Developing Civic Literacy in the Upper School

By Upper School History Teacher Ronnie Robinson
A half dozen seniors stand on one side of the room, ready to disagree with the statement a junior in Global Studies is about to make that clarifies the U.S. position on chemical weapons in Syria.

She takes a deep breath and makes her case.
What follows is a coherent, nuanced discussion where students challenge one another to be thoughtful and engaged in this activity called a spectrum. After the discussion, students return to their writing assignments with new ideas and arguments to add to their own. The conversation does not stop here—after class, students participate in various clubs and organizations at Hutchison to pursue their passions and develop civic literacy.

In the 1830s, French diplomat, political scientist, and historian Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States and wrote about the emerging democratic spirit in the young nation. He observed that democracy was a not a “machine that would go itself” and that in a democracy its citizens must work hard to develop a “democratic ethos” that penetrates their “hearts as well as their minds.”

Since the founding of the United States, civic education has been vital to sustaining our Constitutional democracy. The principles of democratic government have been essential to fighting wars, developing social policies, and advancing rights for all Americans. Political scientists and historians have studied civic efficacy and written about how participation by age groups varied and changed throughout American history. In general, it’s been found that older age groups participate and have a better understanding of democratic government than younger groups. Since the 2016 presidential election, the media has frequently reported about the decline of civic engagement among younger age groups in recent election cycles. Lower voter turnout among younger Americans, other than a few notable elections - 1992 and 2008 for instance - has been the norm since the twenty-sixth amendment lowered the voting age to 18 in 1972. Statistics continue to reflect that younger Americans are more-or-less disengaged from mainstream politics and what they perceive as an antiquated system.

This is where we should all be concerned. Sure democracy is messy and can easily be criticized; however, not participating is only making the situation worse. So, how do we engage younger generations and improve their understanding of the democratic processes?

At Hutchison, the history department believes girls must become better educated, not just in the formal setting of a classroom, but in active learning environments where they can critically think about the domestic and global world around them. High schools are struggling to engage this new generation in civics, especially in the area of news media. In a world of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media news platforms, the flood of disinformation across the world has increasingly complicated how high school students process news and information. In order to develop civic literacy, we help our girls combat these challenges by providing a strong and vibrant curriculum, while extending their interest beyond the classroom.

The history curriculum at Hutchison is strong and offers a balance of national and global classes. All of our girls take American and World histories and many take American or Comparative governments. In Rachel Mattson’s freshman World History course, students survey historical events throughout history and make connections to current issues. The emphasis on global trends allows students to gain a broader perspective of culture and events that continues to impact their lives.

During sophomore year students examine the events and people that shaped American history. The development of democratic government and the role people play in the process are major themes of the class.Juniors and seniors take elective classes in AP Human Geography, Economics, World Religions, Global Studies, American and Comparative Government. In these eleventh and twelfth grade electives, department faculty members Clay Francis and Amanda Magdalena lead creative critical-thinking activities in their classes. Students write letters to politicians, take field trips, participate in mock governments, and experience elements of world culture. Within each of these classroom environments, students gain perspective, develop skills, and build a balanced national and world view that promotes civic engagement without favoring any particular political stance.

However, regardless of how well any curriculum or formal civil education is designed, it does not insure students will participate as active citizens. Therefore, formal education is not exclusively the answer. The history department extends the formal civic education in the classroom to real experiences and activity in clubs and organizations. More importantly, we try to get students to understand that democracy takes constant work and that it often has setbacks. Teaching the values of a republic involve understanding how the democratic process works beyond their academic environment.

The members of the history department are mentors to our girls. They are inspiring teachers in the classroom, but it is their commitment to student experiences beyond the classroom that really makes a difference in civic literacy. These informal opportunities reinforce what students learn in the classroom. We encourage our girls to get involved in numerous student-centered experiences. For example, each school year we have a number of girls who participate in Model United Nations and Youth-In-Government. The history department supports Molly Prewitt, the sponsor of these organizations, by assisting students who need help forming global and state policies. Furthermore, we encourage students to participate in a range of summer programs such as Governor’s School, St. Albans’ School of Public Service, Volunteer Girls State, as well as other special programs and intern opportunities. Student participating in these activities don’t just have the classic “leadership” experience; rather they become active participants in civics. This informal participatory aspect of their education is essential to developing civicliteracy.

Below are a few examples of the wide range of clubs that our faculty and students engage in to develop civic literacy. It is important to note that all of these clubs are not paper champions, but very active, passionate organizations.

Facing History and Ourselves
Facing History and Ourselves is an international organization that encourages high school students to analyze and use history to better understand the world around them. Our Hutchison student group is particularly focused on students teaching peers about different moments in history where people were faced with making (often difficult) choices that impact others. Our students seek to better understand themselves and their identities so as to be better aware of the world and how they can participate in it.

Feminism Club
Feminism Club explores the three waves of feminism in historical as well as contemporary context. We have biweekly meetings, and the girls are the active drivers of the club, organizing and researching topics of interest and leading outstanding discussions to digest events from a feminist lens. Active and civically engaged students have taken outings to see movies that portray strong female leads, helped select speakers for women’s history month, and presented information on women’s history in convocation.

Global Ambassadors
Global Ambassadors encourages girls to think globally and act locally. We meet monthly to discuss issues of global importance, and this year our themes are refugees, the environment, and biodiversity. Our student-led steering committee collaborates to invite speakers from the local area to teach us how our understanding of these themes at a local level can have global impact. Each week, one member of the club presents a video in convocation to raise awareness about global issues.

Government Club
Government Club brings awareness to current events and everyday processes of democratic government. This student-led club, which meets weekly, organizes discussions around top local, national, and global events, so that upper school girls have a better understanding of the world around them. Recently the club members hosted Shelby County Republican Mayoral candidate David Lenoir, and they are currently planning a State of the Union watch party at the end of January. The passion and activity of the students contribute to the school’s civic literacy at Hutchison.


Ronnie Robinson is the Upper School History Department Chair at Hutchison and teaches American History, including two AP History classes and three Honors History classes. He has been actively involved with the College Board for more than 10 years where he serves in the leadership as AP National Exam Table Leader and  as an AP Summer Institute Trainer, where he trains AP teachers across the country. He was also a committee member for the AP United States History National Exam Design Committee form 2009-2012. Last year he received the distinguished Teaching Excellence in History Award from College Board, one of three people in the country to receive the award. He also won the Coca-Cola Educator of Distinction Award in 2017. Mr. Robinson holds a Bachelor of Arts in History from Rhodes College.

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Hutchison is the leading private girls school in Memphis for ages 2 years old through twelfth grade.