Novelist Rilla Askew boldly states, “Oklahoma is America: we are its microcosm; our story is America’s story, intensified to the hundredth power.” I believe that this is true and will be lived out if we exchange fear of difference and embrace the fact that this difference is where Oklahoma was birthed from the beginning. The classrooms of Oklahoma’s public schools present unique opportunities for young people to practice deliberative democracy, to hear different perspectives, and find a shared way forward.
Civics education should inspire young people to participate in our democracy; “learning by doing” is all the rage across other academic subjects, why not civics? Civics does not need to be fenced off into boring memorization of facts and figures. Civics can come alive by challenging students to consider how government affects their daily lives and how they can impact government to make their lives and others’ lives better. Savannah Slayton, a senior in Oklahoma City Public Schools said learning civics by participating “allowed her to expand [her] horizons on current issues and allowed [her] to be an active citizen in [her] community.” Savannah now leads annual voter registration drives at her school, serves on several youth committees across the city, and is planning to study education policy in college.
Generation Citizen believes every student should learn how to participate as citizens. Our Action Civics curriculum gives students opportunities to experience real-world democracy. GC expands access to civics education that listens to all voices and draws on students’ experiences, and speaks to their power and responsibility to participate, while bringing about a practical understanding of the structure, form, and purpose of municipal, state, and federal government.
Oklahoma teacher Kendra Whitman teaches at John Marshall High School, where 89% of the students are BIPOC. Whitman emphasizes the importance of civic learning for her students, “Civics education gives them the tools and knowledge to combat systemic issues such as racism, sexism, homelessness, gun violence, and high incarceration, just to name a few. My students can, and do, experience these issues and more every day. They dream of a country described in our founding documents, a government by the people, for the people, and of the people. My students know that these documents were not designed with them in mind. That does not deter them. My students are passionate, focused, and hungry. They are hungry for a world that doesn’t determine their future by the color of their skin, or their gender, or their zip code. They are hungry for equity, fairness, and justice. They no longer want to survive, but to thrive.”
Oklahoma can be the heart of America. We can take what we have learned from the past, the present, and our hopes for the future, and be a model for an inclusive society. Oklahoma, like America, faces the reality of an unjust and unequal democracy. The systemic marginalization of indigenous peoples and communities of color, low-income communities, and youth has resulted in unequal representation in government, and policies that disadvantage those communities.
Looking back, we reference the Pioneer Spirit of grit and ingenuity along with the “Oklahoma Standard”, highlighting the kindness and service seen after the Oklahoma City Bombing. In my adolescence, these values were my guideposts. Now, as an adult, I realize the “Oklahoma Standard” will continue to fall short as long as it ignores public injustice. Grit without justice will leave us as Rilla Askew describes, “the gut of the nation, the very underbelly… ground down by poverty and grief.”
This is our students’ country, their rights, their lives, that they are fighting for. Without an engaging and relevant civic education, they fight with one hand tied behind their backs. Nothing is worth keeping that isn’t worth fighting for. Support your local schools, trust your teachers, and demand civics education become a top priority in your district.
This piece was written by GC Oklahoma Executive Director Amy Curran and former Teacher Leadership Board Member Kendra Whitman, with contributions by student Savannah Slayton.