Civics teaches us how to respond in a crisis


By Andres Perez

I was a seventh grader at Oak Grove Middle School when 9/11 happened. I remember a black poster near the door about “standing up for others.” It was stark and had plenty of blank space for the point to stand out. It was our duty, as human beings, to unite against hatred and violence. My teachers taught me a monumental civics lesson just by hanging this poster.

Now I’m an 11th grade humanities teacher and I keep wondering: What is the civics lesson for this, unprecedented health crisis? As we’ve seen over the past month, the real test is never in the classroom, but in these moments. And there have been many moments to learn from. Last month Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said grandparents would be willing to die in order to save the American economy. Patrick said that people don’t want to “lose their whole country” to the current crisis, and that older American’s may need to be sacrificed. The civics lesson in this: Is it OK to prioritize the economy over human lives?

Meanwhile, college students gathered on beaches and attended packed house parties, despite social distancing warnings. Images of people crowding Disney World in Orlando, Florida went viral. The civics lesson in this: Is it OK to prioritize individual freedom over group needs?

As a humanities teacher, I want my students to answer these questions for themselves. Teenagers are forming values at every moment of this crisis; they should debate and discuss their beliefs instead of letting them fester in private. When I’ve spoken to students in the past about the government’s actions, their response has a tone of disinterest or compliance. Now, in our virtual school environment, I am planning to study with my students the economic stimulus plan to figure out if aid is going to the right people. We will investigate why food bank lines are so long in 2020 and re-evaluate our public health system. These are the questions all Americans are asking right now.

Civics is a required course for Californians but, unfortunately, it’s not emphasized enough in schools. In 2018, a Brookings Institute report showed how civics is buried under a barrage of reading and math instruction due to the emphasis on state testing. The report also detailed that low-income communities are less likely to be taught civics in school. Our state leaders have taken some action to improve the social sciences which includes civics. A required ethnic studies course for every Californian continues to inch forward. San Diego Unified School District led the fight by codifying the course last spring. California leaders also attempted to lower the voting age to 17 but failed. Such a move might encourage schools to take civics more seriously.

California’s Power of Democracy Steering Committee, tasked with diagnosing the state’s civics curriculum, said a proficient civics student was important because it could teach students to show “concern for the rights and well-being of others.” Toilet paper rationing, anyone?

So, what’s next? Schools across the county have launched distance learning. We must be ready to teach in ways that respond in the present moment and address future crises. In my own virtual classroom, our very first lessons have focused on self-compassion and empathy. I had to first meet my students where they are at, and many students are in a hard place. Social-emotional health must be our north star, but not at the expense of civics. To ignore it, would be to stunt the growth of my students’ socio-political consciousness.

In my virtual classroom, we are interrogating the country’s economic safety net, our public health system, and our government’s readiness for disasters. My students are already participating in civics every day. They stay at home, avoid neighbors on the sidewalk, or wear a mask at the store. As educators, we must meet the moment with relevant conversations. Teachers can find curriculum from national organizations such as iCivic, Generation Citizen, and Teaching Tolerance.

Just like I learned from the poster on my wall, students will learn something from this crisis, one way or another. We must make sure that civics, and an understanding of our social contract, is the foundation of that lesson.

About the author

Andres Perez teaches 11th grade humanities at High Tech High Chula Vista in Chula Vista, California. He is a Teach Plus California Policy Fellowship alum.