not need to be a foregone conclusion. We can teach students to engage in civil discourse. Our democracy depends on our ability to do so.
In fact, the UCLA study also found that schools in which leaders proactively work to create cultures of tolerance and respect were far less likely to experience hostility and incivility among their students. Teachers who reported spending time building relationships with and among their students, establishing classroom norms, and maintaining a “wide angle” view during discussions about hot-button topics found that they were able to foster civil discourse within their classrooms and greater school communities.
It is possible to teach civility, but it’s essential that school leaders do not confuse teaching students to be “civil” with requiring that students take a “civics” class. Indeed, it is the norm for school districts to have a civics requirement for graduation. While these requirements may ensure that the average teenager can regurgitate how a bill becomes a law, they haven’t done much to cultivate civility.
Just as students can be taught, and expected to practice, essential math and reading skills, so too can they be taught — and be expected to practice — habits of empathizing, listening and wondering, all essential ingredients of healthy civil discourse. And when done well, these habits will be withstand the circumstances of any political landscape, no matter how toxic.
As Horace Mann, early American educator, said “Habit is a cable; we weave a thread of it each day, and at last we cannot break it.”