Little accomplished at MVRHS civics luncheon
If Wednesday night's civics forum with Richard Dreyfuss at the Katharine Cornell Theatre was the "why," Thursday's follow-up lunch at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School attempted to address the "how."
Mr. Dreyfuss was on the Island last week to promote the teaching of civics in schools. But the small group that feasted on puréed broccoli soup and fresh sandwich wraps in the culinary arts dining room at the high school Thursday stumbled when it came to actually putting abstract ideas onto paper.
Mr. Dreyfuss's gaggle of crisp-suited, wireless-headset-wearing civics experts was a sharp contrast to the laidback jeans and T-shirt crowd that assembled from the Island. And throughout the nearly three-hour discussion, the two factions repeatedly butted heads.
Roughly 35 people met Thursday afternoon for lunch provided by the MVRHS culinary arts students, but there was an obvious gap where the Island's teachers should have been. Betsy Hauck, a sixth grade teacher at the Edgartown School, Elaine Weintraub, history department chair at the high school, Laurie Halt, the high school government teacher, and Jonah Maidoff from the Charter School, were the only ones in attendance. The rest of the crowd was made up of concerned citizens, parents, past students, and school administrators.
"We would like to hear from you," Mr. Dreyfuss said to the group. "What do you have in mind? What has bubbled up in the past 24 hours, that you thought of since last night?"
Despite colorful notes being taken on a jumbo sized easel, very few concrete ideas that could be translated into classroom lessons were introduced.
Jane Eisner, vice president for civic initiatives at the National Constitution Center and author of the book "Taking Back the Vote: Getting American Youth Involved in our Democracy," proposed the idea of a buddy system for teenagers who recently came of voting age. She suggested pairing them up with a community elder in order to learn the merits and importance of voting.
Ms. Weintraub said the League of Women Voters of Martha's Vineyard routinely sets up a table at the school around voting time, and already informs students about the importance of voting. Ms. Eisner's suggestion died there.
There were a few other similar exchanges during the event, with experts from the National Constitution Center suggesting one thing, and the teachers describing, and defending, programs they already had in place.
"[Mr. Dreyfuss] didn't really have any idea what was already being done," admitted Marge Harris, Assistant Superintendent for Instruction and Curriculum, in a telephone conversation this week. She said the schools have certain programs and teachings in place, but due to the current abundance of state testing, teachers have very little leeway in terms of new agendas. "With all the testing, there is not as much freedom. That doesn't mean it doesn't happen; there was just a lot more fluidity in the past."
The high school currently teaches one strictly civics course: US Government and Politics. It is a semester-long mandatory course for seniors, and the program of studies describes it as "a study of the basic principles of the American political and economic system as reflected in our local, state, and federal institutions.... There is a strong emphasis on current events impacting the U.S. and the world. Contemporary issues are explored through a variety of media, and students are encouraged to actively learn through research and debate."
Civics lessons are also worked into various history classes, said Ms. Harris, who has been with the Martha's Vineyard school system for 31 years. She said she can remember there being more introductory civics teaching in the elementary schools in the past, and that is where she feels this initiative should be directed.
Starting next month, the superintendent's office will be looking at the high school curriculum, but more immediately they will review the elementary school programs, Ms. Harris said.
"We will start talking about what do teachers have in place already, and make them more institutionalized," Ms. Harris said. "I want to hear from what the teachers are already doing. I don't want to assume."
On Nov. 17, Mr. Dreyfuss appeared on the HBO series Real Time with Bill Maher to discuss the current teaching of civics in schools.
"Civics is the learning of the tools of maintaining a republican democracy," Mr. Dreyfuss said on the telecast. "A republican democracy as opposed to democracy, representational democracy which was what was created in the constitution, and not democracy which was distinctly the enemy of the people who created the constitution. Democracy was called mob-ocracy. And representational democracy means the representatives that we trust."
Mr. Dreyfuss spoke in this
rambling style at Thursday's luncheon, seemingly spouting ideas at random.
Jackie Burgoyne, an MVRHS alum, commented on how there seemed to be only three people under the age of 30 at the luncheon, yet the whole point was to discuss teaching civics to young people.
Ms. Hauck said many of the concepts the experts were suggesting would simply not work with elementary age children. She said civics is routinely taught in her classroom, it is just not always labeled as such.
Some of the concrete ideas thrown out by people in the room Thursday were reading and following the school's outlined mission statement; having students do a referendum; teaching and staff development; and implementing a first votes program, which would make registering to vote and casting a ballot a right of passage, similar to getting a driver's license and going to the prom.
To close the luncheon, Mr. Dreyfuss put into words an idea that he admitted knowing nothing about the costs or logistics of, but which he had been thinking about for quite some time. He proposed the construction of a railway that would run from Philadelphia, to Gettysburg, to Washington, and back to Philadelphia. Train passengers would engage in civics-minded debates while traveling to three of the most sacred American landmarks, he said. It would be a destination for school fieldtrips and history buffs alike.
"It would be the greatest show in the history of America," Mr. Dreyfuss said.