Quick Hits for Educating Citizens
by James L. Perry and Steven G. Jones, Indiana University Press, 2006. 192 pages.
reviewed by Silvia Foti
In today’s real-world, real-time academic climate, in which faculty are expected to teach beyond the textbook so that students can apply their skills outside of the classroom, Quick Hits for Educating Citizens: Successful Strategies by Award-Winning Teachers offers plenty of ideas to nudge or, if necessary, shove students into service and into contributing to the needs in their community.
Presented in an easy-to-digest format that looks more like a workbook than a traditional book, Quick Hits for Educating Citizens, in less than 140 pages, presents ideas and strategies for integrating civic education into university curricula, a trend that, according to the book, continues to grow. It focuses on “educating citizens, providing a rationale for making civic education an intentional component of the curriculum, as well as offering successful models of curriculum-based civic education activities from faculty across the disciplines.” The book’s underlying mission is to foster young citizens who want to make a difference in their world, by voting, by getting involved in democracy, by writing letters to the editor, by participating in soup kitchens, building homes for the homeless, and integrating a life of service into their adult lives.
As I finished reading the book days after the Iowa caucuses, in which it became clear that the results were greatly due to college students participating in greater numbers than ever before, I wondered if these students had teachers at universities in Iowa who urged them to vote or if they’d had participated in any of the service-learning activities mentioned in this book. It is exactly this sort of effect that I believe this book is aiming for, a real-world difference by getting involved in the democratic process.
The fourth in the Quick Hits series by Indiana University faculty who wanted to “enable college and university faculty everywhere to gain the insights and understandings that seasoned faculty had developed after years of experience,” Educating Citizens, like the other books in the series, is intended to help faculty improve their teaching by studying classroom-tested experiences of master teachers. The book, written by 88 contributors–faculty across the country who have incorporated service learning into their courses–is divided into seven sections:
Overcoming Barriers to Educating Students for Citizenship.
By far, the most useful section for me was “Classroom Activities,” which offered several practical and easy-to-implement ideas, and most could be adapted to any discipline. Several of them referenced the website http://www.democracymatters.org, a national organization launched by a group of faculty at Colgate University, and dedicated to engaging students in politics. The website offers a large array of projects performed by students. Some of the projects include: petition drives, public theater, teach-ins and debates; lectures by students in other classes or high schools; op-ed pieces; letter writing campaigns; poster campaigns; grassroots canvassing; and lobbying elected officials.
In “Citizens Talking across the Curriculum,” authors James T. Knauer and L. Sullivan Ross, from Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania, present a three-page piece on “dialogic pedagogy,” peer-to-peer deliberative dialogue. The technique has been shown to stimulate engaged learning, especially when students ask each other authentic questions. Deliberative dialogue was a new term for me, although I likened it to the Harkness Table technique that I recently incorporated into my integrated English and Social Studies high school classroom to great success, in which students engage in a meaningful conversation about a topic they have been asked to study.
The authors in this piece said it is difficult for instructors to stay out of the way and difficult for students to engage each other directly under the teacher’s watchful eyes, and with this I disagreed, based upon my own experience with the Harkness Table. I have learned that this takes a bit of preparation in choosing a relevant article for students to study by filling out questions prepared by the teacher and asking to create several other thought-provoking questions, and that it took several attempts for students to become accustomed to the process, but once they did, they begged the teachers to stop interfering.
What this demonstrates is that the topic is a work in progress, and a reader’s experience with a subject matter would greatly influence a response to the information. Perhaps the main issue I took with Educating Citizens is that while several classroom activities were shared, they could have been presented in an even more practical lesson-planning format, those similarly found among secondary education faculty, only because they are so much easier to implement by new faculty.
As a former adjunct instructor at the college level, I found it frustrating and sleep depriving to be thrown into a classroom with little preparation, and it wasn’t until I pursued a Master’s of Education for secondary English did I have my “Ah ha!” moment of what I needed as a college adjunct: detailed lesson plans, not cursory essays of an idea that takes so many details for granted.
That flaw aside, Educating Citizens is a useful resource for not only learning more about civic engagement at the college and university level, or “developing critical consciousness about oppression and working towards social change,” but also for innovative ways to bring about change in the community by incorporating service-learning activities into the curriculum from the inception.
If your department is at the talking stage of bringing service-learning activities into your classroom, Educating Citizens is an excellent place to bring cohesion to the discussion.