There's a radical - and wonderful - new idea here . . . that all children could and should be inventors of their own theories, critics of other people's ideas, analyzers of evidence, and makers of their own personal marks on the world." - Deborah Meier, Educator





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Philadelphia Students Become Modern Day de Tocquevilles



PHILADELPHIA, PA — In 1831, a 25-year-old Alexis de Tocqueville left France to study prisons in the United States and, by turn, to search for America's essence. He interviewed presidents, lawyers, bankers, settlers, and even the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence.

The book that resulted from his nine-month journey, Democracy in America, professed wonder at the young nation’s civic institutions but also fear that American democratic culture might contain the seeds of its own demise. “America is great because she is good,” de Tocqueville wrote, “and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.”

In 2013, twelfth graders at Science Leadership Academy (SLA) in Philadelphia took up the French historian’s warning with “half-closed, half-open eyes,” as a student named Imani put it. They had spent the first quarter of their American Government class reading about the evolution of U.S. democracy in the United States. In the second quarter, they used Democracy in America as a model for researching and presenting their own observations about the state of democracy in 21st century America.

Every student (48 in all) would produce a mini-book of three chapters on topics of their choosing, explained Joshua Block, their teacher, in his assignment overview. Each chapter was to include a 750-word narrative, multimedia, quotes, and citations. Finished books would appear online, accessible to the public. Students would publish under a “Utopia” (imaginary) name—“Imani So Poetic,” “Daniel from Two Street,” “Martez from Uptown."

Civic education as active inquiry

In a school where inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation, and reflection are core values, these twelfth graders understood the challenges Block’s assignment posed. Launched in 2006 as a partnership between The Franklin Institute and the School District of Philadelphia, the 450-student Science Leadership Academy has won national recognition for its “one-to-one project-based laptop” instruction and its deep commitment to inquiry.

“Asking questions, learning by doing, presenting—these are built into everything we do at SLA,” explained Kristi (“de UCity”). “Inquiry and reflection literally happen 24/7 here.”

Joshua Block’s assignment also reflected his personal beliefs about civic education. “Civics education should not merely be students learning ‘how the system works,’” the award-winning teacher said. “Democratic education needs to teach citizens the knowledge and skills necessary to analyze, organize, mobilize, and have their voices heard. Teaching history and teaching about society as if they are static entities fails to acknowledge the world we live in.”

Money and power. Immigration. Media bias. Incarceration. Failing schools. Racism. Violence against women. Unresponsive government. As they began identifying “social constructs” to observe, students summoned examples like these from their lived experience.

Consistent with the SLA teaching philosophy, Block assumed the role of facilitator. He provided students with links to more than 70 articles, books, and websites to inform and push their thinking. The starter prompts he tossed out might have shown up on a college exam: What are the results and impacts of inequality in the U.S.? What does the U.S. government prioritize? What should it prioritize? How do people gain power in U.S. society?

On such subjects and more, these Philadelphia high school seniors had a lot to say.

“Henry from West Philly” argued in his first chapter that America’s long struggle with race was joining with a new struggle “where wealth trumps all.” His second chapter, an analysis of money and politics, began: “America is corrupt. There, I said it. Money in America has corrupted politics in America.” As evidence he pointed to the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, the surge (and scourge) of Super PACs, and the self-interested donations of billionaires. In the third chapter, “Pretty Things,” he argued that the American citizen’s lust for material things has made the once-attainable American Dream near impossible.

Click to play

“Kristi de UCity” began by questioning patriotic allegiance to a government that often treats its citizens with disrespect—citing sexual assaults against women in the military as one of the most flagrant abuses. Then she examined gender differences in incarceration: since pregnancy and depression make female inmates especially vulnerable, they need more institutional supports than men, she argued. In her third chapter, Kristi looked at the collusion between government and elite corporations in repressing “democratizing media.” If those in power accept “the filtering done by elite and local media, [the] lack of transparency,” she asked, what did that say about the government?

In one of her chapters, Imani examined what she calls the “war on brown boys.” “America picks and choose who they give democracy to and African Americans are one of the groups [left out],” she wrote. “White America fears African American men and they use their skin complexion as a reason to commit violent acts against them.”

“Jasmin de Philadelphia” stepped back to dissect how American’s views on immigration have changed over time. Later, when analyzing how difference and change are viewed in the U.S. and why it matters, she quoted Noam Chomsky: “Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.”

To fulfill the assignment’s multimedia requirement, students tracked down video clips, strong images, political cartoons, and posters that would add punch to their words. “It was the best kind of hunt,” one said. Some also produced their own short videos or gathered and taped the opinions of other students. When Jasmin asked classmates for their views on federalism vs. states’ rights in relation to minimum wage laws, she found that most had given the subject little thought, but they became “passionate about what they were saying” when she explained what was at stake.

What do students at SLA think about state vs. federalism and minimum wage?


Summing up their two-month investigation, these modern-day de Tocquevilles concluded that the troubles of today’s democracy run deep. “It’s hard to know where to start,” said Imani. “The ties between money and politics are so overpowering.” They were hopeful about democracy’s future, the students agreed—but “if and only if we raise our voices,” as one declared.

“I’ve learned that it is the feisty people who get things done,” said Jasmin. When proposed cuts to the Philadelphia school budget threatened to “strip what’s left of education in this city,” she and other students across the city rose in protest. “The more our generation speaks out, the more hope I feel for democracy and change,” she said.

“I started this unit close-minded,” Imani confessed. “I didn’t believe democracy in America existed.” Her mind opened, she said, when as part of her investigation she watched a video in which members of the Young Lords Party stood up for Puerto Rican rights. “Oh! Okay. I get it now,” she remembered thinking. “Whatever the odds, you got to speak up.” Now she realizes why it matters to vote in local, not just presidential, elections, she said.

Have these students’ views changed on what democracy means? Democracy itself has changed, they replied. “We can’t really sit here and say ‘Democracy is this,’ when it’s gonna change over time,” said Henry. Whatever the era or political context, he reasoned, the challenge is to realize that “we too have power in the face of powerful people.”

“I feel like we’re at a point of inflection when it comes to democracy,” Victoria explained. “We aren’t where we used to be and we’re not where we might need to be.” What matters, she said, is to act on the belief that democracy means “for the people and by the people.”

For Kristi, the chance to be 21st century de Tocquevilles had itself provided an exercise in democracy. “It may seem like a little thing, but we wrote our chapters as if our voices mattered,” she said. “And they do. We made our voices heard. Like Mother Teresa says, we are all drops in the ocean.”