The national award recognizes John Dickson’s dynamism and creativity in motivating students to learn about American civics and government.
Wednesday, July 02, 2014
Emmanuel Habimana, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide, recently visited class to share his experiences of the conflict, in which many of his family members were killed. This was preceded a year earlier by a visit from Carl Wilkens, the only American to stay in the Rwandan capital Kigali during the genocide, who saved the lives of hundreds of orphans. Both speakers were inspirational for the students.
Dickson, an alumnus of Lesley’s Graduate School of Education, is one of three teachers nationwide to receive the 2014 American Civic Education Teacher Awards (ACETA). The award recognizes his “exceptional expertise, dynamism, and creativity in motivating students to learn about the Constitution, Congress, and public policy.” ACETA is sponsored by the Center on Congress at Indiana University, the Center for Civic Education, and the National Education Association.
Dickson teaches high school civics and government in the Monomoy School District on Cape Cod, Mass., and is active in his community as the chair of the Brewster Board of Selectmen. He received his bachelor’s degree in Government at Harvard, and his master’s degree in Special Education at Lesley in 2007.
In one example of an assignment for his class, students choose an issue they care about, write an essay describing how the government could better address the issue, and then create an action plan to advocate for policy change. During elections, students design exit polls, conduct exit surveys at polling stations, and then analyze the data afterward. He describes their experience of talking to voters as “invaluable,” particularly in picturing themselves as future voters.
They have also hosted candidate debates, in which students had an active part forming questions, time-keeping, and moderating. Supreme Court cases are also carefully followed, with role-playing, mock trials, and debate included.
Dickson’s goals for his students are for them to learn and absorb “the habits of citizenship.” Be knowledgeable and aware, and follow what’s going on. Read stories, try to understand the issues from all sides. Then, take that knowledge and do something with it. He has tried to inspire his students to take action, and they have.
For example, Dickson reports that the school created a chapter of STAND (Students Taking Action Now: Darfur) in response to the genocide in that region of Sudan. They testified to their state legislature in favor of a bill that would require genocide education, and attended conferences and met with legislators in Washington, D.C. See the Harwich High STAND blog. http://hhsstand.blogspot.com/ One student “took it with her” beyond high school, becoming an active STAND leader at Smith College, and is now working for an anti-genocide non-governmental organization.
As for what other teachers can do to foster civic engagement in their students, Dickson says that “every teacher has opportunities.”
“Let’s make a connection between the community and greater issues,” he urges. “Around here right now, for instance, it’s environmental science. Our teachers have the students out all the time, looking for phragmites and other invasive species in local marshes. Every teacher can make those connections. Hopefully, they feel empowered to make the most of them, to go beyond the curriculum to make connections to what’s going on, and to bring the curriculum to life.
“We need teachers who will connect. These teachers exist in all buildings. We need to help them feel empowered, which will have a positive effect on all student learning. It’s difficult, in a culture of standardized testing,” he says, “but take a leap and go beyond.”
As he has so successfully done.
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