Teaching civics is increasingly fraught, but I won’t stop doing it

The messy work of democracy means holding power to account. 

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

After 23 years as an educator, teaching is in my blood. I’ve taught U.S. history, civics, government, and economics, sponsored clubs before and after school, and hosted students during lunch. I married a fellow educator, who has taught for 21 years, and our class trips have become family vacations.

But after years of teaching amid the environmental hazards of southeast Chicago, I wonder what else may be in my blood. The community where I live and work is “bombarded with pollution from toxic industry, such as petroleum coke dust,” according to the NRDC. There is manganese in the soil. The rate of emergency room visits for asthma is more than twice the national average.

Donald Z. Davis (Courtesy photo)

As a U.S. history and civics teacher, I face a choice. I could keep my head down and limit my horizon to my classroom’s four walls. I could read verbatim from a textbook and focus on dry topics like how a bill becomes law.

Or I could acknowledge that these out-of-school factors impact what happens in school. I could encourage my students ​​to take part in real-life democratic activities, not to guide them toward an outcome but to prepare them to be informed citizens and leaders who are capable of standing up for what they believe in.

I choose real life.

This choice means my students learn to become passionate public speakers about topics that matter to them and participate in press conferences. This choice means they learn about community organizing — and fight back against plans to locate a scrap-metal recycling facility a half-mile from our school. (We won.) And this choice means my students write about the environmental racism in our community and then receive scholarships to Northwestern University.

Choosing real life means more work and more peril. We engage directly with problems playing out in our community, stepping into the messiness of the democratic process. In doing so, I risk incurring parents’ and politicians’ wrath.

These threats are real. One minute, teachers are being criticized for being lazy, and the next minute teachers who take action are facing calls for their dismissal. (This really happened). All the while, young people, notably, are not voting enough.

In this climate, it would be easier for me to teach a more passive kind of textbook civics. But I refuse. My students are worth the risk, and creating the next generation of informed leaders is too important to choose a path of less resistance.

Choosing real life means more work — and more peril. 

Our students are in dire need of civics education. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation’s Report Card, students’ civics scores just dropped for the first time in more than two decades.

Our students also desperately need to engage with school. Even before the pandemic, only one-third of high school students reported feeling “highly engaged” at school. During the widespread pandemic shutdowns, about half of students reported feeling less motivated in school, and many experienced lower morale.

I help counteract these feelings by sponsoring my school’s Student Voice Committee. This group is based on the Issues to Action program created by Mikva Challenge, a nonprofit that promotes youth civic engagement, and it’s designed to give students agency and power in their schools.

The committee members survey their peers, and they research issues that students face in school — pushing for uniform policy changes, access to period products on campus, and updates to outdated infrastructure. Then, they devise possible solutions and meet with the administration to propose changes. In the process, educators acknowledge students’ lived experiences and create opportunities for them to share their perspectives, improving their civics understanding and increasing their engagement with school.

Another way to boost students’ engagement with school is to get them out of it. Through my experience with Mikva, I’ve chaperoned student trips to Iowa and Wisconsin to encourage voter turnout. And I’ve assisted my students who are 18 to register to vote themselves.

All of these efforts are intended to help my students find their spark. Mikva’s curriculum helps teenagers identify the issues they are passionate about, identify the people and organizations that hold power, and speak truth to that power. Mikva likes to say that “democracy is a verb,” and I’ve found that my students respond enthusiastically when democracy is positioned more as a path toward something better — now, today, for themselves — and less as a form of government rooted in Ancient Greece.

Ultimately, my focus on civic engagement is not about grades or lesson plans or even about keeping more polluters out of our neighborhood. I teach civic engagement to help my students feel powerful. And to paraphrase Maya Angelou, they won’t forget that feeling, and it’ll help orient them toward action for the rest of their lives.

Donald Davis graduated from Chicago Public Schools and has taught social science classes for 23 years at three CPS neighborhood schools. He lives with his wife and two children on the southeast side of Chicago. He currently teaches at George Washington High School, where he also sponsors the Student Voice Committee and coaches the Girls Bowling Team.