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Chapter 7: Learning to Teach for Civic Engagement: Opportunities and Constraints for Three Teachers in One Urban Elementary School

by Shira Eve Epstein & Brett L. M. Levy - 2021

Context: Civic education is marginalized in many U.S. schools. It is especially rare in elementary schools and in schools serving low-income students of color. Although professional development opportunities in civic education for teachers are limited, these experiences can positively influence teachers’ conceptions of teaching for civic engagement. There is a need for quality professional learning to promote civic education in schools.

Focus of Study: This chapter explores three elementary school educators’ experiences learning about teaching for civic engagement (TfCE) during their time in a university-based online course on the topic and while they were teaching low-income students of color in a public urban elementary school in the northeastern United States. In the context of the university course, we ask the following related research questions: (1) How do three elementary school teachers conceptualize teaching for civic engagement? (2) How do they perceive their readiness to teach for civic engagement in their professional context?

Research Design: We used the qualitative methods of document analysis and interview. Specifically, we collected and analyzed nine course assignments and conducted two extended interviews with each of the three participants.

Findings: We found that during the course, the teachers adopted valuable ideas about developing students’ abilities to identify, deliberate, and act on public problems—demonstrating broadened visions of TfCE. They also described various aspects of their school context that they perceived as unfriendly toward such pedagogy, including an emphasis on high-stakes assessment. Referencing contextual constraints as well as opportunities for TfCE, they expressed varied forms of readiness to enact civic-oriented instruction.

Recommendations: These findings suggest that to support TfCE, teacher educators should dedicate coursework or other forms of professional development to TfCE, address teachers' different responses and experiences, and confront the absence of civic education in schools.

Educators can play a crucial role in supporting democratic civic engagement among children. We view civic engagement as “behavior that addresses legitimate public matters” (Levine, 2007, p. 4), and civic education involves teaching and learning that promotes such behavior. Specifically, we hope for students to learn the skills, knowledge, and dispositions that enable them to participate in naming, analyzing, deliberating, and addressing authentic communal concerns. Thus, we spotlight a form of civic education that is active and experiential, in contrast to civic education that portrays government with academic detachment and obscures the ways that youth can thoughtfully engage for public betterment (Levine, 2011). This learning for civic engagement can begin at a young age, and with support, children can critically explore complex civic issues (Mitra & Serriere, 2015; Vasquez, 2004) and develop civic efficacy when they advocate for a public good (Mitra & Serriere, 2012).

Despite the importance of a civic education, related instruction is too often absent in U.S. schools (Rebell, 2018; Shapiro & Brown, 2018). Civic education is particularly endangered in elementary schools where social studies is marginalized (Fitchett & Heafner, 2010; Heafner, 2020; Pascopella, 2004; Szymanski & Sunal, 2007), and educators of young children may perceive of themselves as unprepared to engage their students in civic-minded discussion (J. D. Erickson & Thompson, 2019). Additionally, civic education is less likely to be employed in schools serving low-income students of color, compared with those serving White privileged students (Kahne & Middaugh, 2008). Finally, professional development (PD) opportunities in civic education for teachers are limited (Burgess, 2015), so there is a need for quality professional learning to promote civic education in schools.

The present study grows out of a commitment to civic education, a concern for its neglect, and a desire to better understand how teachers can be supported to scaffold youth civic engagement. It is oriented toward a university-based online teacher education course that aimed to prepare teachers to guide their students’ civic engagement with research-based practices, such as fostering dialogue and action regarding civic problems. Specifically, we examine how three new educators experienced learning about teaching for civic engagement (TfCE) while working in one U.S. public urban elementary school in the Northeast region of the United States and while engaged in this PD experience. Their school served predominantly low-income students of color. In studying and herein discussing the teachers’ experiences in the context of the course, we ask the following related questions: (1) How do three elementary school teachers conceptualize teaching for civic engagement? (2) How do they perceive their readiness to teach for civic engagement in their professional context?

As we wrote this chapter, which focuses on three teachers and spotlights school-based practices, we did so with concern for larger trends regarding democratic life in the United States. Over the past several decades, the United States has been characterized by low rates of civic engagement (Bartels, 2008), low youth civic activity (Flanagan & Levine, 2010), and the increasing polarization of communities (Bishop 2009; Rebell, 2018), making it unlikely that youth will have experiences in democratic politics in which people with multiple perspectives work together (Molnar-Main, 2017). There is a need for civic education, and our study examines teachers’ experiences learning how to support broader civic engagement.


To frame our study, we first summarize major theories and research that shape our vision of youth civic engagement and teacher learning. We highlight the potential of TfCE with young children, the frequent absence of TfCE in schools, and research on effective PD to consider how to foster teachers’ skills in TfCE.  


Most generally, this study is grounded in the belief that schools should guide students to become well-informed, active citizens. We hold a social reconstructionist orientation that frames curriculum as a means to social change (Eisner, 1985; Kliebard, 1995) and contend that youth civic engagement can promote such change as students learn to name, understand, and take action on civic problems (Epstein, 2014). Furthermore, we see teacher preparation programs as having an obligation to ensure that future teachers know how to promote humanity, teach students to engage with multiple viewpoints, and support advocacy work (Andrews et al., 2018)—approaches that can be advanced by TfCE.

Given our focus on elementary teachers, we work with the assumption that young children can develop and exercise meaningful civic skills (Krechevsky et al., 2014). As “immersive learning spaces,” elementary classrooms afford teachers opportunities to enact democratic civic education throughout the day and in the context of community structures, such as class meetings (Payne, 2017). J. D. Erickson and Thompson (2019) argued that even preschools, sites where children can first gather in community, offer unique opportunities for children to contemplate authentic public problems through deliberations, consider multiple perspectives, work toward a common good, and ultimately exhibit traits of reasonableness, which are required in a democracy. Illustrations of young children developing such civic skills capture preschool students addressing meaningful issues including rainforest and animal endangerment and the availability of vegetarian food at school events (Vasquez, 2004); kindergarteners deliberating on a class rule (Paley, 1992); first graders studying and producing an awareness-raising play on child labor (Rogovin, 1998); and second graders suggesting improvements for local parks (Halvorsen et al., 2012).

Research presents varied approaches to enhancing elementary school students’ civic engagement. For example, elementary civics education can focus on fostering students’ participatory and deliberative skills and/or their ability to critique social inequities (Payne, 2017). Regarding deliberation, elementary teachers can teach students to inquire and make decisions in reference to a shared problem (Beck, 2005), such as students sitting in other students’ chairs (Angell, 2004). Other elementary school civic projects center problems that reflect more systemic injustices, such as unequal schooling (Epstein & Lipschultz, 2017), stereotyping of American Indians (Payne, 2017), and problems in the fast food industry (i.e., McDonald’s) (Vasquez, 2004), facilitating more analysis related to power and inequity. We honor this range of possible applications so as to generally position early-elementary children as civic actors.

Additionally, elementary students can learn skills of advocacy by speaking out for the changes they wish to see. Mitra and Serriere (2012) found that when fifth-grade students participated in advocacy around a local issue—improving school lunch options—they developed greater civic efficacy. Building on this work, Mitra and Serriere (2015) and others (e.g., Kawai & Cody, 2015) explored ways for elementary students to share their learning about public issues through ’zines and other channels. Civic advocacy is also pursued in early childhood settings through actions like letter writing, petitioning, and creating awareness-raising performances (Vasquez, 2004).  

Evidence suggests that elementary learning experiences that address authentic public matters can also enhance students’ overall achievement. In one study of second graders, Halvorsen and colleagues (2012) found that when students from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds engaged in two project-based learning experiences that were grounded in issues that had “real world significance” (p. 21), such as needed improvements to local parks, their progress toward state standards was equal to that of their high-SES counterparts. Indeed, Duke et al. (2016) argued that projects related to public issues can enable students to explore topics that interest them, read a variety of materials, and write for authentic audiences—prioritizing valuable academic skills.


Despite its possibilities, youth civic engagement is quite limited in today’s schools (Rebell, 2018). In the United States, schools’ and state governments’ emphases on standards and testing play a major role in the evasion of TfCE, as said emphases narrow the curriculum, minimizing a potential focus on civic engagement (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2006; Rebell, 2018; B. D. Schultz, 2017). Although standards that feature civic knowledge and practices can be helpful, they do not pose as immediate fixes. The C3 Framework for Social Studies State Standards, issued by the National Council for Social Studies (2013), includes the expectation that students will use informational sources related to civics, engage in deliberative practice, and take informed action in response to their learning. Yet, most states “do not seem to have been substantially influenced by these standards” (Rebell, 2018, p. 101).

Youth civic engagement is especially rare in elementary schools. Social studies—a common subject for civic education—is often absent in U.S. elementary schools (Fitchett & Heafner, 2010; Heafner, 2020; Pascopella, 2004; Szymanski & Sunal, 2007) or serendipitously integrated into reading lessons (Boyle-Baise et al., 2008). Indeed, between 1993 and 2016, there were precipitous drops in social studies time in elementary school grades K–5 (Heafner, 2020). Furthermore, organizations dedicated to involving youth in action civics—a form of civics that prioritizes authentic engagement with civic issues—predominantly focus on secondary students (Generation Citizen, 2018).

Additionally, in the United States, civic education is less likely to be employed in schools serving low-income students of color, such as the one spotlighted in this study, compared with those serving White privileged students (Kahne & Middaugh, 2008). There are many possible explanations for this gap, including the use of scripted and narrowed curricula that focus on skills needed for success in standardized tests and the large population of underprepared teachers in urban schools (Milner, 2014). Indeed, Milner contended that these factors specifically contribute to the decrease of social studies and opportunities to cultivate skills of active citizenship in urban schools, especially those at the elementary level. Like the quality gap between many underserved urban schools and wealthier suburban schools, the civic opportunity gap “reminds us that our society is inegalitarian and antidemocratic in some fundamental ways” (Levinson, 2012, p. 52). In turn,

the very individuals who have the least influence on political processes—the voices schools most need to inform and support in order to promote democratic equality—often get fewer, school-based opportunities to develop their civic capacities and commitments than other students. (Kahne & Middaugh, 2008, p. 9)

Thus, to protect the quality of our democracy and narrow the civic empowerment gap, it is critical to explore how to increase meaningful civic opportunities for African American, Latinx, low-income, and immigrant students from elementary school to 12th grade and beyond (Levinson, 2012).

Finally, contributing to the regular paucity of TfCE in schools, teachers do not have enough quality opportunities to learn the skills of TfCE. Typically, university-based teacher educators are more concerned with general teaching methods and content-area knowledge than with TfCE (Chavez-Reyes, 2011; L. B. Erickson, 2011). Of course, teacher education programs can be sites for elementary preservice teachers to develop their conceptions of democratic teaching (Pryor, 2006) and critical multicultural citizenship (Castro, 2010, 2014). In-service projects have also helped teachers forge new appreciations for citizenship education (Willernse et al., 2015). Yet, U.S. teacher education programs commonly avoid topics of youth advocacy and facilitating conversations on controversial issues (Andrews et al., 2018). As for PD for U.S. practicing teachers in civic education, “district officials and state policymakers seem largely uninterested” (Burgess, 2015, p. 1).


Countering the absence of PD on TfCE, this chapter brings attention to one such PD opportunity; therefore, we next address theory and research on how teachers learn and the markers of effective PD. To start, our study is aligned with situated learning theory, which highlights how the contexts in which teachers work fundamentally influence what they learn (Lave & Wenger, 1990). Thus, teachers’ understanding of their roles and student learning are deeply impacted by distinctive factors in their schools, their places of employment. We also assume a practical orientation to teaching that honors the way “teachers deal with unique situations and [that] their work is ambiguous and uncertain” (Feiman-Nemser, 1990, p. 222) so as to examine how teachers manage such distinct situations as they learn to teach.

Hochberg and Desimone (2010) argued that three contextual factors make teachers’ learning situations unique: teacher characteristics, student characteristics, and curriculum characteristics. Whereas teacher characteristics include teachers’ knowledge and efficacy beliefs, student characteristics are students’ particular learning needs and their “cultural knowledge and academic and social strengths” (p. 100). Curriculum characteristics also play a mediating role in teachers’ experiences, as each teacher’s curriculum is distinct and has unique emphases. Teachers can meaningfully reflect on new pedagogical ideas as they address these characteristics.

Teacher educators leading PD can draw on the impact of contextual factors and other research when crafting their programs. To start, effective PD, including that on TfCE, enables teachers to reflect on teacher, student, and curriculum characteristics as they consider new teaching practices (Hochberg & Desimone, 2010). Additionally, to shape teacher practice, PD should be focused on particular content, offer opportunities for collaboration with colleagues, and embed active learning in which teachers try out and get feedback on their teaching (Desimone et al., 2002). Centering teachers’ ideas about their schools and their teaching in PD goes against the grain; “all too often professional development ignores teachers and their knowledge of classrooms and students, seeking to change classroom practices rather than taking an inquiry stance that builds on teachers’ knowledge and experience” (K. Schultz, 2011, p. 300). We see such an inquiry stance as vital in the way that it honors teachers’ lived experiences. Finally, as teachers work to enact the approaches learned in the PD in high-accountability contexts, they benefit from the contextual facilitators of trust, collegial norms, and strong school leadership (Hochberg & Desimone, 2010; Meuwissen, 2017). Ideally, all of these contextual considerations are acknowledged as teachers learn the skills of TfCE.

However, given the absence of TfCE in elementary schools and in schools serving low-income students of color, it is quite possible for teachers to feel that PD on TfCE is disconnected from their prior understandings of their role, their students, and their curriculum. In these cases, new teachers can experience “competing centers of gravity” as they are surrounded by “contradictory views of how they should go about their work” (Smagorinsky et al., 2013, p. 148). For example, school administrators and colleagues could be emphasizing the importance of phonics while the leaders of the PD are emphasizing civic engagement, and it may be unclear to teachers how they relate. This can harm teacher development as they struggle to develop their approach to instruction. As we studied the experiences of new elementary teachers working with low-income students of color and taking a course on TfCE, we considered this challenge as well as the possibility for PD to encourage TfCE.


The participants in this study were enrolled in an online university course, taught during the spring 2017 semester, that aimed to support teachers to guide youth in the democratic practices of naming civic problems, deliberating on them, and becoming involved in communal efforts to address them. Elementary and secondary teachers participated in this graduate-level course, which contained four modules. Module 1, Setting Civic-Oriented Goals, involved teachers exploring the contours of civic engagement and competing models of citizenship (e.g., Westheimer, 2015). While teachers often equate citizenship with good character rather than informed participation (Patterson et al., 2012), this module exposed the participants to a broader vision of civic engagement. The teachers also examined state and national social studies standards to understand how they address civics. Module 2, Examining Civic Issues, introduced the importance of students honoring multiple viewpoints regarding civic problems and deliberating. In Module 3, Guiding Youth Civic Action, teachers considered how to support students to take informed action and advocate for change. Collectively, Modules 2 and 3 introduced a three-part framework for civic education: (1) problem identification, (2) problem exploration, and (3) action in which students respectively name, analyze, and address civic problems (Epstein, 2014). The final module, Designing and Enacting Instruction to Support Civic Engagement, asked the teachers to design a unit plan, and plan and enact at least one lesson involving TfCE. The module used readings that would help with these processes (e.g., Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). Overall, course readings portrayed civic education in elementary schools (e.g., Mitra & Serriere, 2015; Rogovin, 1998) and in secondary schools (e.g., Epstein, 2014; Hess, 2009; Levy et al., 2014). The teachers also explored online resources, including those promoted by Learning for Justice and the National Action Civics Collaborative.  

These modules involved a number of work products and participation opportunities. The teachers communicated about course content on online discussion boards, over semistructured student-led conference calls called “group chats,” and by making short videos of themselves talking about the readings and posting responses to others’ videos. In addition, at the conclusion of Modules 1–3, the teachers submitted short response papers describing key learnings. In Module 4, before submitting their units and teaching their lessons, the teachers received feedback from their peers on this work. Following the lessons, the teachers wrote lesson analyses reviewing the extent to which they met lesson objectives, based on the assessment of student work. Finally, at the conclusion of the course, the teachers wrote a course reflection paper.

In all, this course involved several of the markers of effective PD (Desimone et al., 2002). It was content-focused, as it sought to build the teachers’ knowledge of youth civic engagement and TfCE over a sustained period. It was collaborative, as it brought the candidates together for various forms of online communication. Collaborative discussions made room for teachers to share contextual details about their students and the curricular requirements they faced. Finally, it scaffolded opportunities for contextually situated active learning as the teachers designed, enacted, and reflected on instruction in their classrooms with the support of their classmates. Given these features, we had reason to believe that the course would shape teacher practice.



The study began when Author 1 invited all teachers registered for the university course to participate. Four teachers agreed, and three—Kris (second grade), Sophie (first grade and kindergarten), and Maura (kindergarten)—were working in the same urban elementary school. (All names are pseudonyms.) We focus on these three teachers because their common school setting enabled our analysis of how contextual considerations shape teacher learning about TfCE. Kris and Sophie identified as White, and Maura identified as Hispanic. During the time of the course, they were in the second half of their first full years in the school, which were their first full-time teaching jobs. They were in their early 20s, had completed undergraduate degrees, and were all completing their first master’s degrees. In this school, during the time of this study, school demographics were as follows: 1% American Indian or Alaska Native; 85% Black or African American; 10% Hispanic or Latino; 2% Asian or Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander; 2% White; and 1% multiracial. A total of 81% of the student body was identified as economically disadvantaged as defined by their participation, or their family’s participation, in an economic assistance program (e.g., free or reduced-price lunch).


After playing an advisory role in the creation of the course syllabus, Author 1 conducted two in-depth interviews (Seidman, 1998) with each participant at the beginning and end of the semester. Both interviews featured some common questions, including, “What does youth civic engagement mean to you? What questions do you have about civic education? What concerns do you have about civic education?” The two interviews also included some different questions; for example, in the opening interview, Author 1 asked, “What would you like to learn in this course?” and in the closing interview asked, “What do you think are the most important components of civic education?” and “Do you plan to enact civic education with your students in the future?” The closing interview was also a place to talk about their impressions of their unit plans, lesson plans, and course readings. Author 1 and the participants also exchanged multiple follow-up emails after the closing interview to promote better understanding of the teachers’ experiences. Finally, Author 1 collected nine course assignments from participants: three response papers, one lesson plan, one lesson analysis, the unit plan, final course reflection, and two discussion board posts that they found important.


After the course had ended, we—Authors 1 and 2—collaborated on data analysis. We reached agreement on our codes for the interview transcripts, producing an in-depth reading of the data (Smagorinsky, 2008). We linked codes to a number of overarching topics and analyzed coded data segments in reference to these topics. This chapter focuses on data related to the following topics: (1) visions of teaching for civic engagement (TfCE), (2) contextual barriers and opportunities, and (3) professional experiences. Data on the teachers’ visions of TfCE illustrated the teachers’ plans for such teaching and included codes such as “problem-based civics,” “deliberation/discussion,” and “civic action.” Data on the topic contextual barriers and opportunities illustrated the teachers’ orientations toward contextual factors (Hochberg & Desimone, 2010) and included codes such as “emphasis on English language arts and math” and “student resources.” Finally, data on the teachers’ professional experiences illustrated the ways in which the teachers brought their visions into the classroom. Codes in this area were similar to those related to their visions (e.g., “deliberation/discussion”) yet were assigned to data in which teachers stated their enacted—as opposed to their envisioned —practices. We reread the coded data grouped by topic, wrote memos regarding each topic within each interview, and wrote summary memos for each teacher, surfacing similarities and differences in the teachers’ experiences and the relationship between data on different topics. While studying the content of the data, we were also attentive to the amount of data in a particular area. For example, one teacher had more than double the amount of data in “professional experiences” than another teacher, who focused more on contextual constraints and enacted civic instruction less frequently. Finally, in a process of triangulation, we compared participants’ statements from interviews with the visions and experiences articulated in course assignments, finding much alignment.


Our analyses indicate that the course broadened participants’ conceptualizations of TfCE even as they worked in a school context that presented challenges to youth civic engagement. The data also surfaced their differentiated views on their readiness for TfCE in their elementary classrooms, reflecting their varied experiences with contextual opportunities and constraints.


Crafting New Visions

Within the context of this course, Kris, Sophie, and Maura all commented on their generative learning about TfCE. They developed knowledge of how to foster civic skills with elementary-age youth and considered ways to address issues that would be relevant for the students.

In her opening interview, Kris expressed an interest in promoting student voice and fostering student empathy through TfCE. She was able to extend both of these values within the context of the course. Concerning student voice, in her opening interview, Kris stated a relatively vague commitment of “trying to get their opinions about things, rather than giving them my own,” yet concluded the course with a concrete plan supporting students to share and develop their views on community problems. In her second interview, she described the unit she designed:

My unit focuses on addressing a problem in the community. So, brainstorming different ideas, like what’s going on in the community that we could work on, and then we are going to brainstorm solutions to those community issues, and choose one to really expand on. . . . They’re going to compare and contrast, and see differences and similarities, and kind of just discuss and give each other feedback.

These practices of naming public problems, comparing options through discussion, and ultimately choosing one to follow are critical in a civically engaged community (Molnar-Main, 2017). Kris imagined students addressing problems like their school’s leaking roof, or a more personal problem, such as their feeling that their bedtime is too early. Kris also planned for students to “send [their proposals] off to somebody,” such as the school principal, thereby embedding civic action into her vision. She designed instruction that enabled students to express their opinions and act on them.

At the start of the course, she also discussed her interest in fostering students’ empathy and confronting problems of bias in her own class. She was able to build on these interests through the course. In the second interview, after teaching an antibullying lesson addressing the students’ use of the word “retarded,” she claimed that the course “helped me prepare myself to have that kind of discussion with them, and really hear where they were coming from, and to kind of guide their thinking a little bit more.” The course seems to have impacted Kris’s immediate teaching as she aimed to create awareness of the effect of that derogatory word.  

Sophie’s view of TfCE also broadened. In the first interview, she expressed an inclination to use civic instruction to develop students’ community awareness and an interest in deliberation. Yet, she was aware of the limits of her knowledge of TfCE and had a desire to know more. For example, after she named the classroom problem of students not waiting their turn, I suggested that could be a topic of deliberation and questioned what different solutions the students could consider. She remarked, “So, you’re saying to give them these different options?” and, moments later, showing interest in this possibility, “You think there will be readings on this in my course?”

Indeed, the course addressed her area of interest as she learned about the phase of problem exploration in civic education (Epstein, 2014). At the end of the course, Sophie shared, “Without this course, I would have glossed over the importance of the problem exploration period . . . and how important problem exploration is to really get into multiple perspectives and developing ideas on what would be the most thoughtful action to take.” She then presented an illustrative example of what happens if students identify a problem and immediately try to solve it without exploring competing possible approaches:

A lot of people for Earth Day say “Don’t Pollute” . . . Don’t Litter,” and then they’ll come up with an action that they’ll make a sign for the school without really [asking]: “What are other ways that other kids my age in books have tried to solve similar problems that are happening environmentally? What are ways, possibly by interviewing any staff about what they’re doing, what they think about it? Do kids my age, other kids, know what [‘don’t pollute’] means? . . . Is that the best action to take?”

These are appropriate and thoughtful questions for the problem exploration phase—a phase that Sophie developed new knowledge about during the course. Her reflection shows her thinking expansively about how students’ could take on the global issue of environmental damage. Concretely, Sophie confirmed that when enacting an environmental project, “I could have three different options and have [them] explore” using “lots of reflection.” She articulated the same plan, honoring multiple perspectives and deliberation, in a response paper—a valuable course outcome.

Finally, Maura expressed growth regarding her understanding of civic engagement. In the first interview, she spoke of her desire to address relevant issues, such as school lunch being too late, and allowing students to “make those decisions” about when lunch should be scheduled. She also noted the absence of civic engagement and discussion-based pedagogies in her school, discussed further later. By the final interview, she had a vision of how to counter this problem, inspired by the chapter “Can We Talk?” in Teaching Democracy (Parker, 2003) and its portrayal of elementary students deliberating on problems in their classrooms and school. One of the examples (Paley, 1992) captures kindergarteners—Maura’s students’ grade—deliberating. She shared, “From that, I took that ‘yes, deliberation can happen,’ but at that age it needs to be facilitated, a little bit more guided or modeled . . . or having older students come in and modeling discussion.” She developed a vision and named a concrete teaching idea (i.e., modeling the conversation) to forward her vision of TfCE. At the conclusion of the course, she praised youth civic engagement for the way it fosters “community” and develops “deliberation and language skills.”

She also designed instruction that reflected these values. Maura designed both a unit and a lesson plan that focused on the roles of people in the school community, including the school janitor. She felt that “in order for students to become active, responsible citizens within their classroom and school community, they must first become aware of the people that make up that community.” Then, in an interview and a response paper, she imagined a unit “extension” in which students consider ways to “fix” school problems related to cleanliness, choosing between “recycling, creating jobs that will maintain cleanliness, and writing to the principal about more garbage cans, etc.” Similar to Kris and Sophie’s plans, she imagined ways to support students to develop deliberative practices and be active members of their school community.

In general, over the course of the semester, the participants developed knowledge about TfCE. This new knowledge posed as an opportunity for them because they could apply it in their classrooms. Focusing mainly on local issues, they created or envisioned lessons and units that included the important items of problem identification, deliberation on those problems, and civic action. Furthermore, they regularly considered how the civic projects could relate to student characteristics, namely, the children’s interests regarding their school (i.e., the school’s leaking roof, cleanliness in the school).

Naming Contextual Constraints

As the teachers crafted valuable ideas regarding TfCE, they viewed their school context as largely unfriendly to such initiatives. To start, Kris, Sophie, and Maura described an absence of civic engagement in their school’s existing curriculum. In one response paper, Kris shared,

Right now, students, including my own, have daily schedules centered around reading and math instruction, so [student civic] knowledge can be considered limited . . . I learned there are ways to incorporate other subjects during reading or math, but it feels so forced and unnatural to me. . . . Subjects I once found to be my favorites are now on the back burner, but it was in these classes that I began to form my citizen identity.

Social studies, which is often a content area used to promote civic engagement, was limited to one 30-minute period per week. During their first interviews, the other teachers agreed with Kris’s claim that citizenship was “on the back burner.” When reflecting on whether she had seen elements of civic engagement in her school (i.e., students showing concern for the community), Maura said, “I don’t see much.” Sophie extended her observation outside their immediate school and claimed, “I don’t really see a lot of civic engagement in schools.” The teachers perceived TfCE as not prioritized.

One particular source of concern was the school’s literacy program. During her first interview, Kris explained that the school’s approach to reading was limited, given the “questions we are expected to use”; the approach emphasized textual comprehension, as opposed to questions that invited personal opinion, such as, “What do you think?” Reflecting on both curriculum characteristics and their impact on student characteristics, Kris critiqued the text-focused reading curriculum: “It kind of keeps their answers a little bit contained. . . . It doesn’t allow a lot of free thinking.” Maura similarly critiqued the curriculum during her first interview: “It’s not student-centered for my taste.” At the end of the course, during her second interview, she also noted the absence of discussion in the curriculum: “Teachers don’t allow students to have that discussion and that deliberation in anything, not just civic issues. A lot of the times, it’s a lot of teachers talking or students talking to teachers.” They critiqued a restrictive curriculum that stifled student voice and inquiry.

Sophie identified this limiting teaching style as linked to the school’s regular use of assessments and high-stakes accountability norms. During her first interview, she explained that she had to focus on “pat vs. pit” and decoding because of the pressure to meet prescriptive benchmarks, noting that this limits civic engagement opportunities:

We have closed assessments that are multiple-choice charts, we have the running record assessments. . . . I have one kid who is like two months behind what his reading level should be because it is based on a national norm, and he is up for retention . . . I feel this pressure, and I think it really takes away from looking at other parts of childhood development and also their understanding of other important things like civic engagement. . . . It’s very interesting to be taking this course in the current educational climate we are in and in my particular context.

Citing this assessment and retention-oriented culture, as well as other elements of the curriculum and its impact on students, the teachers presented contextual constraints with which they had to contend when considering how to teach for civic engagement in their school.


Regarding the teachers’ views of contextual barriers and opportunities for TfCE, they articulated varied forms of readiness to enact civic instruction. Kris emerged as eager to teach for civic engagement, Sophie as stymied, and Maura as interested but temporarily disempowered. These differences were illustrated through an analysis of the teachers’ views of their lessons and units and their reflections on their likelihood of using them in the future, as expressed in the second interview and in course assignments. They all assumed that their TfCE would happen through English language arts (ELA), given their school’s focus on literacy, but this acknowledgement did not allay all concerns.

Kris: Eager

Kris presented as eager to teach for civic engagement and described ways she was already successfully doing so. First, in her second interview, she framed her lesson on the word “retarded” as a success. She praised the students’ engagement with a story about a young person with a disability, saying that they were really “intuitive” as they came to understand his experience. She claimed that she had not heard them use the word “retarded” since. Second, in this same interview, she praised students’ abilities to share about their out-of-school lives and their insights on what it means to be in a community. Reflecting on multiple lessons she taught on parts of their community, she stated, “They already have a general sense of what a community is” and later said, “We all know about where our community is and what communities they are part of. They have the school, they have the classroom, they have the city.” Through these lessons and others, Kris carved out opportunities to develop students’ skills and knowledge related to TfCE, and she affirmed students’ civic learning in the context of this teaching.

Regarding her unit discussed earlier that involved creating proposals on how to address community problems, she enacted it in the weeks immediately following the course and also reviewed it as a success in a follow-up email. Just before teaching it, again in the second interview, Kris described her planning process:

Honestly, at first, I was really scared, when I submitted the overview, because I was like, “I don’t know how I’m going to differentiate it. I honestly have no idea how this is even possible for some of my students.” And then I went into it more, and I was just like, “Oh, I could do a story to go off of it first. And then I could do this, and then I could do this.” And then, it just kind of all unraveled. . . . There’s a lot of hitting some skills that we’ve been practicing in both ELA and social studies: ELA doing main idea, and comparing and contrasting, and then social studies talking about communities. . . . So, they’ve been seeing a whole variety of different things that they can bring to this unit.

Kris seemed energized by the curriculum design process and praised the unit for the way it enabled her students to draw on skills they had already developed through the subject areas.

Kris acknowledged students’ potential academic challenges, a student characteristic, when she questioned whether it was even “possible for some of my students,” yet stated her commitment to ensuring their success. Concerning the assignment of writing a proposal of how to address a community problem, she said, “I could do a lot of scaffolding, and I could do some more things for certain students who I know do not have the confidence . . . and build that confidence slowly until they reach that draft [of a proposal].” Strategies she listed to ensure student success included working with students one-on-one and offering sentence starters and graphic organizers. In her second interview, with each student need she referenced, she identified how she might address it in the short term.

In general, she was eager to gain experience in TfCE to develop her pedagogical knowledge. She concluded, “I know it involves a lot of practice . . . I’ll find my questions as I work on my practice.” She also noted, “By the end [of the university course], it was more, ‘OK now implement it into your classroom,’ and it’s like ‘OK.’ I felt really comfortable doing that.” Aware of the work required for TfCE and the students’ academic needs, Kris crafted and embraced opportunities to try out the practices discussed in class.  

Sophie: Stymied

In comparison, Sophie seemed to be stymied in translating her course learning into classroom teaching. During her second interview, she reflected on her perceptions of her students’ readiness for civic engagement, her own teaching abilities, and her curriculum to explain reasons to delay TfCE. Speaking of her students, she expressed concern for some of their out-of-school experiences. Citing students who travel to the school from outside the district and students living in shelters, she questioned, “Your life is in havoc. So how am I supposed to teach a lesson on ‘map my neighborhood’ or looking at things [in the neighborhood] if that’s in flux?” Although she acknowledged that such strains only applied to “some” and repeatedly stated her commitment to wanting to learn more about her students, she was concerned about how she would help students whose lives she perceived as “disorganized” and characterized by “abject poverty” connect to community-based issues. She proposed that the notion of neighborhood was likely “foreign” to them. She brainstormed that she could build new knowledge of how her students understand community by “tapping into institutions that the kids know,” “integrating parents,” and “talking to teachers who have been here longer.” She named the importance of beginning her “own exploration phase,” and concluded her second interview questioning how long it might take and how much would be possible next year. Her questions suggested that she perceived of an extended learning process for herself before she would be able to confidently experiment with TfCE.

Regarding deliberation, she again remarked on the students’ lack of readiness:

It’s very hard with a lot of our kids. . . . They’re not being asked at home, “What do you think?” So, this is very new to them, so really slowly building up their ability to share out by giving them different sentence starters for “I agree,” “I notice,” “I feel.”. . . I would really need to do a lot of work on that before I feel comfortable starting a deliberation.

The benefit of Sophie’s reflection is that she recognizes that this is hard work for teachers and students and needs scaffolding. Still, instead of planning for a deliberation and teaching those skills in the process, she appeared likely to delay deliberative activities. She was tentative and struggled to perceive her students as able to engage in civic ways.

She also framed her own teacher readiness in a deficit light. This occurred when, during her second interview, she discussed the lesson she enacted that was focused on identifying community assets. She reported that she asked students to name “at least two different assets in this community . . . and they were able to do that.” Then, later she shared that a student claimed that a community asset was a garden by her apartment house, prompting Sophie to note, “I’ve been near her home. There’s not a garden by her house.” In her lesson analysis assignment, she acknowledged her students’ response as “a very creative and reasonable idea for improving her neighborhood/residential area” but felt confused about how to discuss these “fictional assets.” She wrote, “To be honest, I felt stuck as an educator”; similarly, in her second interview, she said, “I was kind of lost as to what would be next steps for that.” Despite Sophie’s admirable visioning of civic engagement in her interview, she expressed a lack of confidence about how to address her students’ perceived needs and interests during enacted instruction.

Finally, she planned to delay TfCE as a result of her concerns about her school’s curricular emphases. As noted earlier, all three participants shared this concern, but Sophie was unique in perceiving this as a more impenetrable barrier to TfCE. Concerning youth civic engagement, in the second interview, she said,

I think that’s what should be happening, but I don’t think I’m in an environment that supports that, and it’s going to take years of lesson planning and things like that. But I also need to do years of lesson planning and development in math, science, and ELA, and that’s more valued by this school. And by most schools right now in this era.

Sophie was stymied by curricular emphases that were in competition with TfCE. She massaged the restrictive curriculum to make room for civic thinking during her lesson on community assets. She also shared a story of extending a read-aloud to make room for student insights about the advantages and drawbacks of their school cafeteria, framing this tangent as one she would not have pursued had it not been for what she learned in the university course. Yet, her overarching stance was one in which she infrequently pursued TfCE and doubted her readiness to do so, based on the constraints of her knowledge and experience as well as her views of student and curriculum characteristics.  

Maura: Interested but Disempowered

Maura expressed some of the same concerns about students’ home life that Sophie did, yet settled at a more optimistic point. She wrote in a response paper,

Many 4- to 5-year-olds, especially in deprived homes or families, are not able to have rich discussions with the adults in their lives or children their own age, so it is crucial for me, as their teacher, to allow them to have these discussions in my classroom.

She imagined fostering discussions in order to develop their language skills and did not shy away from civic issues; she said that she felt kindergarteners “are way more prepared [for civic engagement] than most adults will think”—a point she raised in both the first and last interview. Illustrative of this, during the second interview, she praised her students’ abilities to discuss, during her lesson on the roles of people in the school, what would happen if the janitor did not come to school:

Students talked and said the bathrooms would be dirty and no one would be able to clean the floors if an accident happened. . . . I suggested that maybe the classrooms would get messy too, and then one student said that no, they wouldn’t get messy because we’d take care of that. That was a good conclusion that they sort of see the responsibilities they have as well.

Here, Maura praised the students’ ability to talk about and take responsibility in their school community, showing her view of the potential impact of TfCE.

Although less hindered by her perceptions of student characteristics, Maura did face a challenge regarding elements of her school’s organization and curriculum. Because of various personnel and school organizational dilemmas, Maura worked in multiple classrooms throughout the year. The final classroom in which she worked had what she thought were five classroom teachers over time. In that context, she hesitated to do much teaching that was community-minded. In the second interview, she noted, “That classroom doesn’t have a strong community right now or a strong sense of structure, so I don’t want to try something like that if I feel like it may not be efficient for the kids and for myself.” She felt that “community building,” as well as the setting of “certain procedures and routines,” should happen at the start of the year and regretted that this did not occur as she would have liked. Given that she saw understanding community as a critical component of youth civic engagement, she recognized her current classroom and its lack of community as inhospitable to TfCE. The lesson on the roles of people in the school was the only one she reported as in relation to TfCE.

Hopeful that she would have more control the following year, she posited, “Once I begin planning for a unit or curriculum later on in the next year, then I know to bring it up.” Her contextual constraints related to curriculum characteristics and pointed to dilemmas of trust and collegial norms; she did not see the students’ previous teachers as partners similarly committed to building students’ community-mindedness. She perceived herself as unable to meaningfully enact the instruction she had come to admire and understand.

Although the participants all worked in the same elementary school, named similar contextual constraints, and were participating in the same university course, they shared different concluding perspectives about their readiness to teach for civic engagement. Kris communicated the most readiness, Sophie seemed the most stymied, and Maura expressed circumscribed interest. Their disparate impressions of efficacy—an important teacher characteristic—related to their perceptions of their students’ characteristics, and they demonstrated different levels of confidence to enact civic instruction.  


Kris’s, Sophie’s, and Maura’s experiences in a university course on TfCE offer fruitful points of discussion. Although these teachers’ experiences are not broadly generalizable to all teachers aiming to support youth civic engagement, the teachers’ responses to the course can prompt reflection on how to support teachers in TfCE. Given this, here we offer analysis and recommendations for the consideration of teachers, teacher educators, and educational researchers concerned about fostering TfCE.

First, the teachers actively referenced multiple contextual factors (Hochberg & Desimone, 2010) when making sense of their learning about TfCE. They discussed curricular characteristics, including the absence of civic engagement learning opportunities in their school. Their observations illustrate the reduction of social studies instruction in elementary schools (Fitchett & Heafner, 2010; Heafner, 2020) and its subordination to ELA (Boyle-Baise et al., 2008), as well as the way that narrow curricula and testing limit civic engagement opportunities, reflecting earlier findings (e.g., Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2006) and as seen in urban schools (Milner, 2014). They discussed student characteristics, including students’ experiences within the school (e.g., the leaking roof), their knowledge of their community, and their academic needs, such as their potential struggle to deliberate. Regarding teacher characteristics, they described their new knowledge of TfCE and their perceived senses of readiness to apply it in their enacted instruction. The teachers’ consistent references to curriculum, student, and teacher characteristics that presented both opportunities and constraints suggest the importance of PD that addresses such contextual factors (Hochberg & Desimone, 2010) and builds on teachers’ knowledge (K. Schultz, 2011).

Second, this chapter illustrates how teachers will respond differently to contextual factors. Kris, Sophie, and Maura concluded the course with disparate impressions of how and when they could enact civic instruction, even as they all expressed strong knowledge of TfCE. Kris emerged as eager to teach for civic engagement, framing her TfCE during and after the semester as a success and explaining the ways she navigated constraints she faced. Her experience illustrated the possibility of teachers enacting civic instruction with young children (J. D. Erickson & Thompson, 2019; Mitra & Serriere, 2015). Sophie emerged as stymied, expressing strong concern about her school’s competing curricular emphases and citing her students’ and her own readiness as deficient. Maura emerged as interested but temporarily disempowered in her school context. She honored students’ abilities to engage in this work but felt that her current classroom culture was not community-minded enough to support TfCE. In comparison with Kris, Sophie and Maura were more constrained by the “contradictory views” about teaching that were articulated in their university course, in comparison with what they experienced in their school (Smagorinsky et al., 2013). Space does not allow for a full review of the teachers’ feedback following the semester of the course, but we can share that email exchanges that carried into the next school year suggest that they continued to assume similar stances, ranging from enthusiastic to stymied, in their thinking about TfCE. Overall, Maura and Sophie’s experiences raise concern about the likelihood that teachers will avoid TfCE, given contextual constraints.

Although the nature of their differing stances is complex, there are some features that we think begin to explain their differences. Kris’s eagerness for TfCE was informed by her readiness to integrate the ELA skills they had been working on and address students’ areas of need. These stances seemed to help her navigate concerns related to curriculum and student learning. Then, as she experimented with civic lessons (e.g., the lesson on the word “retarded”) with her second graders, she was pleased with students’ responses and affirmed their abilities. In comparison, Sophie, as a kindergarten and first-grade teacher, was more apprehensive about her younger students’ readiness for this work. For example, whereas Kris felt confident that her students were developing their understanding of community in the context of her teaching, Sophie doubted her students’ abilities to build such knowledge and, in such instances, articulated deficit perspectives about the children. Furthermore, she felt constrained by teaching phonics, the associated assessments, and her own readiness to respond to student needs. An impactful factor for Maura relates to the amount of teacher turnover her students experienced and her perception of the absence of community-mindedness among her students. She felt these factors hindered the potential for TfCE. In turn, Sophie and Maura struggled to make room for TfCE and, in comparison with Kris, had fewer opportunities to see what student skills or knowledge might surface. These distinguishing factors raise questions about how teachers can be supported to navigate their contexts and enact scaffolded civic education that addresses students’ areas of need, thereby making it more likely that they can honor student resources.

Generatively, common throughout their disparate approaches is a commitment to learning. Kris is ready to learn through practice, while Sophie and Maura want to learn through planning and assessment of what is contextually feasible in the future. Sophie also desired to learn from parents and veteran teachers. This reflects a practical orientation to teacher learning that acknowledges how teachers continually revise their craft in light of shifting information (Feiman-Nemser, 1990). Furthermore, we have reason to believe that their learning will extend from a place of knowledge, given that during the course, the teachers developed visions of TfCE in elementary classrooms that addressed authentic public matters through deliberation and action. While they could all benefit from greater exploration of TfCE that addresses national and global issues (e.g., Rogovin, 1998, addressing child labor with first graders) and systemic inequity (Payne, 2017), their intent to center students’ local experiences reflects a student-centered orientation that could positively impact their future professional learning and classroom instruction. This finding begs the question of how teacher educators and educational leaders can leverage teachers’ commitment to learning and the base of knowledge they may have about youth civic engagement so as to generate greater opportunities for TfCE. We next offer recommendations on this topic.



Our findings indicate potential benefits of PD dedicated to TfCE. By the end of the course, the teachers portrayed here articulated broadened conceptions of TfCE and designed and enacted civically oriented instruction. This offers a counternarrative to a picture of teacher education that eschews TfCE (Andrews et al, 2018; Chavez-Reyes, 2011; L. B. Erickson, 2011) and a response to calls for more PD in this area (Burgess, 2015), specifically for teachers of young children (J. D. Erickson & Thompson, 2019). Although our study is small in scale, and the impact of the PD should not be assumed as replicable or sustaining, the teachers’ conceptions of TfCE sharpened over a relatively short period—in this case, one semester. In explicitly addressing civic engagement in university coursework or other PD experiences, teacher educators can shape teachers’ views of what is possible. We also recommend continuous research on these PD opportunities. To complement studies as this one, longitudinal, multilevel studies would be particularly valuable given their virtual nonexistence (Burgess, 2015). Finally, the absence of classroom observation was a limitation of the data informing this chapter, and we advocate for more research that yields these data regarding the impact of PD on TfCE.  


Efforts to prepare educators to engage in TfCE must account for teachers’ different degrees of readiness to do so, often related to teachers’ contexts and contextual assumptions (Beck, 2005; Hochberg & Desimone, 2010). This study displays teacher heterogeneity within one school building, where the teachers faced similar contextual constraints and while they were participating in the same PD opportunity. In turn, we recommend that those who support teachers in TfCE help them identify and manage their differentiated experiences. To start, teacher leaders will need to address teachers’ deficit views of students, if they emerge as they did in this study, and promote a positive framing of all students’ potential for civic engagement. Low-income students of color are particularly vulnerable to teachers’ deficit framings, and leaders of PD for teachers working with this population must be aware of teachers’ readiness to affirm students’ skills, knowledge, and promise. With an affirmative stance toward students, some teachers like Kris are ready to consider how their TfCE can be more sustained or rich, such as by including more opportunities for students to address national and global civic problems and to critique social inequity (Payne, 2017). Finally, some teachers will need support navigating restrictive elements of their school’s culture and requirements. Kris devised a way to leverage ELA skills to support TfCE, and this is one example of an approach that may work for others who struggle to make room for TfCE.


Our findings lead us to question how those committed to youth civic engagement can more effectively address the problems of restrictive curricula and teacher-directed instruction at a systemic level. Kris, Sophie, and Maura described a narrow curriculum that will severely limit youth civic engagement in most circumstances. Although we were encouraged by Kris’s readiness to navigate contextual constraints, we found the teachers’ descriptions of their school’s curricular foci to be disheartening and seek to promote new conversations about how schools can become inherently more receptive to student voice. These conversations would be generatively informed by additional research on teachers’ experiences in schools that are unfriendly to youth civic engagement and successful reform that leads to increased opportunities for TfCE. Focus on elementary schools and schools serving low-income students of color is particularly warranted.


This chapter presented three new teachers’ experiences learning about teaching for civic engagement while working in an urban elementary school. They all developed broadened conceptions of TfCE, but articulated varied forms of readiness to enact civic instruction, considering their views of themselves, their students, and the curriculum. Given that we consider the United States to be in a troubling civic climate (Bartels, 2008; Rebell, 2018) and seek to shrink the civic opportunity gap that disadvantages students of color from low-SES backgrounds (Kahne & Middaugh, 2008; Levinson, 2012), we hope for the enactment of strong civic education for all children. Therefore, we aim for this chapter to promote generative discussion about how teachers experience opportunities and constraints for TfCE and the potential impact of professional development that promotes TfCE.


The original study of the teachers participating in the course was conducted in association with the Kettering Foundation, Dayton, Ohio.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 123 Number 13, 2021, p. -
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23741, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 4:49:30 AM

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About the Author
  • Shira Eve Epstein
    The City College of New York, CUNY
    E-mail Author
    SHIRA EVE EPSTEIN, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning at The City College of New York (CUNY). Her research focuses on civic education, and her publications can be found in journals including The Urban Review and The Journal of Social Studies Research. Her first book, Teaching Civic Literacy Projects: Student Engagement with Social Problems (Grades 4-12), was published by Teachers College Press in 2014.
  • Brett L. M. Levy
    University at Albany, SUNY
    E-mail Author
    BRETT L. M. LEVY, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Theory and Practice at the University at Albany, SUNY. His research explores how educational programs can support civic and political engagement among young people from diverse communities, and his publications can be found in various journals, including Educational Researcher, Teaching and Teacher Education, and Theory & Research in Social Education. Before attending graduate school at the University of Michigan, he was a middle school history and English teacher in California.
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