Teaching Again

A few months ago, at brunch with my good friend Dave Flink (who runs the tremendous organization, Eye to Eye), I was complaining about how out of touch I felt with Generation Citizen’s program.  Every morning, I said, I woke up thinking not about our program or our mission, but rather, our budget, personnel, our board- I was drained.  Dave astutely suggested that I actually try getting back into the classroom to get a reminder of the power of our work.  At the time, I thought the idea was a little absurd- our program is twice-weekly over the course of a semester, and my schedule has been a little tight.  But, what the hell, I thought.

And so I told my team of my plans to teach.  They reacted dubiously, presenting a menu of doom-day scenarios they feared, which included me disappointing my students by never coming, letting down my co-Democracy Coach, and even becoming disenchanted with our program if it did not go well.  All valid.  But I went ahead with it.  For largely selfish reasons.  Until now, I haven’t told many people outside of my team.  I want to get re-energized, and I want a first-hand perspective of the positives and challenges of the program.  But, as I’ve gone along, I’ve realized just how helpful the experience has been.

My New York team assigned me to teach at a school called “City As School”, conveniently located around the corner from our office.  City As School is a transfer school, meaning all of its students have come from elsewhere, having not succeeded in other educational settings.  As their principal, Alan Cheng stated at a legislative hearing last year, “To put it bluntly, City-As-School is often considered the last stop before the end of the line on the journey to being a high school dropout. “  So, it’s a challenging school.

Hedging their bets, the NYC team paired me with whom I consider one of the best Democracy Coaches we have to offer, Sevonna Brown, a Williams student studying at the New School for the year.  Sevonna is motivated, intelligent, and cares about our students.  Working with her has made the experience even more rewarding.

We’re a little more than halfway through the semester, so there’s still a lot of time left.  But what have I learned to date: 

1)  Teaching action civics is really really hard: I’ve always said Generation Citizen is challenging- I’m not sure I realized just how much until I got back into the classroom.  The students that we’re working with have been systematically failed by the system- that’s why they’re at City As School.  So convincing them that their voice matters is no small task.  When we asked students to raise their hand at the beginning of the semester if they thought they could make a difference, 2 of 25 raised their hand.

Additionally, the curriculum itself is not a script- we have to constantly iterate.  Our students chose “teen jobs” as their focus issue.  Figuring out how to make a difference on something that broad is not something that can be taught in a curriculum- it’s required a lot of work from Sevonna and me.  Just as the concept of democracy is a little convoluted, with no shortcuts, so is the GC curriculum.

Finally, it’s cliché to say that in the classroom, there are good days, and there are bad days.  But the challenge with GC is that we’re only in there twice a week.  So each “day” is magnified.  Good days are really really good and bad days are really really bad.  It’s challenging to maintain perspective.

2)  Our students are really smart: At the beginning of the semester, when we were discussing potential issues to take action on, one student talked about how the subway stop by his house, in deep Brooklyn, was considerably messier and less safe than those in downtown Brooklyn where “Jay-Z would not let bad stuff happen.”  When pushed on why, he articulated that those with more resources/money probably know how to get in touch with influencers to make sure they get better services.  A small anecdote, but one that shows that they understand basic power dynamics.  Our students are smarter about basic civic issues than we generally give them credit for.

3)  This stuff matters: Slowly, but surely, I’m starting to see that our students are starting to get it.  This class is different from essentially everything else they see during the day- we ask them what they care about, and they have to take action.  Our class is focusing on youth unemployment, and has identified two basic root causes: young people aren’t equipped with the skills to get jobs, and a depressed economy has pushed young people out of the market.  For the former, they are building a website to educate young people on how to build resumes, present themselves, and look for jobs, and creating a documentary that examines the problem in more detail.  For the latter, we’re meeting with the Director of the NYC Summer Youth Employment Program, and lobbying other elected officials, including, possibly, the mayor.

And every day, they get that they can actually do something.  The girl at the back of the classroom who never pays attention is, suddenly, amped up to create our website’s logo.  The guy who is always joking and texting is preparing questions to ask our guest speaker.  It’s a process.  But it’s a process that matters.

Being in the classroom has not been easy, and not every class has been fun.  But it’s absolutely reinvigorated me, re-educated me on the positives and challenges of our curriculum, and re-convinced me that action civics is completely vital.  This type of deep exposure to the program is something that I want all of our team, especially those on the operations side, to experience on a more regular basis- it’s important for our culture.

But for now, I have a month left of class to ensure that our class actually achieves its goal, builds a kick-ass website, produces an informative documentary, and has informative conversations with elected officials.  And most importantly, I have a month left until our class takes home the big prize at Civics Day.  Hope to see you there.

– Scott Warren

Generation Citizen is a nonpartisan, 501(c)3 tax exempt organization which does not endorse candidates; our goal is to engage our staff, participants, and stakeholders in political and civic action on issues that matter to them personally and in their communities. The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the writer alone and do not reflect the opinions of Generation Citizen.