Why We’re Going to Texas: A Former Austin Teacher Shares Her Powerful Story

September 27, 2016

Meredith Norris, Austin native and former teacher, is leading the effort to bring Generation Citizen to Central Texas.

Here she tells us why.

Meredith Norris_Bio PicI started my teaching career in 2012 in the San Francisco Bay Area. Debates over Common Core and teacher evaluation ran rampant. Standards and test scores were valued above all, but the tides and trends in education policy were constantly changing. It was (and is) a complicated time to be a teacher.

In my first week as an 8th grade English and Social Studies Teacher, I was explicitly informed that Social Studies test scores didn’t matter. Thus, I was not supposed to spend time on the subject. I was told that “we teach Social Studies content through Language Arts”. In practice, this meant examining the complex causes of the American Revolution through a scripted lesson plan on Longfellow’s “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere”.

I had entered teaching with great dreams of a classroom that empowered student voices and encouraged critical thinking and investigation. I wanted my students to have meaningful opinions on real topics that mattered. I wanted them to know how to defend those opinions with robust evidence, and be able to advocate for themselves and their communities out in the “real world”. My principal’s demands to curtail social studies instruction meant that my new reality could not have been further from my classroom dream.

Gaining a little more confidence after my first year in the classroom, I was fired up to make a change in my second year, but didn’t know where to start. I ran into the Bay Area Site Director for Generation Citizen at an event in the spring of 2013. The organization was new to the area, and looking for classrooms interested in implementing their action civics curriculum. She explained that Generation Citizen, or GC, partnered college student volunteers with middle and high school classrooms to facilitate a 10-week-long “action civics” curriculum. In the program, she told me, students brainstormed community issues, researched the root cause, and actually took real action to solve an issue that the students cared about. I realized Generation Citizen was exactly what I had been looking for.

Implementing GC was game-changing for me, and more importantly, for my students.

Implementing GC was game-changing for me, and more importantly, for my students. Suddenly, I had the resources, support, and structures to create my dream classroom. Students were reflecting on complex issues in their community, developing real-world literacy skills, and collaboratively solving problems. They were sharing their experiences with donors, local officials, and members of their community. They were speaking with authority on bus safety and subway cleanliness, and throwing around names of Board of Transportation officials like they were common knowledge. They were writing, rewriting, and revising letters, not because I told them to, but because they were sending these letters on to real community decision makers.

As their teacher, I also felt empowered. I had the tools I needed to build community and dialogue in my classroom. I was spending my planning periods collaborating with my college student “Democracy Coach” volunteers trying to figure out how to get my students to City Hall to testify or how to ensure that every student’s opinion was truly valued in the process of reaching consensus.

My proudest moment came that December at Generation Citizen’s Civics Day (the end of semester event that is similar to a science fair, but for civics projects). Sitting in Oakland City Hall, two of my students had been asked to share their stories in front of a daunting room of teenagers and public officials. Up at the podium, one of them said, “People don’t always listen to kids our age because they think we’re too young, but that’s not true…[We] spoke with someone important and she paid attention. I realized that people do hear us.” With that, I began crying big proud teacher tears.”

“People don’t always listen to kids our age because they think we’re too young, but that’s not true…[We] spoke with someone important and she paid attention. I realized that people do hear us.” With that, I began crying big proud teacher tears.

When I moved across the country to Boston, MA and to a new school, I brought GC with me. Implemented in a school with strict rules and rigid structure, GC made space in the building for my students’ voices to be heard. In my final months at the school, my GC students presented to the entire teaching staff and lobbied the school principal to change the school budget to promote Social Emotional Learning. My students thought differently about their world after their experiences with GC. Upon seeing students hosting a “sit in” in the hallway after a controversial school decision, one girl approached me saying “Don’t they know that’s not going to fix the root cause of the problem? If they were upset, there were other ways to talk to the leadership team!” Another student commented to his friend, “Haven’t you noticed I talk more now? That’s because of GC.”

My students thought differently about their world after their experiences with GC. Upon seeing students hosting a “sit in” in the hallway after a controversial school decision, one girl approached me saying “Don’t they know that’s not going to fix the root cause of the problem? If they were upset, there were other ways to talk to the leadership team!” Another student commented to his friend, “Haven’t you noticed I talk more now? That’s because of GC.”

After my own journey in the classroom, I wanted to support teachers and students caught in the middle of policy changes that impact their schools, their communities, and their lives. My former colleague was forced out of her home by rising rent prices in San Francisco. My former school was referenced by major newspapers in the battle over charter school caps. My former students walked out of class to protest cuts to school budgets.

Public policy and education are inextricably connected. Schools have the amazing ability to sit at the heart of our nation’s identity. Our debates over schools are debates over what we hope our country becomes. With this prime location, schools are compelled to be places of civic discourse and community engagement.

In a year like this, with contentious political rhetoric and unpopular candidates, it can be hard to see past the circus of election season to the real policies that impact people. It can be challenging to talk about all of this in a classroom full of students. But this year has reminded us that we need our next generation of leaders involved in the decisions that affect them. The educators who support those students also need space to create and empower those young voices. Ensuring schools are hubs of advocacy empowers us all to build the country we envision. That’s why meaningful civics education and programs like Generation Citizen are essential.

I realized that this work was everything for me – creating experiences in schools for students to use their voices, supporting teachers who felt stuck, transforming classrooms into spaces that promote inquiry and collaboration. This was my passion. That’s why, as of August 1, 2016, I am now the founding team member of Generation Citizen, Central Texas. I am especially excited because this new job allows me to bring the program that transformed my classroom to the classrooms of my hometown; I’m bringing an organization that I know and love to a city I know and love.

I’m bringing an organization that I know and love to a city I know and love.

So for the first time in many years, I didn’t head back into a classroom this fall, but instead I’m seeking classrooms to support. I’m looking for educators who felt like I did, with big dreams and little structure to make them a reality. I’m looking for local leaders who are willing to listen to young people, and for students who have something to say and seek the outlets and tools for expression. This spring, I’ll be coaching college volunteers and classrooms as they take on new advocacy projects and host our own civics day where students will stand up and share their stories. I’m excited to be tackling this new challenge, fueled by the work I witnessed from my former students, knowing that their time with GC gave them, and me, a sense of agency we hadn’t felt before.

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