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Working for the Common Good

Students may find “the commons” a strange term. It’s not a part of their everyday vocabulary. What’s unfortunate is that the concept may also be unfamiliar to them. I first heard the term when I was in high school. The commons was the place where we ate lunch and hung out with friends before and after class. It was a gathering place, a common area. As long as everyone followed the rules and treated each other with respect, the commons was a pleasant place to be.

“The commons” is actually an old English term referring to a common parcel of land used by herders to graze their cows. A somewhat similar system in the United States today allows the grazing of livestock in the national forests. This system is not without controversy. 

In 1968, Garrett Hardin published an essay in the journal Science discussing a dilemma we, as humans, face in making valuable resources (such as land) a part of the commons. In this essay—aptly titled “The Tragedy of the Commons”—Hardin describes the situation of herders adding more cattle to their herds to maximize their personal gain. The result was overgrazing of the land and eventual destruction of the pasture.

If the concept of the commons is foreign to our students, I’m concerned that the idea of the common good may be, too. The common good is that which is good for all people, not just one person or a group of people. In reference to the commons in Hardin’s essay, the common good would require each person acting in a way that would keep the pasture from being overgrazed and eventually destroyed. If they had acted accordingly, all would have benefitted.

The commons we need to be concerned about today is more than a pasture—it’s the entire natural world. In Hardin’s essay, the lack of concern for the common good resulted in the loss of livelihood for all the herders. In today’s world, the destruction of the natural environment would be a more serious loss for all of us.

Hardin’s essay is sometimes used with older students to help them understand the difference between renewable and unlimited resources. The pasture for the herders represents a renewable resource. As long as there were limits on how the pasture was used, the pasture stayed healthy. What destroyed the pasture was individual greed—seeking what is beneficial to the self at the expense of what is good for the community.  

Hardin’s essay might also be used with students to help them understand that caring for our common habitat, the Earth, means caring for and about each other. The message to save the Earth isn’t just about the Earth—it’s about all of us. One way to help students grasp the idea of the commons and the common good is to have them participate in an exercise where they need to decide who benefits from a particular activity or rule: Is it just one individual or group who benefits or is it the larger society? With this exercise, students might also be asked to identify how the individual, group or larger society benefits or gets hurt. Here are a few examples for them to consider:

  • Grazing of cattle on all public land is allowed without restrictions.
  • Limits are imposed on the number of fish that can be taken from a lake.
  • Fines are imposed for littering in public places.
  • People are allowed to smoke wherever they want to.

Another activity you might do to help students understand the need to consider the common good is to engage them in developing a set of classroom rules that would benefit the entire group. You might also challenge them to think of a “bumper sticker-type” slogan that expresses the basic concept of working for the common good. “Better together” and “We matters as much as me” are two examples.

A premise of Hardin’s essay is that each man was locked into a system compelling him to seek personal gain even if this resulted in harm to the common good. A similar thought held by some people today is that human nature is fundamentally selfish and that we each exist for our own sake. Others, however, propose the opposite—that we are by nature caring and altruistic. We can certainly point to examples of individuals whose behaviors support both views.

One thing we do know, however, is that how we are nurtured or taught plays a role in who we become. As teachers, we can help students become more caring and considerate by helping them understand the concept of the commons and what it means to be concerned about the common good.

An excellent resource for more discussion ideas is On the Commons.

Wilson is an educational consultant and curriculum writer.

Missteps in Civic Engagement

I recently attended the National Council for Social Studies annual conference in Boston, where I saw countless examples of the work that dedicated educators are doing to increase civic engagement in students from kindergarten through college. It’s clear that educators who teach students about the valuable roles they can play in their communities are doing a great service. However, no matter how well-intentioned, some civic engagement activities can miss the mark when educators do not carefully guide students.

This fact emerged during a session at the conference on a Project Citizen endeavor in Tennessee. Project Citizen is a program sponsored by the Center for Civic Education, a nonprofit organization “dedicated to promoting an enlightened and responsible citizenry committed to democratic principles and actively engaged in the practice of democracy in the United States and other countries.”

In Tennessee, participating students identified a serious community problem: the terrifying experience of children after methamphetamine busts at their homes. Stripped of all their clothing and belongings and then decontaminated, they are placed into the foster care system with only a blanket wrapped around their naked bodies. The students were rightly outraged and developed the brilliant solution of equipping police with backpacks to carry in the trunks of their cars, to give to children when they are removed from their homes. Each backpack contains a pair of underwear, a T-shirt and toys. The students secured funding and worked with the local authorities to get the backpacks placed in police vehicles.

This is an example of important civic engagement, and the educators involved excelled at teaching their students how to make a difference in their own communities.

There are just two problems: the toys and the T-shirts. First, the toys were rooted in gender stereotypes to which not all children conform. Not all girls want dolls, for instance. When I asked the presenters—the teachers behind the project—about this, I was told that the participating students decided on the toys. To me, this is a missed opportunity for a teachable moment about difference and the importance of suspending judgment.

But the T-shirts were the greater problem. The shirts identified the project and featured a slogan about the harmful effects of methamphetamine. 

I asked the teachers whether they thought such a shirt would stigmatize the children who wore them. They assured me that nothing of the sort happened: The students who ran the project also wore the T-shirts. No one could identify why each child wore the shirt.

If that’s true, great. But the educators did not produce evidence to support this conclusion, nor did they provide any feedback from the children for whom that T-shirt might be one of the very few items of clothing they own upon entering the foster care system. In addition, the T-shirts might serve as painful reminders of their horrible situation. The educators defended the shirts, arguing that they were acceptable because the students leading the project created them.  

I don’t think that’s a good enough reason to put a T-shirt about methamphetamine destroying families on a traumatized 6-year-old. It is the educators’ job to encourage students to question their work, to say, “This is a great design, but let’s think about it. You would wear it by choice because you’re proud of this project. But how would you feel about wearing a T-shirt like this if you came from one of those homes? Would it remind you of that bad time? Would you worry that people who saw you wearing it would think bad things about you and your family?”

I am reminded of Atticus’s instructions to Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Project Citizen in Tennessee would have been more successful if educators had asked students to walk around in their T-shirts as if they were beneficiaries of the project, not the creators. While the educators running the program correctly and successfully allowed students to control the process of civic engagement, they missed an opportunity to intervene and challenge their students.

Had they done so, they would have built greater empathy in their students. It’s empathy, not sympathy, that helps build tolerance and understanding—two qualities that one needs to make a difference in a community.

But ultimately, we can learn from missteps. These are teachable moments—for educators and students alike—and upon reflection and discussion, they can help build a more robust civic engagement practice. Teaching Tolerance would like to hear from you. In your experience, what are some of the lessons you and your students have learned from missteps in civic engagement projects? 

Silos-Rooney is an assistant professor of history at MassBay Community College.

What We’re Reading This Week: December 12

The Huffington Post: Video blogger Franchesca Ramsey presents five steps for being a strong and effective ally.

The Huffington Post: When 7-year-old Parker Dains saw “for boys” on the cover of a book, she asked the publisher to consider the gender stereotypes this type of labeling reinforces.

Juvenile Justice Information Exchange: Following the death of two its members, the student organization Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools seeks to carry on their work by pressing for restorative justice. 

LGBTQ Nation: A school board in Virginia has restricted the use of school bathrooms based on students’ sex. 

The New York Times: Glaring racial disparities surfaced in this school discipline case involving two girls—one African American and one white—and two very different outcomes.

The New York Times: Writer Charles Blow recalls witnessing the beating of Rodney King and considers how his reactions then compare to what students today feel about Ferguson and Eric Garner.

Salon: Teaching Tolerance blogger Vishavjit Singh reacts to racist comments by sharing his unusual life story.

USA TODAY: Millennials are the most racially tolerant of any recent generation—yet they grapple daily with just how much race still matters to society.  

U.S. Department of Education: U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder released a guidance package this week aimed at helping state and local agencies provide quality education to incarcerated youth.

If you come across a current article or blog you think other educators should read, please send it to editor@tolerance.org and put What We’re Reading This Week in the subject line.

The Revolution Will Be Tweeted

"There are some things that we can never change it seems...#racism #EricGarner #TrayvonMartin #EmmettTill #RekiaBoyd #Ferguson "-DS 8th

"This makes youth of color feel threatened in our own communities because even eye contact w/an officer could mean death #EricGarner"-TG 8th

"I don't feel anything. It's a misfortune he died, but things like this happen all the time, which is pretty sad to say. #EricGarner"-MG 7th

These are just a few tweets from seventh- and eighth-graders who were doing more than expressing their views on the killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and others: They were completing a classroom assignment.

Last week, Chicago middle school teacher Xian Barrett had his students insert their voices into conversations about these cases by creating a special activity: After reviewing and discussing the details of each case in class, tweet about them. He then shared these tweets on his own Twitter feed (while maintaining students’ anonymity).

Barrett recently shared with Teaching Tolerance his inspiration for the project and the most meaningful takeaways for him and his students.

What inspired you to document your students’ thoughts on #Ferguson and #EricGarner, and why through Twitter? 

Personally, what drives me on the violence issue is that I’ve had to bury too many students. It’s seven now from my classes, but there have been a lot more young people lost from the communities I’ve taught in. That’s the worst thing that can happen to a teacher. They should be putting us in the ground 40 years from now, not vice versa.

But that’s not all. When I did peace circles with my high school students, they would describe being stopped by police 10, 15, 20 times over three-month periods. At the same time, they were terrified of the violence in the neighborhood. I mean, I just heard shots down the block as I’m typing this. …

… I’m angry like much of America about the #EricGarner and #MikeBrown cases, but this has been happening forever. It’s part of the same culture that had police working with white supremacist groups to lynch and terrorize people of color for most of our nation’s history. I teach that history, and now that mainstream America is finally discussing these issues more, I want my students to be part of that discussion. How can we hope to address deep institutional criminalization of black and brown youth if we don’t respect them to lead these discussions?

I want to make sure [my students] are thinking deeply and using their voices. I think long-form writing is still important—we will do several longer papers this year—but I want them to get used to using platforms for power, not just to get a grade for a class.

What was the classroom context for this project? Was it an assignment?

Yes, we studied the background details. It’s important to acknowledge the nuances and the differing perspectives.

In all this work, I try to refrain from sharing my perspective until after they share theirs. In this latest project, some of the students (as you can see in the tweets, it was just a couple) were very sympathetic to the officers. But most were not—as has been my experience in the three settings I’ve taught at in Chicago. Even those with relatives in law enforcement tended to focus on the need for all police to act ethically and de-escalate violence so their colleagues could be safer rather than justifying deadly force.

After reviewing the facts (and the details, like how a grand jury works, etc.), they spoke in groups and then individually wrote their tweets.

How do you teach about Twitter?

It is definitely a teaching tool. I think most of the youth can see that an essay they write gets seen by one or maybe 30 people if you do peer sharing, but a tweet can be seen by thousands. That motivates them. We talk about what makes a good tweet in the same way we discuss what a good persuasive essay looks like. We have looked at other tweets on the hashtags where organizers are using them to rally people and run on-the-ground logistics. But it’s still something we are developing. We’ll see where they want to take it. 

As of now, I do a lot of modeling. As you can see, only a few of my students got parental permission and tweeted their own tweets [@OldSpiceManny, @SebasOrtiz17 and @Tiristaran]. [T]he logistics are difficult—especially with the younger voices.

What were your goals for this activity? What were you hoping the result(s) would be?

I want them to be able to analyze difficult situations and have big takeaways. The youth who linked Emmett Till to Michael Brown or Eric Garner in a short thoughtful sentence are already making the deep connections that transform the study of history from a trivial pursuit to work that transforms the present and future.

That said, there’s going to be a wide spectrum, but I saw growth in all of the students, including those with big obstacles in their normal schooling. They in particular engaged far beyond my expectations. I think it’s worth remembering that, in addition to race, the students with disabilities are far more likely to run into trouble with the police, so I’m very hopeful that they’ll find this work useful.

What have you learned from this experience, as a teacher?

There’s a weird dynamic these days where everyone talks about “having high standards” and what they mean is that you attack the young people if they don’t conform to very narrowly defined standards. I find it to be particularly damaging to youth of color—many of whom aren’t likely to want to conform to standards defined by affluent white communities [and pushed] onto them. I learned that if you break down those high expectations from “Hit this test score” to “Dream some stuff that you are passionate about and make it real,” they do a lot better.

I said that losing a student to violence is the worst thing that can happen to a teacher and it’s true; it’s absolutely awful.

That said, I think probably the worst thing that a teacher can do is to be complicit with the forces hurting and killing our students. I can’t say that I am able to avoid that entirely—we are all complicit in some way—but through projects like this one, I firmly believe that my students teach me to support them better in their struggles for justice in this unjust society.

Editor's note: For more resources on similar topics, visit our Web package Teaching About Ferguson: Race and Racism in the United States.

What a Week for Transgender Students!

The first week of December proved to be an important week for transgender students attending public schools and for their advocates.

President Obama and the U.S. Department of Education started December off right by issuing new guidelines instructing U.S. public schools to allow transgender students to attend single-sex classes consistent with their gender identity.

The guidelines, detailed in a 36-page memo, interpret the rights of transgender youth through the lens of Title IX, which bans sex-based discrimination in schools.

“All students, including transgender students and students who do not conform to sex stereotypes, are protected from sex-based discrimination under Title IX. Under Title IX, a recipient generally must treat transgender students consistent with their gender identity in all aspects of the planning, implementation, enrollment, operation, and evaluation of single-sex classes,” the memo states.

Also last week, both the Virginia and Minnesota State High School Leagues enacted policies that benefit transgender student athletes.

On Wednesday, December 3, the Virginia High School League, represented by a 25-member panel comprised of school principals and sports directors, voted unanimously to allow transgender students to participate as members of sports teams that correspond with their gender identity.

The next day, the Minnesota State High School League passed a policy 18-to-1, also stating that student athletes can choose their team.  

"Transphobia and a simple lack of education regarding the transgender community are not an excuse to discriminate against transgender players," 17-year-old transgender student Elliot Kunerth said at the Minnesota hearing. "Nor will they be valid excuses to treat someone differently. Whether or not a player happens to be transgender is no one else's concern."

Both policies have room to improve (transgender students in Virginia and Minnesota have to go through quite a bit of paperwork to be recognized as transgender and, thus, gain the right to participate on their chosen teams), but both are huge steps forward in making transgender students feel more welcomed in their schools.

Williams is the new media assistant for Teaching Tolerance.

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