How students talk about COVID-19: Civics perspective taking in the classroom

Multi-year study shows how the pandemic affects the next generation's political discourse

William Toledo's book, Civic Education in Contentious Times

How students talk about COVID-19: Civics perspective taking in the classroom

Multi-year study shows how the pandemic affects the next generation's political discourse

William Toledo's book, Civic Education in Contentious Times

Students, even as young as the third-grade, have the ability to develop and defend unique positions on modern, difficult political questions. These students are capable of developing different opinions based on evidence, understanding and explaining their own unique interpretation of concepts like the “common good.”, and looking beyond themselves to consider the best outcome for the community at large.

“All of our students saw that the common good exists,” William Toledo, Assistant Professor of Elementary Education and co-author of Deliberation on the Public Good during COVID-19: A Case Study Examining Elementary Students’ Use of Civic Perspective, said. “The difference was on what level. Some students saw the common good just in relation to their neighborhood or school. Some saw it in relation to the City of Reno, or the United States. Some students went global and saw the world as more interconnected.”

Toledo and Esther Enright, co-author of the study and Assistant Professor at Boise State University’s College of Education, have released the study as a piece of a multi-year project examining students’ ability to examine social and political issues. Working with local teachers, Toledo and Enright developed curriculum which presented students with historical context, asked students to analyze evidence and civilly discuss their opinions on real-world issues in the classroom. This aligns with Toledo and Enright’s twofold approach to their project and research.

“First, we want to bring locally relevant public issues into the classrooms,” Toledo said. “This focus helps to combat polarization around these issues because it gives students a structured academic space to debate and deliberate. Second, we center our educators as curriculum designers, which gives them agency when moderating discussions about these issues. Our teachers are so capable and incredible in terms of their capacity to navigate these difficult conversations and help students develop their perspective-taking skills.”

For this study, Toledo and Enright worked with third-grade students right as living during the COVID-19 pandemic was becoming a reality in the United States. Currently, they’re working with fourth-grade students in the Washoe County School District. Next year, they plan to work with fifth-grade students; the year after that, they will work with sixth-grade students and continue the process year after year until they’ve reached 12th-grade students. The setting of this paper was particularly special, as Toledo and Enright worked with students right as COVID-19 restrictions were just being put into place at the beginning of 2020. The impact on student discussions was immediate.

“COVID-19 was not in the United States when we began our work,” Toledo said. “it's talked about in classrooms in a much more direct way because so many students have experiences with it. So many students have parents or loved ones who have gotten sick or been affected by COVID 19. We have students who've lost loved ones, and our educators too.”

Toledo’s project does not shy away from introducing difficult, controversial topics into a classroom environment for discussion. With the third-grade students, Toledo and the teachers developed a curriculum designed to teach the students about the history of immigration in the United States, and asked them to consider if the United States should close its borders to other countries.

To create the study, published in The Councilor, a Journal of the Social Studies, Toledo worked with teachers and education professionals like Social Studies Coordinator Sarah Brown, Curriculums Coordinator Gilly Bartlett or other talented teachers across the Washoe County School District to create curriculums that are implemented and studied in real classrooms. Throughout this year of the project and the upcoming years beyond, the authors valued giving educators the chance to voice their opinions and potential ideas regarding the civics curriculum to be studied in their own classrooms. As an example, one teacher suggested a way to adapt a previously used discussion format to better follow the social distancing protocols of that time.

“We partner in a really authentic and important way where teachers really become part of the research process,” Toledo said. “They're part of writing the curriculum with us. They're at the front of the classroom, teaching every lesson and explaining how it's impacted them, and how they discuss the COVID 19 pandemic and related policies because of their own personal experiences with it. The biggest shift was before, it was seen as a far-off, distant virus, and now it’s something that everybody in our community has a personal experience with.”

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