PURPLE/Polity

Ralph Ketcham: A Champion for Civic Education

Civic Education lost a powerful voice for meaningful civics this week. While some count political wins with states adding the citizenship test to graduation requirements, Ralph Ketcham led the charge for civic education that was “interdisciplinary, team-taught and driven by deliberation on current events.” That’s civics worth doing and adds up to a political life worth sharing.

When I attended an institute with Ketcham’s biography of Madison on the reading list, I was skeptical of the agenda. 761 pages published in 1971 for a one-week institute in 2005. I will, however, recommend it today and every time I’m asked until my last day. The synopsis from Amazon nails the reason why:

The best one volume biography of Madison’s life, Ketcham’s biography not only traces Madison’s career, it gives readers a sense of the man.

A sense of the man, his intellect and the theory of self-government that compelled him. Sharing that week with Ralph Ketcham himself and walking the grounds of Madison’s Montpelier, I had the privilege of a guided tour of Madison’s mind. It’s a place in time that I return to often, especially when contemplating how to best understand the citizen’s role.

Godspeed, Ralph.

2015 National Academy: The Real Power of a Political Classroom

The Tree (photo by Chuck)

The Tree (photo by Chuck)

The 2015 National Academy for Civics and Government crossed the finish line in Los Angeles as the summer rolled into its final act for teachers, students and their families. The first day of school is again imminent and the Academy’s alumni are returning to their classrooms with big ideas about how to talk about politics.

After three weeks of relentless reading, provocative learning and sometimes heated debate, alumni leveraged the work of a long summer seminar to present their own answers to some very big questions about our political life together. Panel teams worked together to articulate the tension embedded in competing American paradigms, to design a currency and a creedal affirmation that better fit the U.S. Constitution and to interrogate the nature of liberty itself or democracy as it is lived. An enterprise launched with Cicero’s claim that a tree planted in the mind achieves a certain kind of permanence marked its finale by gazing up at a paradigm created through the inquiry, deliberation and collaboration of a community interested in not only how we teach citizens but in how we understand that role in the first place.

As if to prove this work is in no way wrapped in theory and kept at a distance from “the real world,” NPR recently posed a question about politics and classrooms driven by the research of Diana E. Hess and Paula McAvoy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The authors of The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education emphasized the value of multiple competing views, investigating the context of current events and giving students the chance to do the talking themselves. The work of the National Academy represents a model for this kind of political classroom. A colorized framework of political order animates the Academy and works to generate political questions like those presented at its conclusion, questions that remain open to ongoing inquiry even as we each study and work to finally answer them. Open-ended questions about our shared political order create opportunities to breathe life into a civics curriculum and to resist the gravitational pull of partisan politics.

The National Academy “Writing Project” occurs after the first week of seminars and invites participants to step into a “world-making” text. The proposal requires much more than writing. The activity becomes an act approximating that of classic citizenship as Academicians find themselves “ruling” through a text they once considered so definitive and closed-ended that it ruled them. By re-writing the selected text in three different modes, the authors of this new writing, the Academicians, see the text anew and work to cultivate its power through emphasis, elaboration and visualization. Suddenly there is more to see in these familiar texts.

Unwilling to lose the gravitational pull of Cicero’s work, Shannon mapped out a parallel between On The Laws and Federalist No. 51:

Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 2.46.38 PM

 

Dana mapped out the relationship Hobbes describes operating between an individual’s passions and reason and the commonwealth those attributes make possible:

 

With an entire library of political thought now built in the mind, Academy conversations in the last week shifted to questions of constitutional interpretation and the latest headlines. What does the debate over the American flag salute sound like from a perspective focused on maintaining the cohesiveness of the American people? From a perspective concerned for the natural rights of an individual and his conscious thought? What understanding of the government’s proper domain is necessary to lobby for legislation about marriage equality, abortion or marijuana legalization? These questions were no longer the domain of partisan policy making but were conduits to an interrogation of the multiple competing viewpoints on the very question of what it means to be a self-governing people..

The complexities of self-government came into view through those final conversations and were well-represented in the presentations on that last day too. A deep dig into the understanding of liberty within each text of political thought yielded a definition that retained at least two possibilities:

Liberty

Panel Team: Central Concepts

An inquiry into the appropriateness of our current pledge, led one panel to propose two separate constitutional creeds, one for children and one for adults. The team believed connecting the individual to the constitutional order in a meaningful way required addressing different developmental capacities:

American Childrens Creed

Panel Team: Creedal Affirmation

Panel Team: Creedal Affirmation

Panel Team: Creedal Affirmation

A political classroom designed to pursue open questions rather than a partisan one delivering stale tropes is not an easy prescription but it is an accessible one. With the conclusion of this year’s National Academy, there are another 24 civic leaders returning to the classroom better equipped than ever to bring politics back into the classroom in the most meaningful ways.

Kennedy’s Purple Prose

 

Echoes: Creativity and Aristotle’s Potluck

As classic works become more familiar you find those ideas are anything but dead and gone. In fact, they have us surrounded. The ubiquity of ideas you’ve come to associate with Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Federalists or Antifederalists suggests those writers captured something fundamental about how we understand the world and ourselves. Our Echoes series attempts to capture these reverberations through time. Perhaps there is new insight to be seen by presenting the past to the present and vice versa.

I recently read Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer in an attempt to keep thinking creatively despite the doldrums of dissertation writing. It’s a smooth read that attempts to match the mythology of creativity with the science behind a number of recognizable moments of genius, from the Swiffer to Pixar and from 3M’s masking tape to Broadway’s biggest success stories.

Jonah Lehrer shares his understanding of how creativity works

There was one moment, however, where I thought I saw Aristotle among these modern marvels. Lehrer was talking about why brainstorming doesn’t work.

I know a good number of you are teachers. And I can guess that some of you have used brainstorming in the classroom. With my eight years in the classroom and lifetime of thinking, I regularly came to the conclusion that I was doing it wrong. I never managed to unlock the magic mojo. It always felt silly, random and exhausting. I hated being the person at the front of the room who had to DO SOMETHING with the list once it was generated!

So, when Lehrer beat down all the magic talk of brainstorming with evidence that constructive criticism does more for creativity, I nearly threw my fist in the air and shouted, “hell yeah!”. He demonstrates how Pixar used their morning meetings of criticism and “plussing” to take Toy Story 2 from a dismal beginning to blockbuster success. Plussing makes all the difference; it’s “a technique that allows people to improve an idea without using harsh or judgmental language… whenever work is criticized, the criticism should contain a plus, a new idea that builds on the flaws in a productive manner.” Lehrer then connects this practice with an experiment conducted by Charlan Nemeth at UC-Berkley where she put brainstorming into direct competition with constructive criticism.  The group encouraged to debate produced more ideas while they worked together and had even more to add after the session had ended.

According to Nemeth, the reason criticism leads to more new ideas is that it encourages us to fully engage with the work of others. We think about their concepts because we want to improve them; it’s the imperfection that leads us to really listen. (And isn’t that the point of a group:? If we’re not here to make one another better, then why are we here?)

And the echo I heard was from Aristotle’s “pot luck” feast in Book III of Politics:

There is this to be said for the many: each of them by himself may not be of a good quality; but when they all come together it is possible that they may surpass–collectively and as a body, although not individually–the quality of the few best, in much the same way that feasts to which many contribute may excel those provided at one person’s expense. For when there are many, each has his share of goodness and practical wisdom; and, when all meet together the people may thus become something like a single person, who, as he has many feet, many hands, and many senses, may also have many qualities of character and intelligence.

This “creature” of many feet, hands and senses gets to a qualitative assessment of how we come together over brainstorming or plussing or any effort at collective action. The trick is in designing an experience that not only seeks to have everyone contribute but seeks to have everyone contribute according to their strengths and unique perspective.

Inauguration 2013: The Bridge between Words and Realities

This bridge between our words and the “realities of our time” is how Barack Obama described our “never-ending journey” in the United States. There is much to think about in the words the President chose for his 2nd Inaugural speech yesterday and the various snapshots the media has provided us of Americans who either made the trek to the nation’s capital or their local coffee shop to watch the event as a community of people. This post is a glancing blow, a first shot at sharing some of the ideas in the air this week.

Many of our alumni are welcoming students back to school today and one in particular is leading a group of students back home from Washington, D.C. I hope they’ll consider sharing their reflections and those of their students. I hope you will also consider sharing your ideas or those you find in the media that are meaningful. Until then, check out some of these stories…

Saying he was inspired by Walt Whimtan’s idea that America contains multitudes, Richard Blanco read his poem, “One Today,” during the ceremony. Blanco also represents a uniquely American story that enabled his words to convey a certain kind of heft. It’s impossible to choose one verse as the most moving. Perhaps what is the most interesting is how the ONE and the MANY reverberate through each and every stanza. So, you must read the whole thing but here’s one moment in the poem that was especially meaningful to me:

All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the “I have a dream” we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
onto the steps of our museums and park benches
as mothers watch children slide into the day.

 

Commentary on the meaning of the moment flooded Facebook and Twitter where the White House’s graphics to accompany the text appeared alongside tributes to Martin Luther King. Too often in this era of 24/7 cable news, commentary is cheap, meaningless and whatever the opposite of thought provoking is (maybe mind-numbing?).

I was grateful for two pieces where the authors aimed to reflect on the moment and the context. James Fallows wrote about “The Two Most Powerful Allusions in Obama’s Speech” for The Atlantic. The two themes he discusses briefly are the “lash and the sword,” which he shows connects to the closing passage of Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address, and “Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall.” After sharing an excerpt from Obama’s speech, the very first sentence which he claims summarizes the entire thing, Fallows demonstrated how Lincoln, Jefferson, Madison, Adams and George Washington lined up with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Martin Luther King and Congressman John Lewis:

As in the one-sentence summary at the start of the speech, Obama wants to claim not just Lincoln but also Jefferson, Madison, Adams, George Washington, and the rest as guiding spirits for his kind of progressivism. In this passage he works toward that end by numbering among “our forebears” — those honored ancestors who fought to perfect our concepts of liberty and of union — the likes of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Martin Luther King and other veterans of Selma including still-living Rep. John Lewis, and the protestors 44 years ago at the Stonewall.

After reading much (maybe too much) about the rhetoric and watching a video of Conrell West ranting against Obama’s decision to use MLK’s bible for the swearing in, I went looking for what Ta-Nehisi Coates writing. Also posted on The Atlantic, his reflection on the President’s remarks made an essential point. This is the reason why we should always be careful about dismissing something as “nothing but rhetoric.” Coates writes:

As surely as it has always mattered to homophobes, white supremacists, and chauvinists what was and wasn’t said in the public, it should matter to those of who seek to repel them. What ideas do and don’t get exposed in the public square has to matter to any activist, because movements begin by exposing people to ideas. “I Have a Dream” is not simply important because of whatever civil-rights legislation followed, but because it put on the big American public stage a notion that was long held as anathema — integration. The idea extends beyond legislation.

The moment wasn’t lost on a Chicago high schooler who attended the inaugural event and shared her thoughts with NPR, “I think this is the first time he bluntly said everything he believed in outright to the public and I thought that was phenomenal.” The NPR piece that focuses on this group of Chicago teens and their ideas about Obama was short but invaluable.  That might be what I appreciated most yesterday… hearing the voices of the future consonant with the voices of the past and taking to task the voices of now.

***I very much want to “color code” both texts, Obama’s speech and Blanco’s poem, to bring out each of these groups of people, the past, the future, the now and the people of all times. Expect a future post. If you have ideas for different ways to present these words or to put them into conversation with other familiar forms, please do it and share it with us.

UPDATE: Todd Heuston is trying to escape D.C. with his group of students from South Anchorage High School but shared a sound clip from Alaska Public Radio. Now we can add his voice and those of his students to this collection of reflections on the inauguration. Listen to Todd’s thoughts about Obama’s “broad strokes” and the issues that interested his students this most here.

Detroit’s Hiedelberg Project: Questions of liveliness at the edges & organized complexity

It was like walking through a graveyard. We found ourselves talking in hushed tones or, mostly, not talking at all. Spookiest of all was the hope that still occupied the hollow spaces of the Hiedelberg Project. Horror and hope. Calling out from the empty houses, there was at once a community abandoned and a community committed to persevere.

A four minute intro to the space that includes community voice and the artist, Tyree Guyton, who grew up in the neighborhood:

Keith (Hobbes21), his family and mine walked through the Hiedelberg Project in Detroit enjoying the whimsy of giant polka dots and nonsensical clocks. The Hiedelberg Project (HP) describes itself as “an outdoor community art environment. The elements contain recycled materials and found objects, most of which were salvaged from the streets of Detroit.” We shared smiles over piles of stuffed animals but then realized they looked like refugees crowded into a boat, determined to get anywhere that wasn’t here. The uneasy quiet returned to wash away our smiles.

Stuff Underfoot (photo by Kelly Fox)

The community art project included colorful cartoonish drawings of shoes amid piles of discarded shoes. These piles were so high it was hard to fathom how many people the empty shoes represented. I started to wonder where all those people were now. And then quickly tried to think about something else.

On the web, HP tells you the whole project “is symbolic of how many communities in Detroit have been discarded. It asks questions and causes the viewer to think. When you observe the HP, What do you really see? Is it art?… That’s for you decide.” Keith and I were trying to decide about the shoes.

I had thought of empty slogans you see plastered all over recovery efforts. One step at a time. One foot in front of the other. But it was also easy to imagine they were there to nag you about something or someone trampled under foot. A people downtrodden. The same cognitive dissonance accompanied the armies of old vacuums, reinforced with brooms and empty gloves. These were the tools of a brigade prepared to make a clean sweep. To rebuild. To begin again. But the tools were abandoned, exposed and showing the wear of being exposed for years.

A Clean Sweep (photo by Kelly Fox)

A collection of nonsensical clocks asked you to consider either that the time had come to do something or to concede that even thinking that phrase made you part of a regime that never delivered on that promise. The time to act had come. And gone. And come and gone. Again and again. Each clock showed a different time, provoking you to wonder why. Think about it too long and each of the different times started to haunt you too. They want you to know that the time to act comes and goes each and every day while the Detroit neighborhoods this community represents continue to sit quietly. Forgotten and unchanged.

Haunting Dolls (photo by Kelly Fox)

We left the Hiedelberg Project but I couldn’t shake the cognitive dissonance. More than just art accessible in a public space, HP represents a powerful installment of civic art. It made you think about the people who once lived in those spaces and what they had heard from their city and fellow citizens. Not just what they heard but what they had believed. What they knew about themselves, that neighborhood and their city when they fled, begrudgingly left their family home or were dragged away. It made you think about how a people had been neglected or abandoned and how complicit you had been in it.

I think it was this idea of being a part of the problem that required us to quiet our voices. Being in that space required contemplating what it might mean to be lost or forgotten. Maybe even discarded. The problems we witnessed at Hiedelberg had an unrelenting gravity.

Liveliness at the Edges

The force of this community art project came into full view unexpectedly one night as I was reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. He was sharing his thoughts after a week on a grass farm, but I replayed the images of Hiedelberg as I read his ideas about an essential relationship between antagonists.

He suggested antagonists need one another:

For some reason the image that stuck with me from that day was that slender blade of grass in a too-big, wind-whipped pasture, burning all those calories just to stand up straight and keep its chloroplasts aimed at the sun. I’d always thought of the trees and grasses as antagonists—another zero-sum deal in which the gain of the one entails the loss of the other. To a point, this is true: More grass means less forest; more forest less grass. But either-or is a construction more deeply woven into our culture than into nature, where even antagonists depend on one another and the liveliest places are the edges, the in-betweens or both-ands. So it is with the blade of grass and the adjacent forest as, indeed, with all the species sharing the most complicated form. Relations are what matter most, and the health of the cultivated turns on the health of the wild. Before I came to Polyface [the grass farm] I’d read a sentence of Joel’s that in its diction had struck me as an awkward hybrid of the economic and the spiritual. I could see now how characteristic that mixing is, and that perhaps the sentence isn’t so awkward after all: ‘One of the greatest assets of a farm is the sheer ecstasy of life.’

Hiedelberg’s polka dots were that blade of grass fighting to stand up straight, testifying to a liveliness at the edges that once existed.

photo by Kelly Fox

Polka Dots (photo by Kelly Fox)

The trouble that demands your attention in that urban neighborhood is that we as a people have misunderstood something fundamental about our life together. Pollan asks his readers to consider that corporate agriculture has ignored biological fact in an effort to increase their productivity. The HP story connects here. It does not argue that disorder simply happened on those streets but that order had been neglected or even abandoned. Stories of gangs, violence and vengeance recur in our discussions of urban streets. They tell us order was turned upside down as bad elements invaded the streets and conquered everything that had been good. That version of the story suggests gangs turned things upside down making it more admirable to stall and thwart police efforts than to cooperate and assist them.

If order is lost rather than turned upside down, however, society has to ask how it allowed this to happen. The community and city leaders have to confront their role in abandoning a certain group of people or certain places, for certain reasons; They have to evaluate those reasons, including those that are allowed to go unsaid and unchallenged.

The unrealized possibilities of Hiedelberg are not confined to that community alone or even to those that resemble it. There is something more to be known about being a whole community or a whole people that is lost when we sacrifice the liveliness of the edges for the false comfort of zero-sum thinking. Consider the usual vow to put more police on the streets that increases perceived safety but has a minimal effect on crime rates and the actual decline that accompanied the “broken window theory” described by Kelling and Wilson. As they observed in 1982, the neighborhoods felt safer because the foot-patrol officers were able to “elevate… the level of public order in these neighborhoods.” A useful summary of the theory appears in James Wilson’s NY Times obituary, “his most influential theory holds that when the police emphasize the maintenance of order rather than the piecemeal pursuit of rapists, murderers and carjackers, concentrating on less threatening though often illegal disturbances in the fabric of urban life like street-corner drug-dealing, graffiti and subway turnstile-jumping, the rate of more serious crime goes down.”

Recognizing Organized Complexity

Organized Complexity (photo by Kelly Fox)

The question of urban neighborhoods is not answered simply by counting the number of police, instances of gang activity or even broken windows alone. In her influential book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs urged city planners to understand the question of cities as one of “organized complexity,” presenting “situations in which a half-dozen or even several dozen quantities are all varying simultaneously and in subtly interconnected ways.” [italics in original text] The Hiedelberg project does not stop at asking us to consider the demise of a single urban neighborhood but provokes us to look at the systemic failure of a political society.

Walking down the street we were poised at a sort of event horizon confronted with the possibility of a lost state. Something Cicero described in The Republic as a sort of black hole:

As for the punishments which even the stupidest can feel—destitution, exile, jail, flogging—individuals often escape them by choosing the option of a quick death; but in the case of states, death, which seems to rescue individuals from punishment, is itself a punishment. For a state should be organized in such a way as to last for ever. And so the death of a state is never natural, as it is with a person, for whom death is not only inevitable but also frequently desirable. Again, when a state is destroyed, eliminated, and blotted out, it is rather as if (to compare small with great) this whole world were to collapse and pass away. (Book Three, 33-35)

This idea makes sense of the silence we adopted as though we were witnessing catastrophic devastation. But we witnessed hope and perseverance too. Tocqueville contemplated the failure of democratic government in Democracy in America and shed light on what makes this idea of hope make sense:

Many people, on seeing democratic states fall into anarchy, have thought that government in these states was naturally weak and powerless. The truth is that when war among their parties has once been set aflame, government loses its action on society. But I do not think that the nature of democratic power is to lack force and resources; I believe, on the contrary, that almost always the abuse of its strength and the bad use of its resources bring it to perish. Anarchy is almost always born of its tyranny or its lack of skillfulness, but not of its powerlessness.

The citizens of Hiedelberg had a sense of the power that still remained despite the appearance that all had been lost. They experienced this lack of skill and misuse of force but they know Hiedelberg has the potential to teach us the skills we need. This too resonates with the work of Jane Jacobs and how she concludes her book on great American cities, “Dull, inert cities, it is true, do contain the seeds of their own destruction and little else. But lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves.” Hiedelberg begs its observers to shift their perspective and consider its questions anew, with a sense of hope instead of loss and a substantive concern for what happens next.

Seeing America

The second week at Montpelier concluded Friday with this question… What do you SEE when you say AMERICA?

As the American public celebrates independence through fireworks, BBQ and pool parties, the 80 teachers who studied constitutional citizenship at Madison’s Montpelier know we must keep the future as well as the past in our mind’s eye. There’s no reason to skip the fireworks but let’s consider what that particular moment in time reveals to us about our present and our future. If America is an idea rather than a place, it’s essential that we share our ideas about what America is or could be.

It’s that mission that led to our last assignment for our afternoon discussion. We focused on our work as teachers and the role of citizens and elected representatives as constitutional officers, and Jim LeCain shared a quote he thought defined our mission:

Teach the [Constitution’s] principles, teach them to your children, speak of them when sitting in your home, speak of them when walking by the way, when lying down and when rising up, write them upon the doorplate of your home and upon your gates.

–John Quincy Adams on the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution

–Quoted by Chief Justice Warren Burger at the 200th anniversary celebration

The quote resonates with the power of the words in Deuteronomy beginning with 6:5:

Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

And Will couldn’t stop there. If you didn’t hear the cadence of the words in Deuteronomy when you read the quote, you might have remembered a folk anthem instead. Remember these lyrics from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Teach Your Children”…

You, who are on the road
Must have a code
That you can live by.
And so, become yourself
Because the past
Is just a goodbye.

Teach, your children well
Their father’s hell
Did slowly go by
And feed them on your dreams
The one they pick’s
The one you’ll know by.
Don’t you ever ask them why
If they told you, you would die
So just look at them and sigh
And know they love you.

With such an important task at hand, what do you SEE when you say AMERICA?

Project Citizen

Having been briefly introduced to Project Citizen at the National Academy, I decided to try it out this year.  It’s an ideal, outcome-based activity as much about the journey as the finish.  And the great thing about the finish is that it’s really just the beginning, for students receive the tools to research and formulate public policy.  In the end, it is incredibly empowering for the kids to discover the pathways through which they can enact change.

A few words from my fourth-graders (non-speakers) when asked today by the panel what they had learned from the experience: “I learned what private domain is.”  “Compromise.”  “Better research skills.”  “How a bill becomes a law.”  “How long it takes to pass a bill.”  “A lot about pollution and landfills.”

In our first few sessions, my 4th-6th grade students narrowed their choices for the project to these rough ideas: Save Bears, Clean-Up Michigan’s Rivers, Fix the Litter in Detroit.  The more we delved into the text, students discovered that those topics really weren’t clear proposals for public policy.  They also gained a ton of knowledge regarding sovereignty, as well as private sphere/civil society/ government.  The more they learned, the more focused their idea became, and their eventual choice–EXPAND MICHIGAN’S BOTTLE LAW–ended up as a wonderful combination of the early favorites.

P1040614 P1040612 P1040613 P1040611

The four areas of the portfolio–PROBLEM, ALTERNATIVE POLICIES, OUR SOLUTION, and ACTION PLAN–serve as a fantastic outline for anyone of any age attempting to bring about change.

The panel presentation in a committee room at the state capitol was the pinnacle of the experience.  Having misjudged time, our project came down to the wire (lesson learned: start early!); as a result, the kids didn’t first benefit and learn from a local session.  However, they could not have done any better than what I witnessed today.  Thorough preparation pays dividends, and I was so proud of my students for presenting without reading from a page.  (It does make a difference, I can tell you, as we were able to observe a high school group who did just that.)

P1040621

We will be participating in Project Citizen next year, and in the years after!  Sincerely, the entire process has been one of the most valuable of my entire teaching career.

If you have any questions about Project Citizen, right down to the tooth ‘n’ nails, feel free to contact me at [email protected], or pose your questions here.

It’s America and We are One

Did you see the We are One celebration yesterday? It was a powerful combination of our best words, music, and ideas. From the MLK and JFK quotes you’d expect to Reagan quotes you wouldn’t. I wouldn’t call myself a fan of Mary J. Blige or Jon Bon Jovi but they provided a moving performance with a gritty civil rights classic “A Change is Gonna Come.”

Most know me as a U2 fan and it’s Bono’s words that provoked this post. Brian Williams from NBC’s Nightly News interviewed Bono after rehearsals Saturday night. Bono was overheard to say it felt like the band had somehow trespassed on the American dream. His emotional understanding of the moment guided Bono’s responses to Brian’s questions.

I’m going to save his answer just long enough to set the stage…

Aerial views of the thousands of people crowding the mall brought back personal memories for some and a sense of living history for others. We’ve seen crowds on the mall like this before. Is it one of our most public spaces? U2 performed two songs. Where they started is where many worried our march for civil rights had ended. They sang “Pride (In the Name of Love),” their tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King.

The song begins…

One man come in the name of love
One man come and go
One come he to justify
One man to overthrow…

The conclusion makes the song  personal…

Early morning, April 4
Shot rings out in the Memphis sky
Free at last, they took your life
They could not take your pride

In the name of love
What more in the name of love…

If time hadn’t already found itself in a crazy loop with MLK’s pride and passion present again on those famous steps, Obama then took center stage. His speech spoke to this moment while heeding the voices of moments past. This moment, with the past and future present at once, is where Bono’s remarks found their fuel.We now we return to Brian Williams and Bono.

Brian asks Bono what it means to the band to be a part of the inaugural celebration. Bono expresses his hope that it internationalizes it somehow adding, with a friendly jab to the ribs, “You might own the country but you don’t own the idea.”

Bono imagines people around the globe watching the ceremony on Tuesday and adds:

When this man swears in on Lincoln’s Bible, he proves that America exists. It’s an astonishing thing because in a way people had ruled out Amerca. They counted you out. They think… oh yeah, America is just for America. It strangely changes everything.

And with that assertion, that this moment on Tuesday provides proof that America exists, I thought of the question of who we are or, as Matthew added, who we is.  The words we use this week and the moments we create resonate with answers to these questions. Do some words carry the weight of our past while others herald the promise of our future? Are those the same words or are they different? Are some words and moments more substantive than others? What makes the difference?

A school based on Constitutional Citizenship

Those of you at the second week of James Madison and Constitutional Citizenship at Montpelier may have heard about my school and our work with Professor Harris. Our charter high school was created by a group of parents in 1998 with a mission to teach citizenship. From the beginning we tried to fulfill this mission by incorportaing lots of civic education and community service into our curriculum as well as trying to think about the skills and dispositions of a good citizen that we wanted to foster in our students. However, our efforts felt disparate and we felt as if we lacked the philisophical grounding for what we were doing as a school.

Then, I attended a weekend seminar at Montpelier and was introduced to Res Publica: An International Framework for Education in a Democracy. Found online at http://www.civiced.org/index.php?page=res_publica

My faculty studied portions of this document. Then we met at a retreat at Montpelier, heard from Professor Harris, and finally with all of that in mind, we got to work. We sat small groups of folks in different departments and tried to discover the commonalities in our approaches to teaching, to working with students, and to our disciplines. What we found was that there were clear principles guiding what we did as a school. Some of the principles we felt we lived up to, others we aspired to, but these principles (which we formed into a kind of Constitution) guided our school and were the philisophical basis for Constitutional citizenship mission.

So, here is our Constitution

Citizenship Preamble and Principles

We, of RCHS, intend to cultivate the understanding and practices that sustain individual self-determination and community self-government.  We have adopted the following principles in order to ensure that all who pass through our halls can imagine, create, and govern a more perfect world.

 

We believe:

 

That a foundation of knowledge and ethics must precede all intellectual inquiry;

 

That if we

encourage self-awareness

build and maintain local communities

develop an awareness of our membership in ever larger communities

engage in common enterprises with people who are different

accommodate and address conflict and change

facilitate problem solving

foster balance and moderation in life

and take ownership and responsibility for learning

 

We will become good citizens.

We continue to work to use this document as a guide for our school and our programs. Lately, that has meant thinking about how to communicate these ideas to new faculty, to our students, and to our parents. In addition we struggled with developing a principle that communicated the ideas of educating makers and not just users. We ultimately felt as if that idea was just below the surface in many of these principles, but still aren’t sure how to make that idea come alive in just a phrase (especially for an audience unfamilier with Professor Harris’ ideas about constitutional citizenship).

I would love to hear your thoughts about our work and its applicability to your schools.

-Shayne