Jerry Buelter: A teaching moment or moments?
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
Editor’s note: This is a follow-up to Jerry Buelter’s last column.
I read with interest an article in the Jan. 17 edition of The Denver Post entitled, “A Teaching Moment,” by Andrea Gabor of the Bloomberg Opinion. Commenting on the events at the U.S. Capitol, Ms. Gabor calls for the revival of civics instruction as well as “expanded training in news literacy.”
I believe teaching civics is important and should be a part of everyday instruction, as is teaching news literacy. Our high school students receive specific civics instruction in their freshman year. Expanded training in how to decipher the news is also something I view as important and believe it is a part of the curriculum at Steamboat Springs High School but not as a specific course.
Ms. Gabor believes both are too important to be relegated to semester classes and curricular goals. She goes on to mention that these topics should be woven throughout K-12 curriculum and not be subjected to rote memorization. Again, I concur.
The author maintains that civics curriculum should begin being taught in the early grades, and I do believe that many elementary teachers teach civics within their standard lessons. Simple rules such as how to line up or exit the classroom can be and usually are civics-based. In the middle-grades, history lessons tend to have high levels of civics content. And I mentioned previously, most high schools offer or require their students to take classes in civics.
If in fact civics is taught throughout one’s education, why were so many students across the United States asking civics-related questions after the events of Jan. 6? Perhaps, as parents, you had your own questions surrounding the events and the aftermath thereafter. There is a good reason many of us have questions. We just do not remember.
I have no doubt you were taught “How a bill becomes a law” or presidential succession during your years in school. I bet there is no doubt you were once taught just what “impeachment” means. For most of us, what we had learned probably vanished soon after the test was taken. We saw little relevance at the time, especially if there was a dance that night. And as my students would point out to me, “Why do we need to know all that ‘government stuff’ since it was written so long ago?“
Here is where I found myself following a slightly different path than Ms. Gabor. I think that teaching our students about what their rights and duties are as citizens is very important. But rather than teach this as somewhat a separate entity (even though we as teachers could weave it in and out of core subjects), would it be more beneficial if we taught our students how to develop their own beliefs based upon our duties and responsibilities as United States citizens? Their own beliefs — not beliefs based upon the assumptions and misleading images spread via social media, but beliefs based upon their background knowledge and their own experiences.
To do so, we need to help our students “build capacity.” Building capacity is the process of providing growth opportunities for our students. This is not done by requiring students to recite the Bill of Rights but by having open-ended discussions on the implications or impact rights, such as free speech, have on their lives. Building capacity is the process of each of us asking deep, thought-provoking questions as to challenge our assumptions or formalize our beliefs.
The beauty of building capacity is that it is not reliant or relegated to one particular course of study. It is taught within every course the students take. Whether discussing climate change or Hemingway, ways to solve a math problem or the impact of tariffs, our true civic duty is to discover our own beliefs and act on them by sharing our thoughts or ideas with others.
By asking one another probing questions, we can begin to understand that many of us may have different ideas but share the same goals. We may even discover that our own beliefs need to be altered.
I firmly believe that when we begin to understand where our own beliefs originate, we can begin to understand those beliefs shared by others. By building capacity in our students, they can begin to see the value in each and every one of us.
That is what civic education is all about in a free society. It is not about looking at civics or news literacy as a separate or formal process. It is about consistently asking ourselves and others to ask the kind of questions that promote deeper thinking.
Civics education and news literacy are not something we take in a class during our days in school. It is what we become when we begin to live it. If you want to know how a bill becomes a law, you can Google it. You can find the definition of impeachment on the internet. But to be a citizen, you contribute your own ideas and beliefs while others do the same. You continue to build your capacity as you help others to build their own.
Ms. Gabor titles her article, “A Teaching Moment: With Democracy Under Attack, Schools Must Offer Civics.” It is my belief that every day is a teaching moment when we help our students develop those things that enable us to become better citizens. I don’t remember our nation being as divided as it is today. A little capacity building may just help.
Jerry Buelter taught and coached at Steamboat Springs High School for 20 years and served as an assistant principal and principal at Steamboat Springs Middle School for 17 years.
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Just like you, I live with the fear of wildfire. My southern Oregon town of Ashland nestles against the foothills of the Siskiyou Mountains, whose forests become tinder in our hot, dry summers.