Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Politicizing Pedagogy: Teaching for Liberty and Justice at Urban Schools: Learning about and Debating Controversial Topics Is Insufficient. Students Must Grapple with Issues That Truly Matter to Their Local Communities

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Politicizing Pedagogy: Teaching for Liberty and Justice at Urban Schools: Learning about and Debating Controversial Topics Is Insufficient. Students Must Grapple with Issues That Truly Matter to Their Local Communities

Article excerpt

Every year, I opened the first day of my government class by asking students to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. At schools in the San Francisco Bay area, the tradition of saluting the flag generally subsides in later grades, and students were startled by the sudden revival of an old ritual. Each crop of new students expressed a mix of excitement, irritation, and skepticism, rising in an uneven, mostly half-hearted display of allegiance. At the activity's end, I asked students to reflect on the pledge. We discussed its accuracy as a representation of America, in particular, whether the United States stands, as a republic, for "liberty and justice for all." Through this opening discussion, I would introduce the essential question of the government course: How can the United States government protect liberty and justice for all?

By and large, the pledge frustrated students. For most of the inner-city youth in my class, the liberty and justice assertion of the pledge is disingenuous. Urban neighborhoods struggle with persistent challenges yet to be meaningfully addressed by public policy. The gap between the rich and poor has grown rapidly in recent decades, and these economic disparities are patterned along racial and ethnic lines. Fortunately, in a democratic government like that of the United States, citizens have the power to address injustices through individual and collective action. While younger citizens trail older citizens in voting rates (U.S. Census Bureau, 2016), the popular conception of widespread youth apathy may be overstated. In response to Donald Trump's election, young people participated in marches and school walkouts across the country. Young Americans created the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, which has populated the social media feeds of digitally connected youth. While some have criticized such protests and hashtag activism as shallow and ephemeral, these expressions of political activism suggest potential for greater, more sustained youth engagement.

I contend that schools must develop student capacity for activism. I advocate for politicizing pedagogies that help students develop tools to enhance liberty and justice for society's most marginalized communities. I use politicizing because the adjective politicized connotes a social justice orientation that words like civic and democratic do not necessarily engender. Existing scholarship on civic education has articulated ways of encouraging democratic participation. However, it often encourages shallow political engagement that deemphasizes the academic skills necessary to undertake sophisticated political analysis and challenge structural inequities. Alternatively, pedagogies that emphasize critical thinking are often inattentive to political contexts. Effective democratic engagement necessitates that teachers address both of these components of civic pedagogy. Teachers should employ critically conscious controversy and an intentional focus on political thinking skills to adequately ready students for democratic participation.

Critically conscious controversy

Some teachers might avoid contentious topics for fear of being perceived as indoctrinating students or deviating from content standards. However, as McAvoy and Hess (2013) argue:

[S]hying away from the pedagogy of classroom deliberation is not the right choice. Young people need and, for the most part want, to learn how to deliberate about such issues, and evidence shows that there is a powerful connection between such learning and political engagement (p. 35).

Democracy necessitates civil deliberation of thorny political issues. If schools, out of fear, neglect to develop this capacity, students will graduate unprepared to navigate political controversies and potentially reluctant to influence the political contexts that shape their lives.

However, teaching solely for the sake of controversy requires little more than pedagogical moxie (e. …

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