In New York - Middle School Students Deliberate about Historical Issues

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"Part of SUNY Broome’s Center for Civic Engagement, Strahley, Seidel and Burns recently spent a few days at the Windsor school to teach and train students in public deliberation..."


(The following article is from Doug Garner.)


Rebel or loyalist? SUNY Broome brings public deliberation to Windsor school


By the time noon rolled around, the rebels were winning by a landslide.

In a lull between classes, Professor Lisa Strahley, SUNY Broome student Joseph Seidel and volunteer Gene Burns counted paper ballots from members of the Continental Congress. But rather than Philadelphia, this Congress happened to meet in the Windsor Middle School Library and was comprised entirely of seventh-graders.

Part of SUNY Broome’s Center for Civic Engagement, Strahley, Seidel and Burns recently spent a few days at the Windsor school to teach and train students in public deliberation. Students then had a chance to bring history to life, mulling their options as American colonists in 1776: Do they stay loyal to the crown, rebel or try diplomacy in the effort to attain more rights?

We, of course, know how the story ends – with the Declaration of Independence. But for the American colonists, independence was a divisive issue, one that turned neighbor against neighbor. An essential tension grew between the two poles of freedom and security – with one precluding the other.

“Before the American Revolution was history, it was a problem,” Strahley reflected. “Citizens had decisions to make. In reality, not everyone agreed on the path we took.”

What is deliberation?

Deliberations focuses on an important issue – whether to rebel from the British Crown, for example – but it’s not a debate with winners and losers. Rather, the process tries to bring community voices to the table and explore possible solutions to an issue, weighing both positives and negatives, Strahley explained.

The process is citizen-based rather than expert-based. The nonpartisan and nonprofit National Issues Forum Institute publishes the issues guides and other materials used by local groups, including the 1776 program used in Windsor. SUNY Broome’s Center for Civic Engagement also works with the Kettering Foundation, which explores what it takes to make functional democracies. Both Strahley and Professor Scott Corley were trained to “name and frame” issues through the Foundation.

The Center for Civic Engagement trains students, faculty members and members of the community in the process, and the volunteers help run deliberations in their communities. Deliberations on the SUNY Broome campus have touched on issues ranging from substance abuse, obesity, youth and violence, and Internet safety, to citizen juries and bullying.

Historical debates are a new feature, and show students that their voice matters while giving them a review of what they learned in class. 

“It’s our first year doing it,” said Windsor Middle School teacher Stefanie Olbrys. “It really makes you look at a disagreement or a decision in a different light. You hear about all the options.”

Olbrys said she would like to continue using the process in the classroom, exploring other historical turning points, such as the Civil War and dropping the atomic bomb during World War II. 

This year’s deliberation participants will be next year’s moderators, Strahley noted, adding that the current Windsor students will return to moderate the 1776 deliberation among seventh-graders. 

Students in the program said that they enjoyed the chance to explore different perspectives on history. Autumn Webb, who supported the diplomacy option, said the process was a useful one; she wants to become a lawyer someday, and lawyers need to be able to advocate for points of view that they might not hold themselves.

“I think that it teaches us to look at things in a different way. You shift your point of view to see all sides,” added classmate Angelo Sacco, who also supported diplomacy.

If Sydney Christensen was a colonist, she thinks she would likely have been a loyalist; it was the safer option, the Windsor student noted.

While her class focused on the issues faced at the dawn of the nation’s history, the deliberation process is relevant to today’s issues as well, she said.

“In the future, we’re going to have to solve problems,” she said. “You definitely have to find the positives and negatives and decide what is the best choice.”  

To keep students from leaning toward the last option discussed, Seidel -- an education major who will graduate this semester -- offers a recap of all the solutions on the table. He moderated several deliberations on campus before his visit to Windsor. 

“I love the idea of people coming together and having an open mind and coming to a realization. I think it’s even more important to have them doing it at an earlier age,” he said.

Deliberations aren’t just limited to younger students, either. Binghamton University’s Lyceum, a continued education program for senior citizens offering courses in an array of subjects, will offer deliberations on both the American Revolution and mental health this spring, noted Burns, an advisor for Lyceum.

After graduation, Seidel is looking to continue his education at a four-year school – hopefully, Colorado State. In a way, the deliberation process he learned at SUNY Broome helped determine his life’s goal.

 “To change the world, one deliberation at a time,” he explained.