#CivicsForUS: Centering Student Voices During These Times

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” Most students today readily attribute this quote to Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence. (I will admit I had one student this week inform me that most of this phrase came from the Schuyler sisters. Thank you, Lin Manuel Miranda.) This week my students unpacked these words to help them understand the universal rights endowed to them by their creator, whether the creator is God, Allah, Ogun, Zeus, or the Big Bang. The rights they share with all people, from the Tagaeri of Ecuador to the Bedouins of the Middle East. The rights they are always in danger of losing.

These rights are beautiful and the thought of a newborn baby coming into this world, already in possession, makes me shiver with delight. The precious right to Life, which cannot be unduly taken away without due process. The cherished right of Liberty, the freedom of choice, perhaps the most divine of rights. Not a day goes by that we do not exercise this right. We choose where we live, where we work, who we love — the Pursuit of Happiness. We do not have the right to be happy, but danged if anyone can stop us from doing our best to achieve it!

The topic this week was the Holocaust, the audience, 7th grade US History students. They expected to learn about something “historical” (we all know that “history” happened to people long dead and does not relate to us today) and were surprised when they walked away with a deeper understanding of the fragility of the liberty they take for granted and the role they play in protecting that liberty. When I asked my students what caused World War II, the agreed upon answers included “Hitler,” “Holocaust,” and “lots of Jewish people died.” In the 90 minutes we had together, we dialogued about the events leading up to Hitler’s election as Chancellor and the continued support of the National Socialist German Workers’ (Nazi) Party. Having just discussed the Great Depression, it was easy to compare a weary people electing a leader who promised a solution; that is, after all, how FDR came to power. Students nodded in agreement that Hitler initially sounded like the right man for the job.

Then we turned to the treatment of the Jews by first discussing the boycotts, which infringed on the Jews’ right to “Pursuit of Happiness.” Taking away income would have prevented them from maintaining their households and providing for their family. Still, if they chose to, the Jews could leave. They could still pursue their happiness, just somewhere else. Gradually, as the German people accepted, and participated in, the boycotts and the segregation became more pronounced. Germany retracted citizenship to German Jews, leaving them without a country and the protection of a government. Jews were collected into ghettos, where the Liberty of choice was taken from them as they were told where to work and where to live. Hitler’s Final Solution was put into place when the cries from the ghettos became too loud, and the parade of the corpses of starved Jews being carted away proved too uncomfortable for the Germans. The solution: remove the final unalienable right from the Jews, send them to extermination camps, and take their lives.

Students were naturally horrified at these violations but reminded each other that this was the Nazi Party and not all Germans. Stories of Kristallnacht and other atrocities were spread worldwide. To my students’ understanding that is why the war happened, to stop the wrongdoing. Living in the tech-savvy days we live in, I challenged my students to come up with a list of countries that gave “helping Jews gain their natural rights” as a reason for entering World War II. Not surprisingly, they were unable to find any.

I then turned their attention to the other occupants of Hitler’s camps. Jehovah’s Witnesses, Gypsies, Homosexuals. At this point, some eyebrows raised and frowns became pronounced as lips were pursed. Suddenly, this was hitting a little too close to home. Noting their discomfort, I persevered and described the removal of non-Jews, people who were hearing impaired, blind, epileptics, or otherwise differently abled. Children of mixed races were sterilized to prevent the continuation of these “undesirable groups” as dictated by Hitler. My students looked in horror at each other. Each of them either is or knows someone who falls into at least one of these categories. After they sat with it for a minute, I asked them if any one person could have stopped this violation of human rights. The answer, of course, was no. The problem was too big for any one person. But if all the single voices came together, the story might be considerably different.

Today students are exposed daily to violations of what our Founders considered undebatable. George Floyd’s life was taken away. Immigrant children are held in cages. People are judged and persecuted for who they love. If we, as a country, do not speak up now, will we ever have an opportunity to do so before it is too late?

Our students are enraged. They have heard the call to action. They look at us for guidance and want to know what they can do. They have taken the first step. They want to be involved. They are ready to be involved. Next year I will see some of the same students when they come into my 8th grade Civics class. They will be prepared to hear how our government is structured and where they fit it. When I call on our local elected officials to read letters and take questions from their young constituents, I hope they are prepared for the tough questions these young adults are already asking.

As teachers, we already do so much. It can be challenging to help students understand current events when we, as adults, struggle to understand “why.” What we can help them do is understand how the system works with solid Civic education. Students have great ideas and deep insights about the quality of their Civic education. Help the iCivics team empower students by understanding gaps in civic education standards and helping to provide a truly equitable civic education. Join the conversation now by checking out the Youth Network’s #CivicsForUS campaign on social media, take the listening tour through May 12th and visit the website www.iCivics.org/CivicsForUS to learn more.

By: Anne Walker

Anne Walker is a 7th grade US History and 8th grade Civics and Economics teacher in Prince William County Virginia. Her classroom theme is “Who Are We the People” and students in both subjects study their subject through the lens of exploring who the American Constitution has represented over the years. An avid iCivics user, she emphasizes to her students the role they must play in ensuring civil rights for all through government participation. As the 2019 Virginia James Madison Fellowship award recipient she anticipates earning a Master in American History and Government degree from Ashland University next Spring.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog reflect the views of the author[s] alone and do not reflect the views of iCivics. iCivics does not endorse, verify or represent the accuracy, completeness or reliability of any opinion, statement, recommendation or other information written by a third party and published on the CivXNow blog.

Previous Next See All