My friends always ask what my first lesson is going to be in my Civics class. First lessons are a big deal because they’re first impressions; they have to grab students’ attention and convince them that what they’re going to study is worth more than just the credit they need on their transcripts to graduate. They also have to set a tone. They’re an indicator of what kind of teacher you’re going to be.
In a nutshell (or, as my students would say, tl;dr)? They’re tricky.
I’m fond of telling stories during my first lessons. I’ve told different classes about my first day of college (September 11, 2001), my older brother’s extended deployment to Iraq, my friends’ efforts to teach in some of the most deprived parts of Pakistan, my former students’ work to build wells in villages in Sub-Saharan Africa. I tell these stories to make two points: we live in interesting times, and we do not live in isolation.
I’m apt to quote something in my first lessons, too. It’s usually Auden (There is no such thing as the State, and no one exists alone; hunger allows no choice to the citizen or the police; we must love one another or die), but sometimes it’s Tolkien (All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us). Lately, I’ve also drawn from Phil Klay’s immense “Citizen Soldier” (Ideals are one thing—the messy business of putting them into practice is another).
I’m very clear that what I teach about is messy, but I tell my students not to be afraid of the mess. Things are happening- and will continue to happen- that will affect all of us, and we can’t do anything in response to them if we’re scared, or if we’re not paying attention.
Paying attention, I like to say, is our first civic duty, and we’ve got a whole semester to cover the rest. I tell them they can look forward to formulating fact-based opinions, knowing our rights and what it’s taken to get them, knowing how much more work there still is to be done, understanding that our government’s decisions will always have a far-reaching impact because we’re a powerful country, and recognizing that we can- and should- all show up to have say in what those decisions are.
I have a new Civics class starting tomorrow.
Tonight my friends are asking me what my first lesson will be because half of them are jealous that I get to teach it, and the other half can’t think of anything more frightening (aside from everything in the news, that is) than having to stand in front of a room full of young adults and teach Civics right now. There’s chaos at the airports, people are marching in the streets, and there may be a Constitutional crisis- or five- brewing everyday. So they say it would be too much pressure to teach what I teach right now.
It is too much pressure, and it’s definitely not something they covered in teacher training, but I’m going to do it anyway.
And I’m realizing that what I’m going to say is what I’ve always said:
We can- and should- all show up to have a say in what our country’s decisions are. Our country is powerful, so those decisions matter.
It took a lot of work to get us here, and it’s going to take more, and we’re going to need strong, fact-based opinions to do it.
Democracy is messy.
Don’t be afraid.
Kathleen Murdough has a hard time explaining where she’s from because she’s an army brat, but North Conway, NH, the town where she lives now, has been her home longer than any other place that she’s lived. She has been a high school social studies teacher there for twelve years, and can think of no more awesome privilege and responsibility.