In his new book, Civic Literacy in Schools and Communities: Teaching and Organizing for a Revitalized Democracy (Teachers College Press, 2021), U of R School of Education Professor Brian Charest reframes the teaching profession as a vehicle for social change. By providing teachers with the tools and strategies they need to delve into community-based work alongside their students, Charest argues that school and community involvement can be intertwined. Katie Olson of the Bulldog Blog spoke with Charest about how his career influenced his academic work, the importance of a holistic approach to education, and where educators can begin doing this work.
Bulldog Blog: What made you decide to write Civic Literacy in School and Communities?
Brian Charest: The book really started when I was a high school teacher on the far South Side of Chicago. That teaching experience was a real political awakening for me. I came face to face with the realities of historical and systemic racism, and the effect it had on my students and their community. The intentional economic disinvestment in the community affected opportunities for young people. I got really interested in exploring the disconnect between the state-mandated curriculum we were asked to teach in school and the challenges and realities my students were facing in the surrounding community.
I come from a middle-class background and had access to good public schools. As a teacher, I recognized that schools often reflect the realities of a community. If you just focus your efforts on fixing a school or fixing teachers, or changing the curriculum or raising standards, you aren’t going to see lasting change, because the issues in the community are going to persist. I began to think about the different ways we could reimagine the role of teachers and the purpose of schools, particularly in spaces of concentrated poverty. It seemed clear to me that we needed to reframe the work of schools in ways that allowed us to directly address some of the problems facing students and community members.
In urban school districts, more often than not the teachers are not from the community and didn't grow up in the neighborhood, which is a whole other (but related) problem that needs to be addressed in education. So, given the circumstances I faced as a teacher, I wanted to figure out what teacher educators could do to help teachers learn to work in communities with their students, parents, and other community members. The book lays out several strategies that teachers and educators can adopt to do more intentional work in communities.
BB: How did you become involved in community-based work in Chicago, and how did you connect it to your classroom?
Charest: I became interested in community-based work through a series of service-learning initiatives the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) was supporting. The initiatives created a space to connect the work in the classroom with community-based issues. Through that work, I got to know a lot of community organizers, activists, and community leaders. One group we worked with was called the Chicago Grassroots Curriculum Taskforce. The group had a very specific model of place-based local history curriculum, so members would work with teachers and educators at universities and local communities to develop curriculum that used the community itself as the space of inquiry.
One of the projects that came out of that was the Community Tours Project. We compiled oral histories and conducted research and then put together a tour of historically important parts of the neighborhood. A lot of times this was lost history, in the sense it wasn't being taught in school. It gave students a sense of connection to the ongoing struggles for racial and economic justice. But also, it gave them a better understanding of how their neighborhoods came to be in the positions they were in. From that, I got involved in other projects with community organizers, in which we addressed police brutality, community safety, and gun violence.
BB: What is civic literacy and why is it important?
Charest: Civic literacy often gets translated into learning about electoral politics and processes of government, which is important. But the way I think about civic literacy is in terms of direct democratic practices. These practices encourage students to get involved in the decision-making that affects their lives and the lives of people around them. That could be working with community organizers to try to influence local policy decisions. It could be working within your school to have more of a voice in determining what's being taught and how.
One of the paradoxes the book explores is the idea that we teach about civics and democracy in schools, but we don't often give our students the opportunity to have experiences with democratic processes. Our schools aren't run democratically, and students don't have a lot of voice in what happens in schools. I worked in a school in Seattle called The Nova Project, which was a democratically run school, and looked very much like the Johnson program at the University of Redlands, in terms of student involvement and alternative assessment. There were governing committees at Nova and students sat on committees alongside faculty. Students had an equal voice in decision-making from budget to hiring. That was the only school I'd ever been in that really did democracy—it wasn't just rhetorically gesturing at a democratic model. It was a real part of the identity and operations of the school.
BB: In the book, you draw on strategies used by activists and organizers and apply them to teaching. What does that look like?
Charest: I start at the most basic organizing strategy and work up to some of the more time-intensive or challenging strategies. One strategy that organizers use is called the one-to-one meeting. This is an intentional effort on the part of the teacher or organizer to seek out allies and to make time to meet with people to figure out what those people care about in order to identify who to work with in the future, as well as what to work on. One of the thought experiments I included in the book is that I ask readers to imagine what our schools would look like if teachers took the time to meet with every single person in their school over the course of a school year. I want educators to imagine schools as relational spaces instead of bureaucratic spaces. I'm talking about meeting with every student, every person who works in the building—from the engineering staff to the administrative staff—in order to build the relationships that are the cornerstone for change.
BB: How do students benefit from this approach to learning?
Charest: So, I taught English, and there is debate within the field about whether or not we should continue to teach the canonical texts largely written by dead white men or expand the curriculum to include different voices and texts. I’ve always felt as though students can learn critical skills such as thinking, analyzing, and writing using any kind of text, including graphic novels, young adult literature, and film. My point is that we need to think more broadly about what makes something worth knowing and doing. In my experience, the traditional curriculum oftentimes ended up alienating students because it was totally irrelevant to their lives. Centering civic literacy and civic engagement helps teachers provide a bridge to the concerns students have about their own lives. That's fundamentally at the core of it—starting with the question “What are the concerns of the young people in this community?” and building a curriculum around the answers. A good teacher is going to find ways to get students involved in project-based learning that incorporates math, science, and language arts, while communicating across different genres and contexts. My view is you can teach the things that are important for students to be learning through that kind of curriculum.
BB: Do you have any advice for educators who might want to implement some of the strategies you outline, but might be discouraged, either by their principal or their district? Where should they start?
Charest: Yes. There's actually a story in the book about some challenges I had early on. I had a principal who wasn't supportive of the work we were doing, and I talk about some of the things we did to push forward. It’s important to start with finding your allies and your network, whether they're people you know at your school or outside of it, then figuring out the things that you and a small group of people can do. Get out of your school and get into the community. Try to connect with the people who are doing positive work. Figure out how you can work together. I’ve found it’s almost always better to ask for forgiveness than for permission. Teachers need to authorize themselves to work in solidarity with students and their communities. Change only happens when we work to make it happen.
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