As a civics-oriented institution, we are committed to preparing the next generation of changemakers who will undoubtedly enact positive change in our nation. Our renowned academic curriculum and civic education model ultimately empowers scholars to know their history, think critically about what happens around them, challenge the status quo, and change the world for the better.
While textbooks and novels are necessary resources in the classroom, reading about the Lincoln Memorial is a completely different experience from actually seeing the Lincoln Memorial with your very own eyes. Even standing on the steps of Capitol Hill provides physical permanence to abstract concepts and historical events. That’s why we are always searching for new and exciting educational opportunities for our scholars to not only understand history, but to stand where that history happened.
This past April, 16 middle school scholars had the chance to participate in our first-ever cross-campus, four-day overnight Civics Fellowship in Washington, D.C.! The Civics and Global Citizens Programs teamed up with the Close-Up Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides hands-on programs and engaging classroom resources that inform, inspire, and empower young people to exercise their rights and accept the responsibilities of citizens in our democracy. This was an incredible opportunity for scholars to learn from historians, engage in civics-focused workshops, and have important conversations about our history and the state of our democracy.
We sat down with our Civics Program Director, Rashid Duroseau, to learn more about the four-day Civics Fellowship scholars participated in.
1. Tell us about the Civics Fellowship!
Democracy Prep traditionally has sent 6th graders to Washington D.C. as an end-of-year incentive for strong behavioral and academic performance. While it consistently has been a phenomenal experience, we wanted to make sure that we were capitalizing fully on the opportunity to use a visit to our nation’s capital as a hands-on History lesson.
A phrase we use often at Democracy Prep is, “in order to change the world, one first needs to see it”. I connected with Rebecca LeBlond, the Director of our Global Citizens Program, and we had a discussion about establishing a partnership with the Close-Up Foundation. Ms. LeBlond and I found that partnering with Close-Up would allow us to continue trips to Washington D.C. in a manner that would align more explicitly and powerfully with our organization’s mission by shifting the primary focus from tourism to civic learning. While the scholars still have a wonderful time bonding with each other and visiting monuments, museums, and memorials, they also benefit from the guidance of trained professionals who facilitate a number of conversations with them about the rights of citizens, the significance of civic engagement, the importance of our elected representatives, and the power that citizens have to hold them accountable.
An additional benefit was that the program usually brings together students from multiple schools, networks, and regions, so it offers a great opportunity for our scholars to exercise their capacities for civil discussion about potentially controversial issues and current events. For this particular iteration of the program, the Closeup Program’s cohort size was around 30-35 kids, with 16 of them from Democracy Prep and the rest from a private school in Texas.
2. What activity or experience do you think our scholars enjoyed the most?
A lot of them had mentioned that they enjoyed the Lincoln Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial the most. On the steps of the Jefferson Memorial, students were prompted to identify and prioritize the most important issues that our government should address. They had an extended conversation that covered a wide range of perspectives–some advocated for focusing on the environment, and others were more concerned about addressing police brutality. While the participants were incredibly passionate about their selected topics, they remained patient and respectful. It was clear they were also very curious about some of the ideas they heard, as the conversations and questions continued well after the scheduled lesson.
3. What stood out to you the most on this trip?
My biggest takeaway from the trip was that even in these polarized times, our young people remain eager to have important conversations about government and society, and they are fully capable of doing so in an informed, empathetic, and meaningful way.
A moment that really stood out to me was witnessing the students participating in a lesson on the steps of the Capitol Building. The Capitol–the primary site of our government’s Legislative Branch–is such an iconic landmark in Washington, D.C.. It has stood as a symbol of so many beautiful ideas and ideals. Unfortunately, in light of recent events (namely, the insurrection on January 6th, 2021), the Capitol also has come to symbolize the culmination of our country’s inability to resolve the tensions between our political parties in a peaceful manner.
In my favorite moment on the trip, I watched as Black and Brown students from public charter schools in New York City and predominantly white students from a private school in Texas–sitting in the same place where American democracy was attacked a year before–engaged in a respectful conversation about public policy. Seeing that filled my heart with hope, and it redeemed the mental image I was holding of the Capitol. It also showed me what is possible when we as educators push our kids to think deeply about their positions and allow new perspectives to shape their thinking and approach to issues.
4. As an educator, how did you feel watching students engage in these workshops and dialogues?
It was exhilarating to see our kids having sophisticated conversations about issues that affect them–both directly and indirectly. I think there is a misconception that because kids aren’t old enough to vote, they can’t possibly engage intellectually with nuanced and sometimes abstract concepts of governance and politics. To see students articulate their ideas and positions clearly, willingly, and with great passion is a reminder that there are countless opportunities for educators to continue to push our kids to think about the world and their relation to it.
Imagine if we [educators across the country] regularly structured our classes to incorporate these kinds of conversations, so that students can begin building the familiarity and skill sets to have constructive discussions with people who have different opinions and perspectives! I think there is a lot of space (and frankly, an obligation) for adults in the classroom and outside of the classroom to cultivate those kinds of experiences for kids.
5. How do you believe our scholars benefited from participating in this Civics Fellowship?
I think they benefited from participating in the Fellowship in a number of ways. The first is that they have further expanded their cultural capital–they acquired first-hand, hands-on experience with sites most folks will only hear about in the news or read about in books. Now, when they talk about the memorials in D.C., they can say, “I walked through there,” “I touched the walls,” “I saw the intricate work that went into sculpting that sculpture.” There is something to be said about taking these ideas that we read about or these places that seem so distant and foreign and almost imaginary—because there’s such a great gap between our lived experience and what we’re reading about—and making it real.
The other benefit is that scholars had the opportunity to build civic friendships and civic relationships. This allowed them to navigate discussions in which they were able to disagree with ideas without feeling the need to dislike the people expressing them. In fact, several pairs of students would seek one another out during “downtime” to explore hypothetical situations, offer new contentions, and present new evidence in order to probe one another’s commitments to their original claims during sessions.
Most importantly, this fellowship gave the students the chance to cultivate relationships that are rooted, first and foremost, in learning. We do a strong job helping students understand the importance of education, but I think there are always more opportunities to help kids see that there’s so much joy to be had in learning and so much joy to be found in having conversations that expose new layers of complexity to topics that initially seemed so straightforward.
6. What do you want our readers to know about this experience?
I believe it’s important for our kids to have as many hands-on experiences as possible. For this group, that meant going to Washington D.C.; however, it could be as simple as visiting historic sites in one’s neighborhood to build kids’ cultural awareness. It’s empowering to be able to say, “I haven’t just read about it, I’ve been there.”
I also believe we should seek opportunities, either virtually or in person, to build connections with young people from other communities so that kids can practice, authentically, the skills of building consensus, having meaningful dialogue, and the understanding that disagreement and animosity don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. At a more basic level, we also need to continue to push ourselves to provide our kids with really strong thinking prompts to make sure that they’re having the kinds of conversations that push them to see the world differently.
There’s also more where that came from! Mr. Duroseau was recently invited to participate in an interview with the Education For Sustainable Democracy Podcast, where he spoke about the incredible work we’re doing as a civics-oriented organization. Check it out now!