This political season has me thinking about the importance of teaching democratic skills to children. In fact, I’ve been thinking about it with the kind of starry-eyed civic hope that maybe only elementary school teachers can summon. It’s the kind of hope a person gets when they are in position to do something about something that matters. In this case, through language arts, I can teach my students the following essential civic skills:
1. Critical Thinking
One of the most important civic skills is simply not believing everything you hear. Critical thinking is the art of asking questions about information: Why does the author think this? What is their evidence? Do I trust their sources? What is the context? Do I agree with the author? What am I basing that opinion on? These are the kinds of questions lively citizens ask constantly. They are also the kinds of questions used to interrogate a text.
This skill can be practiced in formal academic discussions, but also in informal family conversation in the car or at the dinner table. Talk about what you read, view, hear, and experience. Dig deeper. Ask: Why? In what way?
2. Understanding the Difference Between Fact and Opinion
This is such a crucial skill that it is almost invisible, and so somehow has become a really puny civic muscle. When we can’t (or don’t deign to) differentiate between fact and opinion, our judgements cloud our vision of others and there is no steady ground on which to build bridges.
This skill seems to click for my students starting when they are eight or nine. We practice it by doing observational writing — writing down just what we notice, not what we think. Later, we practice having opinions and backing them up with observations. This skill can also be practiced through noticing when we are using opinion words (great, bad, important) instead of observational words (green, loud, broken), and beginning to untangle our judgements and our vision.
3. Developing Respectful, Fact-Based Argument
Once we can navigate the difference between agreed-on reality and personal opinion, then we can begin to talk about issues in useful ways, and the national blood pressure doesn’t blast up like a rocket during every presidential debate.
It is also the central skill of essay writing. I think essays should be a foundational part of high school level language arts, but their foundations can be practiced long before that. Essays are basically the assertion of an opinion about a topic there is disagreement about, backed up by convincing evidence with the opposing viewpoint in consideration. That sounds kind of complicated, but every kid knows how to do this. The challenge is in tackling complicated and abstract questions in a well-thought-out way. It’s tricky, but worth the work, since through doing this we learn clear writing skills, stronger critical thinking skills, and the ability to engage with differing opinions.
4. Strengthening Empathy
Fiction writers like to say they are in the empathy business. And it’s true. Through literature, we get to step into the shoes of all kinds of different people facing all kinds of dilemmas. We experience their humanity, even if on the surface it isn’t like our own. Is this a skill I wish for every child? Of course.
The prescription? Read good books. Read aloud. Listen to audiobooks. Watch good films. Read graphic novels. Tell stories. Listen to fairy tales. Read more good books. And then engage with them imaginatively. When I tell stories in class, I often have my students draw a picture from the story. This allows them to sink deeper into the story imaginatively without over-intellectualizing it. (And yes, this is kind of opposite of what I said about developing critical thinking. Different stories, different times, different tactics.)
5. Enquiring into Larger Human Questions
A healthy democracy isn’t just a bureaucratic structure, it’s a result of a vibrant social conversation about the big questions of being human: what is fair, what matters, how should we treat each other, etc. This is the stuff that makes literature tick.
Reading, thinking, and writing about big questions isn’t just intellectually satisfying, it gives us a chance to wrestle out nuanced opinions and to weigh opposing ideas in a respectful way. Sounds like practice in democracy to me.
6. Trusting Their Own Voice
Voting is an act of believing that your opinion matters, and as far as I can tell, believing that it won’t matter is a major reason people don’t vote. So it seems to me that it’s essential we encourage children to believe in their voices.
Writing is a great way for children to begin to articulate their own opinions and speak up. To encourage this, I have my students write both about things that matter to them, and in lots of silly and creative and free ways. For instance, we write tons of poetry, and most of the time, unless something doesn’t make sense, I can read their poem and be 100% positive about it (and then sit down with them to work on spelling and grammar). This is an experience in being able to say whatever they want to say without being told they are right or wrong — to write for themselves instead of for approval. We also do very friendly poetry readings, where students get to try sharing their work.
7. Engaging in Issues
When children can feel the power of their own voices, they get excited to use them to speak up about things they believe in. This is civic engagement writ bold.
We approach this head on through the Letters for Change project, but many of my students write about issues they care about in their poetry and other projects. Reading socially engaged poetry, doing research reports, dissecting current events, and academically observing things like Women’s History Month, Veteran’s Day, and Martin Luther King Day are all great ways to make language arts more socially active, and students more civically skilled.
Want to hear more about Frog Hollow’s language arts program for homeschoolers, and its educational philosophy? Come to the Open House.