One of the first encounters we had with the civic engagement initiative at our campus was, “what is it?” We thought the best way to document what civic engagement was was by asking students to co-create ideas about what community, diversity, and democracy meant to them. As Dr. Chris Chapman observed, the meaning of civic engagement must be defined precisely by researchers and administrators. (Chapman, 2014). We have stressed in our work that democratic classrooms begin with an acceptance of the humans in the room, not a group ready to be coerced or bent to a particular political will or social project. And yet, we know from social change studies that transformative learning occurs when the learner is self aware of the social forces and structures of inequality all around us (Kitchenham, 2014).
It was this apparent dichotomy that struck us, while we were constructing learning opportunities in the classroom to evoke civic engagement the world turned outside the classroom walls. What this meant was that we needed to be more concrete about what we hoped students would be motivated to do at the end of the semester, how we could provide structured support and instruction along the way, and how we could fairly assess the development of the learner and the project work.
Hurricane Sandy provided an unexpected focusing event. Access to technology was a major element to completing course work or falling behind during the hurricane. After the circumstances of the storm and dislocation in 2012 brought this inequality to my attention I consistently noticed it in my own classes and spoke with many more educators about these issues (Leggett, 2016). We observed the access gap cause a measurable reduction in course work completion due to techno-frustration. How then could civic engagement be fairly assessed within the framework of the classroom?
We turned to the principles of action research to provide a framework to study our own understandings of civic engagement by documenting the dialogue of teaching and learning (Young, Rapp, & Murphy, 2010). It was easiest for me to design my own inquiry question for the teaching and learning process and the specific skill, project, or outcome I hoped to teach. For example, I wondered how students would make meaning around our community mapping project given the inequality in access. By opening this dialogue up with students we learned about the particulars within the problem space as well modeled the process of discussing potential solutions and what it would take to see these solutions through resistance.
I also found success with an integration of my scholarly research into components of the course work, scaffolded structured learning opportunities, or through dialogue throughout the semester with reference to course content learning. By providing a narrative for change both in the abstract world of my research and through me the researcher students saw the relevance in social change or civic engagement research. Because our pedagogy focuses on the motivation of all leaners each learner was able to participate in their own way, thus overcoming the access obstacle, and opening up pathways to collaboration including advocacy video production, cartoons, and poems.
In summary, an inquiry question that enhances civic motivation both provides a framework for positive change while also allowing for the flexibility of choice developed upon new information and reflection in dialogue with one another. We think this represents deliberative democracy and civic engagement well. The documentation process then simply shows how your class is progressing toward finding a solution to a modern community problem from a variety of view points and integrated with your course goals and learning outcomes.