Civic education, Levinson says, has the potential to teach young people these capacities. It can act as a counterweight to the “bad values, bad ways of interacting, and anti-democratic, authoritarian practices and policies” currently being modeled by civically influential people. Civics can also teach students “how to get and interpret good information about what’s going on in the world,” a skill especially important in an era where claims of fake news (and "real" fake news) surround us.
Supporting Newcomer Students: A Civics Teacher's Role
Against this complex backdrop, what role can civics teachers play in the lives of the immigrant and undocumented students in their classrooms?
Some educators may feel uncertain as to what extent they should ally with students and their families, notes Eric Shed, a veteran history teacher who now directs the Harvard Teacher Fellows Program. They should first keep in mind, as Levinson has written in Making Civics Count: Citizen Education for a New Generation, that schools are duty and legally bound to embrace all students, regardless of their legal status. Schools “cannot follow a policy of strict neutrality when their students’ and families’ identities are openly under attack in the civic sphere” — because failing to openly embrace students can leave them vulnerable to ostracization from their community. Civics teachers must create a classroom of “inclusion, belonging, and support” for their immigrant and undocumented students, says Levinson.
Other teachers may not know the best way to express their support in the wake of national conversations that are offensive, even dangerous, to these young people. Here, getting to know your students on a personal level is crucial, says Shed. Students will feel safer and more open with their teachers if they realize how much those teachers care. And without taking the time to invest in those relationships, teachers won’t know to provide support when their students are facing some serious challenges.
Educators should also be mindful around how they interact with these students, says Sharon Lozada, who teaches a class on community action and peer leadership at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School in Massachusetts. Make a point of expressing that you value different cultures, and be sure not to perpetuate microagressions or stereotypes. “Those really simple yet profound things really make a difference to students,” Lozada says.