Yet another national poll suggests American adults have turned blind to both the facts and ideals of our democracy. Look to Susan Bergman’s civics class in Federal Way for a ray of hope.
Susan Bergman teaches high-school civics in Federal Way. Remember civics?
I remember having to memorize information — the three branches of the federal government, all of the state’s counties, etc.
Bergman goes beyond that by using teaching methods proved to get students more engaged so they’ll learn the facts and develop a better understanding of their role in society.
We really need a better-informed and more-involved citizenry. I wanted to ask Bergman about her work because I’d just read another poll of U.S. voters that made my shoulders droop.
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The Politico-Morning Consult poll found that 46 percent of registered voters believe major news organizations fabricate stories about Donald Trump. Only 37 percent say journalists aren’t making the stuff up.
There are days when I wish some of the headlines about Trump were an April Fool’s joke, but they’re supported by the facts. Facts do matter, which maybe is why those old civics lessons were so heavy on facts, even if we now know simple memorization won’t necessarily make those facts stick.
These days, many adult Americans seem to have forgotten both the facts and many of the ideals that should define us as a nation. Sometimes people can repeat the words that describe democracy and still not really understand what they mean. People say they want to protect our freedoms but label people who protest unpatriotic. They proudly call this a nation of immigrants, while saying immigrants will destroy the real America.
In a different survey last month, 37 percent of Americans couldn’t name any of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of the press, of speech, of religion, of assembly, and to petition. In another national survey, 23 percent of Americans said the First Amendment goes too far.
Most Americans think immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally have no rights under the Constitution. Wrong. And only 26 percent of Americans can name all three branches of government (executive, legislative and judicial). Both findings were part of a September poll done by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.
The center called for higher-quality civics education in schools and for journalists to include education on Constitutional rights in their reporting.
Educating people in civics used to be a critical role for schools. But civics education began to decline in the late 1960s and, in more recent years, many school districts cut back on civics education to make more room for math and English, subjects that show up on the tests by which schools are ranked.
But there are signs of a comeback and of schools adopting more effective ways of teaching civics. The Washington Legislature adopted new civics requirements in 2009. That law says, “Preparation for citizenship is as important as preparation for college and a career, and should take its place as a requirement for receiving a high school diploma.”
When I called her last week, she said she wants to make her lessons relevant. Students discuss ideas, they talk about the formation and structures of government and how that applies today. “My job as a teacher is to get the spark started,” she said, “so that they get involved in the community in ways that will revolutionize our future.”
Bergman said students this year have been especially interested in the issues civics deals with because they hear and read so much about what’s happening in Washington, D.C.
In one class, she’s been helping students look for bias in articles, and next they’re going to explore the idea of fake news, a phrase they hear often. “What is fake news and how do we spot it, and how do we get beyond it so that we can get to the truth?”
She also gets students involved with their communities so that they learn “how they fit into democracy and why their voices matter.” The mayor and members of the city council and school board have visited her classroom, and students attend government meetings.
Students make recommendations that get acted on. Bergman’s students helped change cafeteria meals, she said. “One girl petitioned for speed bumps on her road, and that actually happened.”
Each year Bergman brings students to WE Day in Seattle, 100 of them last time. The WE movement is about growing a generation that believes in working together to accomplish positive goals.
Instead of memorizing words from a textbook, Bergman’s students are learning what it means to be participants in a democracy. And I’ll bet they’ll remember that, and some facts, too, forever.
That makes me feel more hopeful.