The Undervalued, Essential Art of Preparing Students for Citizenship
December 24, 2020
Great teachers feel privileged to be where they are, doing what they do. Asked why she teaches, Shreeta Ashley, a December graduate of Ashbrook’s Masters program in American History and Government (MAHG), says that watching young people learn to think for themselves is “amazing.”
Ashley earned a BA in secondary social studies education at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Knowing she needed more courses in her content area than her degree program allowed, she wanted to immediately begin Masters work. Others advised her to teach a few years first, to be sure of her calling.
Ashley was sure as soon as she led her first eighth grade American history class at Edison Preparatory School in Tulsa. Several years elapsed before she found a way to study history and civics without interrupting her career. An older teacher, Jennifer Reiter, recommended the MAHG program, talking it up each time they crossed paths at professional development workshops. Reiter, a 2012 graduate of Ashbrook’s program, had already steered two other Oklahoma teachers to it. She advised they apply for a prestigious Madison Foundation Fellowship, given yearly to one teacher from each state, to fund Masters work in a program that features Constitutional studies. Ashley would be the third Oklahoma Madison Fellow to enroll in MAHG at Reiter’s instigation—only a few months before Reiter succumbed to a terminal illness.
Many Madison Fellows enter Ashbrook’s program because other fellows recommend it. They say it’s challenging, but offers the broadest possible grounding in American history and governmental institutions. Ashley, who at graduation won a Chairman’s award for her outstanding performance on the qualifying exam, embraced the work.
Beginning in MAHG’s interactive online program, Ashley studied with Professor Scott Yenor, who assigned a weekly essay. “This kept me honest,” Ashley said; to write the essay, she had to read all the primary documents assigned for the week, even as she taught full time. After two more courses with Yenor, she’d built stamina for whatever was assigned.
This included the required course on the long-winded and ideologically driven progressive era statesmen. “I did not want to take it. Yet it is one of the classes I learned the most from.” As an eighth-grade teacher of American history from the colonial period through the Civil War, Ashley reverenced the Founders. Progressives, she discovered, challenged the Founders’ idea of democracy. “I learned to articulate the opposing arguments,” Ashley said. “I also learned how our expectations of government have evolved.”
Midway in her studies, Ashley moved to the high school at Edison Prep, to teach 12th grade government, AP US government, and economics. The political science component of the MAHG program supplied the content knowledge she needed for the move. “Every class gave me new resources at the time I needed them, and the kids really benefited. I would say, ‘In the course I’m taking, we’ve been discussing what causes political party realignment.’ The students felt really special that I invited them to talk about what we as teachers had discussed the night before.”
Ashley wasn’t eager to travel to Ashland for required summer seminars there; it meant ignoring family needs. “But now I’m glad I had those weeks away, when I could focus on the work.” Class discussions in Ashland often occur as teachers sit in a large square. Seeing that people more willingly share ideas when they can see each other, Ashley decided to rearrange her own classroom. “With 40 desks in my room, it took a while to figure out. But I got them in a U shape that wraps around my desk at one end of the room and around the smart board at the other.”
Forty desks? Ashley explains that her fall classes averaged 35 students each. She teaches seven sections a day. She has a forty-five minute period to plan her three courses—as long as she’s not needed to fill in for absent teachers. In recent years, she’s seen an increasing number of new teachers leave mid-year. She mentors young colleagues, but can only rarely give feedback on their work, since release time for class observations isn’t funded. She sees many grow discouraged at their limited content knowledge. Others, history buffs to whom the school district grants emergency certifications, lack the pedagogical training to manage restless classrooms, and quit.
Teacher discouragement worries Ashley. “Since the Founding, we’ve known that we need an educated populace for democracy to thrive. For education to happen, all you need is a good teacher. Put them with students at any academic level, and magic happens.” Good civics teachers are well grounded in American history and understand the Constitutional framework of our government. They help students realize that, “while not everything Americans have done is good, we’ve been given a framework that allows us to reform ourselves and move forward.”
Students arrive in Ashley’s class unaware of our system of balanced powers. “Many think the President is all-powerful; they are very surprised to learn Congress has checks on his power. They have almost zero knowledge of the courts.” She challenges students’ indifference about voting, picked up from parents who see government as unresponsive. “I remind them of the efforts some groups in our history made to keep other groups from voting. Why would people spend time and energy on this if voting doesn’t matter? Once students grasp this, they realize they should register at the polls. Then they may be willing to go a step further: perhaps to show up at a school board meeting and say they are not okay with class sizes of forty,” Ashley says, chuckling.
Ashley works to instill other habits needed by self-governing people, such as taking responsibility for one’s own actions and peacefully managing disputes. She insists that students speak with her about poor grades due to incomplete assignments, rather than allowing their parents to run interference for them. When students complain about classmates, she urges them to take the complaint back to the person who offended them.
Recently a student confided suspicions of a classmate’s “racism.” Another teacher had confronted students with a problem: how would they handle the presence of the “n” word in an autobiography all were reading? A white student responded, “What’s the big deal? You hear that word all the time in rap music. We should just say it.” To the student who brought her this story, Ashley spoke of how different ethnic groups in America carry different memories of America’s racial history. She watched the student realize that her classmate “grew up in a different part of town, interacting with different people. She didn’t mean to malign another race; she just didn’t understand why what she said was hurtful.” Later, the student reported that she had discussed the issue with her classmate. “Although they still disagreed about whether to read the word aloud in class, they now understood each other’s perspective. My student no longer felt her classmate was racist.
“No one is born knowing how to talk to people who have different life experiences,” Ashley said. “Part of what I’m here for is to teach those skills.”