Show & Tell: A Video Column / Public Spirit in the Classroom - ASCD
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April 1, 2019

Show & Tell: A Video Column / Public Spirit in the Classroom

How schools can teach the common good.

Social Emotional Learning
Equity
Show & Tell: A Video Column / Public Spirit in the Classroom thumbnail

One thing people can agree on is that the current incivility and political dysfunction in the United States are preventing us from moving forward as a nation. Divisive language and beliefs around race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and sexual orientation threaten to tear communities apart—and leave children and adolescents fearful. Educators can't shield their students from divisive issues; social media and a 24/7 news cycle ensure that children are exposed to evidence of the worst of human behavior. But can classrooms and schools provide the antidote to this divisiveness and fear?

The U.S. Supreme Court thought so 65 years ago. The Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 is hailed for its clear ruling that "separate is not equal." Closer examination of the written decision, delivered by Chief Justice Earl Warren, also reveals impassioned optimism about the power of education:

It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. [It] is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. 1

Think about it. Our collective teaching efforts are "the principal instrument." We're charged with "awakening" our students and instilling "cultural values." Of course, families, communities, and religious institutions are vital in defining those cultural values. However, Warren's words suggest that school should be a place where one learns about the common good that binds a diverse nation.

Awakening Public Spirit

Valuing the common good speaks to a sense of public spirit, which we define as "active interest and personal investment in the well-being of one's communities." 2 Communities include home, school, neighborhood, state or province, region, country, and world. In our work as educators, we've identified seven essential competencies of public spirit: 3

  • Respect for others: The ability to see worth and value in every life.

  • Courage: Persistence in the face of fear.

  • Ethical responsibility: The ability to merge one's own circumstances with those of the group.

  • Civic responsibility: Investment in a participatory democracy that seeks to give a voice to all, right wrongs, and contribute to the common good.

  • Social justice: A commitment to the human rights of all people and the pursuit of material improvements in the quality of life of others.

  • Service learning: Student-directed planning and partnerships that are collaborative, mutually beneficial, and address community needs.

  • Leadership: The ability to inspire others, organize and delegate responsibilities, communicate thoughtfully and honestly, and hold oneself accountable for the collective work.

Public spirit is an important expression of social-emotional learning (SEL). While many SEL approaches emphasize self-knowledge and pro-social behaviors among classmates, these skills should be outward facing as well.

Here are some examples—from the work of educators in San Diego we know or know of—of how teachers can build students' capacity for public spirit.

Discussing Ethical Issues

Educators can strengthen students' ethical sense by intentionally drawing students' attention to how both real and imaginary characters face challenging ethical dilemmas and choices. While one's internal moral compass is an important element, a less explored aspect of such dilemmas is contemplating the impact of one's decisions on others' lives. Debates, Socratic seminars, and other formal discussion formats give students the opportunity to wrestle with complex issues.

For very young students, the book A Bike Like Sergio's by Maribeth Boelts (Candlewick, 2016) provides fodder for deep discussion of an ethical issue. Ruben, who longs for a bike like the one his friend has, finds some money and decides to keep it. When he discovers that he's kept a one-hundred-dollar bill, not the one-dollar bill he originally thought, he's initially overjoyed at the thought that he can now buy the bike. But he struggles with whether he should return it, or use it to help his mother buy groceries.

Service Learning

The benefits of service learning are reciprocal: Student learning benefits an organization or community while also enhancing participating students' lives. Internships are one example of service learning. Younger students can take on service-learning projects under the guidance of a teacher. Students might develop and tend a community garden in a "food desert," learning about life sciences while nourishing the neighborhood. Middle schoolers doing a beach cleanup as part of science class gain data about the composition of the trash collected. A cross-age literacy peer-tutoring project between older students not yet making expected progress and classmates in a lower grade level can give the older youths opportunities to refine their reading skills as they support younger partners.

Fostering Student Leadership

Young people have a strong sense of the pressing issues of the day, but often lack the opportunity to drive decisions about consequential work. At Health Sciences High and Middle College, we have an annual Day of Understanding conference designed and directed by students. We've sponsored this event for five years. It was born from a student's desire to hold a forum on building understanding between Muslim, Christian, and Buddhist students, as well as agnostic and atheist classmates. A student-led committee determines the theme, interviews keynote speakers, designs the agenda, presents at sessions, and manages logistical elements of the daylong conference and follow-up activities.

The video accompanying this column highlights activities and student insights from this year's conference, with the theme "You Are Beautiful" (highlighting identity issues across race, gender, and body image).

Past conference themes have focused on gender expression, dis/ability, perceived immigration status, and overcoming obstacles created by others' assumptions.

Shaping the Future

Young people are our greatest asset. At a time when many of us long for more civil discourse, we must keep an eye on the future. What are we teaching the next generation? If we throw up our hands and allow social media to teach them, we're doomed. But if we take up Justice Warren's charge to be the "principal instrument" in developing future adults' sense of a public spirit, perhaps we can shape our own futures in a positive way.

Watch the Video

Watch students talk about what they gain from their school's "Day of Understanding."

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End Notes

1 Brown v. Board of Educ., 347 U.S. 483 (1954).

2 Frey, N., Fisher, D., &amp; Smith, D. (2019). All learning is social and emotional: Helping students develop essential skills for the classroom and beyond. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

3 Frey, N., Smith, D., &amp; Fisher, D. (2019): Integrating SEL into everyday instruction: A quick-reference guide. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.


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