Don’t Go Low: How Do You Teach Civil Discourse to Young People?

dem-donkey-rep-elephant-drawingIn this time of hyper-partisan political divides in the United States, it’s more important than ever for young people to learn how to talk civilly with each other — particularly when speaking with people who hold different political views.

A grant from the Intergovernmental Employees Association to the School of Public Affairs in 2016 was very timely in this regard. Thanks to this grant, SPA was able to collaborate with CU Succeed to offer the course “Introduction to Public Service,” which addresses issues of civil discourse, to low-income students in two area high schools. The course is one of the core classes for the newly launched Bachelor of Arts in Public Service (BAPS) degree program.

The CU Succeed “Introduction to Public Service” classes started in fall 2016 in two high schools: Early College of Arvada, a charter school, and Abraham Lincoln High School in Denver. A total of 38 students are participating this year. The program will expand to as many as six high schools in spring 2017, and there is funding for five years.

Using the CU Succeed program, in which high school students take college classes held in their school for credit, the IEA grant pays for the student share of costs, making CU Denver college credits essentially free to the student. At the same time, students learn how to understand, respect and value diverse opinions about critical public affairs issues.

Sean McCandless, SPA’s academic resources coordinator and a Ph.D. candidate, developed “Introduction to Public Service” as an online course. The course for high school students is taught in-person in the schools by Don Stanton, a SPA lecturer and former high-level official in the federal Department of Transportation and Department of Defense.

Students do a fair amount of writing in the course, including 3 short papers that build up to a longer, final paper.

“The writing centers around the meaning of public service, but students also choose a public or nonprofit agency and explore the idea within that organization,” says Sean. “So, for example, what is the meaning of public service in a police department, or a nonprofit that deals with homelessness? For the final paper, they have to look at jobs that their chosen agency has and explore what would they would need to do to get a job there. So it really allows them to explore a job that they’re interested in.”

There is a strong focus on civil discourse and democratic participation. Students learn to articulate themselves cogently, use evidence and logic to support their opinions, and advocate their positions in a respectful manner. Among the course requirements are several key readings:

The course also allows students to reflect on their own identities, giving it a diversity and global learning focus. The themes of diversity, inclusion and social equity are intentionally woven throughout the course.

“One of the things that’s genuinely surprised me with the undergraduate students I teach is how much zeal there is for people wanting to engage in public service,” says Sean. “I’ve had students say that they were in one major and wanted to switch to something like BAPS because it’s more relevant to them.”

Categories: Features, Students

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