Sunday, February 25, 2018

Civic Engagement as a High-Impact Practice

As both a parent of teenagers and an educator, I’ve been both appalled and impressed over the past week.  The massacre in Parkland was horrifying, both in itself and in context of a long string of mass killings in schools, colleges, theaters, concerts, and other public venues.  But the response of the students there -- their poise, purpose, and moral force -- in confronting political leaders has been absolutely heartening.

Katherine Wheatle, from IHEP, hit the nail on the head on Twitter.  She asked whether protests and student activism will be recognized as “high-impact practices” in student engagement research.


In higher ed research, “high-impact practices” are proven ways to get students more involved in their education.  Examples include first-year seminars, common readings, writing-intensive courses, collaborative projects, service learning, internships, and capstone projects.  The common thread throughout that diverse list is an emphasis on moving students from a passive mode to an active one, and connecting course content to something larger.

The kind of political engagement the Parkland students are doing fits the bill.

It reminds me of an exercise I used to use in American Government classes.  The students had to write letters to an elected official who represented them, whether at the local, state, or national level.  The deadline was relatively early in the term.  They got extra credit if they brought in a written response.  I remember many of them being shocked that they got responses, and in some cases, the responses involved concrete actions.  Being acknowledged was empowering.  

These students, though, have taken it to another level.  They’ve been remarkably adept at confronting political figures on camera.  I was impressed at the teenager who went toe-to-toe with Marco Rubio in front of a full auditorium and a live national television audience.  Say what you will about their respective political positions, but that student was obviously both engaged and markedly well-spoken.  In some cases, the students have been so well-spoken that political opponents have charged that they were actors.

Nope.  They were trained debaters.

According to the Miami Herald, “every public high school and middle school in [Broward] county has a debate program, along with more than two dozen elementary schools.”  In fact, many of the high school students had worked on gun control debates this past Fall.  

If anyone doubted the relevance of training in debate and extemporaneous speaking, this should settle the argument.  The students are running circles around adults who speak publicly for a living.  (And that’s not to mention their mastery of social media…)

As the father of a debater, and a frequent judge in Jersey Shore Debate League tournaments, I can attest that poise on stage is a learnable skill.  I’ve seen remarkable progress, even by middle school students.  Students who could barely stand in front of the room in their first tournament lay waste to the opposition by their fourth.  The teams at the tournaments have a refreshing gender balance, and they’re typically more diverse than the schools from which they come.  My only disappointment is that they’re small segments of their schools, and most schools don’t have them at all.  

Debate involves overcoming stage fright, making arguments with evidence, mastering rhetoric, and thinking on your feet.  These are _exactly_ the skills that enable effective civic engagement.  

The Parkland students are combining years of training with obvious moral capital and a clear sense of purpose.  They will not be taken lightly, and should not be.  They are taking their roles as citizens, even before they’re allowed to vote.  I don’t think they’ll stop at 18.

They’ve given me hope in a dark time.  Is political engagement a high-impact practice?  Absolutely.  And kudos to them for showing us how it’s done.