Bank Street Educators Discuss Approaches to Supporting Meaningful Civic Learning and Engagement

On May 10, educators from the Bank Street Graduate School of Education and School for Children presented a discussion titled “Sustained Civic Learning and Engagement: Building Bridges Through Perspective Taking and Geographic Inquiry” to share knowledge on how teachers can draw on students’ diverse life experiences to catalyze deep and sustained civic education and engagement. The online event was hosted by Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin (LREI) High School as part of the institution’s centennial celebration.

Led by Ali McKersie, GSE ’98, Eighth Grade (13/14s) Humanities Teacher, School for Children; Ellen McCrum, GSE ’03, ’09, Course Instructor, Graduate School of Education; and Abby Kerlin, GSE ’00, Instructor and Director of General Education Programs, Graduate School of Education, the collaborative session highlighted several learning activities from Bank Street designed to support students in expanding their perspective-taking and inquiry skills and their understanding of the challenges and complexities of living in a democracy.

Opening slide on Building Bridges projectTo begin, McKersie spoke about an eighth grade (13/14s) civic engagement project—“Building Bridges”—in which Bank Street students in New York City correspond with students from a public school in Madison, Virginia. Through an ongoing exchange of letters and videos throughout the school year, students participate in meaningful, respectful dialogue with peers from different political and cultural backgrounds and diverse geographic areas. These interactions help grow their capacity to consider a range of perspectives and life experiences during communication on a variety of topics, including national issues like gun control, climate change, and poverty.

“Students are establishing important connections, finding common experiences across their very different landscapes, and carving out space in which they can express vulnerability and build understanding,” said McKersie as she shared examples of student letters and postcards. “From these photographic and written interactions comes greater awareness of how their respective environments contribute to their perspectives and their values.”

To guide their writing, students responded to prompts such as “How does your environment shape the way you look at things?” and “How might it shape your values?” In one example, a Bank Street student described how the city’s diversity has allowed them to experience other cultures, religions, and more and discussed addressing larger issues like hate and bias through acceptance. A Madison student detailed the importance of church and the lessons they have learned there, including patience and kindness, to minimize hostility and help solve real-world problems.

“It was really interesting and eye-opening how everyone, no matter their location or their political beliefs, came together to establish something bigger than ourselves. And to me, this is the idea of understanding one another despite differences in opinion,” shared one Bank Street student, according to McKersie.

“Through this correspondence comes a much greater willingness as well as capacity on the part of the students to wrestle with complexities of history and civic argument and the discomfort that they stir up,” added McKersie. “It’s right there, nestled in that space, where democratic community resides. It’s there that we find hope in the engine that drives civic participation and consolation and the powerful act of collective empathy and solace-making, which we all need to be participating in and engaging in now more than ever.”

The “Building Bridges” project at the School for Children plans to expand in the future to further the development of civic education and advance the connection between students, classrooms, and the larger world.

Next, Kerlin and McCrum shared insights and activities from a geography course that they co-teach together at the Graduate School of Education, which offers students the opportunity to apply a multidimensional lens to their educational studies by considering spatial reasoning and the ways people shape environments and, conversely, how environments shape people.

Slide on developing geographic thinking and perspective takingWith a focus on making maps, sharing maps, and juxtaposing maps, Kerlin and McCrum led event attendees through several interactive exercises, including watching a video and sharing observations of a 5-year-old who created a map, which ultimately revealed what was important to the child in their environment and allowed the young child to symbolically share a story about their place in their world.

“Developing geographic thinking and perspective taking really starts with noticing your world, it starts with being curious about the relationships around you and being told at school that these relationships matter,” said Kerlin. “In Young Geographers, Bank Street Founder Lucy Sprague Mitchell talked about how these observations that children are making about their world are happening continuously and it behooves us in the classroom to leverage those and remind children of their significance.”

Later, McCrum facilitated a critical thinking activity that asked attendees to juxtapose a series of maps of Eastern Europe, demonstrating how teachers can help students build a deeper understanding of maps, their authors, and their represented perspectives.

While examining different versions of the maps, attendees discussed their observations, questions, and ideas. The activity called attention to how students can thoughtfully interact with the idea of perspective and storytelling via maps with a critical stance.

McCrum concluded the presentation with a quote from Marcel Proust, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” She added, “We want to continue to develop our abilities and that of students and teachers to see with new eyes and develop their ability to have eyes that remain open and committed to seeing the nuances in their life and in the lives of others.”