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Visiting Washington, D.C.
In Event: Teaching and Learning in Politically Charged Classrooms: Negotiating Tensions and Opportunities for Democratic Education
In traditional U.S. high school civics courses, undocumented immigrant youths’ liminal status is often invisible as they are educated alongside their peers who have full citizenship rights (Identifying Reference). We have yet to understand how citizenship status plays out in classrooms that are already “charged” with challenges that undermine democratic education (Identifying Reference). In this study we investigate how teachers navigated the tensions of teaching youth in settings meant to socialize them for future political participation when some students did not have voting rights.
Conceptually, we draw from the concept of disjuncture (Rubin, 2007). Students’ citizenship status comprises a largely unrecognized tension within civics teaching as the meanings of “citizenship” are contested (Flores, 2003; Rosaldo, 1997). Disjunctures between ideals espoused in civics and the realities of students’ lived experience undermine democratic education (Rubin, 2012). Understanding how teachers simultaneously address the possibilities of civic inclusion despite structural exclusions allows a window into how citizenship status is negotiated at local levels.
Methods and Data
Following Shulman (1986) and others (Hess, 2002; Ladson-Billings, 1994), we employed a case study approach and engaged in an eight-month selection process to identify high school teachers who articulated unprompted support of undocumented youth and had prior civics teaching experience during national elections. We drew from 60 hours of classroom observation (fieldnotes and audio), 17 hours of teacher interview data, and classroom artifacts when writing case study reports (Yin, 2013). We then compared case studies across the three teachers, looking for similarities and differences.
The case studies highlight variability in response to teaching about issues of voting and political participation in settings where youth had a variety of citizenship statuses. Our emerging findings focus on two areas of difference across teachers: (a) distinct curricular approaches to teaching about electoral politics and political participation, and (b) different forms of communication about undocumented status during class time and after. We address the phenomena of teachers’ signaling as a communication strategy that validated the existence of undocumented students in these contested spaces, for example by saying, “You can volunteer, even if you can’t vote.” Conversely, we also highlight the case of a teacher who avoided addressing immigration issues out of concern for students’ sense of safety. The variation we observed suggests that even when teachers are aligned with immigrant rights, they have differing approaches to teaching civics to youth who do not have voting rights. However, more scholarship is needed to understand the relationship between teachers’ approaches and students’ sense of disjuncture and exclusion on the one hand, or political integration and inclusion on the other.
Research on how teachers address the civic experiences of all students, including undocumented students, is essential for understanding the possibilities and constraints of citizenship education. As scholars increasingly discuss what civic education should look like in light of immigration (Banks, 2008; Castles, 2004; Gutmann, 2004; Parker, 2004), this paper contributes grounded perspectives about teaching civics when students’ citizenship rights are not a given.