Teaching What Unites Us: The Values of Democracy
by Cleary Vaughan-Lee
What are some qualities of citizenship essential for sustaining democracy in troubled times? I can’t think of a better question to ask at this moment in history. It challenges us to consider how we define “citizen,” how we actively value and build community, and how we relate to “place.”
This is also a question at the core of Parker Palmer’s work. Palmer is an author, activist and educator, admired by teachers for his challenge to embrace one’s own deepest questions. He has written numerous books, including The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life and Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit.
What I appreciate about Palmer’s work is that he focuses on what unites us rather than what divides us. His article “The Five Habits to Heal the Heart of Democracy” describes attitudes and actions we can develop individually and in our communities to strengthen shared responsibilities and empower us as citizens. The article and accompanying lesson plan, originally published on the Global Oneness Project, are also available on Share My Lesson.
Palmer encourages people, young and old, with what he calls the “five habits of the heart.” These themes get straight to the core of what he believes can rebuild democracy. They include an understanding that we are all in this together, an appreciation of the value of “otherness,” an ability to hold tension in life-giving ways, a sense of personal voice and agency, and a capacity to create community.
He also encourages us to reclaim the power of public spaces as an arena for discovering democratic ideals. Palmer asserts that “We the People” called American democracy into being more than 200 years ago, and today we need that same sense of unity to repair a “threatened” democracy. He quotes Bill Moyers who identifies “money, faction and fear” as culprits, and suggests that the answer to these eroding powers could be found in a place close to us all: the human heart.
American author and activist Terry Tempest Williams (whom Palmer quotes in his own work) concisely articulates this same message. She writes, “The human heart is the first home of democracy. It is where we embrace our questions. Can we be equitable? Can we be generous? Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our minds, and offer our attention rather than our opinions?” These questions raise powerful points— responsible communication and listening skills are the building blocks of citizenship.
Educators know that these activities are also the building blocks of effective learning, which is why the classroom is such an important place for exploring and enacting the many facets of democracy. Why is it so important to create meaningful, positive discussions both inside and outside of the classroom to help students navigate our currently uncharted American political landscape? I’ve explored this question with a few educators over the last few months and was inspired by their thoughtful responses, their innovative curriculum ideas, their dedication to understanding history and how it affects the future, and their motivation to inspire students.
Kate Harris, a former history teacher and education coach for the Smithsonian Learning Lab, says she loves the above quote by Tempest Williams. She describes that “it’s imperative that we engage with one another in real conversations, that we seek to understand what others fear and love, what drives their actions, and what helps them grow.” Harris wrote a “Reader Idea” on this subject for The Learning Network at The New York Times —“Thinking Critically About How We Engage With News Events Online and in Social Media.”
Harris’ lesson embeds ways to support students with thoughtful inquiry. Mike Dunn, a college and career counselor at AIM Academy in Pennsylvania, agrees with this line of thinking.“We as educators must encourage our students to address their hearts and listen—to reflect on their core values and solidify a set of beliefs that is equitable to an all-inclusive view for everyone.”
Dunn links these sentiments to John Dewey, a 20th-century American philosopher and education reformer, who stated in 1916 that student choice and reflection are key to a well-educated, thoughtful society. With continued learning, dialogue and public exchange through their school experience, students will grow into adults ready to meet the demands of participating in a democratic society, Dunn says. “This must be our primary responsibility as educators and must be at the fore of our vision for our students.”
Harris responds to this need by encouraging and supporting genuine dialogue with students, and she suggests that teachers start in their own classrooms with clear and open conversations. “Students need to see that their own classrooms and schools are places where we can work as a team for improvement, where diversity is acknowledged and appreciated, and where points of tension are explored, not ignored.” These lessons from Share My Lesson and The Learning Network at The New York Times do just that.
But, it’s not always easy. “This is sometimes a tough road to walk,” says high school social studies teacher Tim Smyth from Pennsylvania. Some topics are tough to broach with students and when comments are taken out of context, he occasionally gets calls from parents. “The teacher has to create a comfortable space where students feel respected and opinions are free to be shared,” Smyth says. He uses comic strips as a learning tool to teach about our changing democratic society and how it is reflected in this form of literature. Students can develop critical thinking and writing skills while making personal connections through a new medium. “I firmly believe that we can’t move forward until we expose issues to the light and examine them,” he says. Addressing complex gender, social, cultural and political issues in the classroom is a must if we want students to explore their curiosities, make thoughtful choices, and learn to give and receive feedback.
On the first day of school this year, instead of handing out textbooks and rule sheets, Smyth screened “We Are America,” in which professional wrestler John Cena redefines patriotism. Before viewing the video, Smyth discussed with his students the meaning of patriotism and what we, as Americans, have in common. He then asks students to close their eyes and picture the average American, including physical details and items. Smyth explains that after watching the video, all the students had emotional responses that came directly from the heart.
What does it mean to live in a democratic society? Harris offers one answer, “Living in a democratic society means having a healthy respect for each person’s voice; it means approaching difference with a sense of openness and appreciation; and it means recognizing that despite the emphasis on individuality and the variety of perspectives available to us, we are all interconnected.”
At this time in history, students need opportunities to develop and practice positive and life-affirming behaviors. The classroom is a place that can support deep reflection and encourage students to explore life beyond their comfort zone. It is a perfect place to reconsider and practice the democratic ideals that are becoming increasingly obscured in the public arena.