Learning First Alliance

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Teaching for Democracy: A Conversation with Award-Winning Teacher Sally Broughton

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Sally Broughton's middle school students have had a greater impact on their rural community than do many people three or four times their age. The Montana Teacher of the Year has helped her language arts and social studies students successfully advocate for policies to improve life in their school and their neighborhoods. In the process, her students at the Monforton School have strengthened their grasp of history, civics, mathematics, research, writing, and public speaking.

Broughton's remarkable achievements have earned her the American Civic Education Award from The Alliance for Representative Democracy. She recently told Public School Insights about the indelible mark her students have left on Bozeman, Montana. They have much to show for their work: public restrooms downtown, a school-wide bicycle helmet policy, a community playground, and a sophisticated early warning system for local residents living near a vulnerable earthen dam. And the list goes on....

President-Elect Obama is urging Americans to devote themselves to civic and community service. Sally Broughton's students in Bozeman can show you how it's done.

Download our full, 16-minute interview here, or read a transcript of interview highlights.


PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: I've heard quite a bit about these very, very fascinating projects that you've done and that have actually managed to change public policy in your community. Could you describe how you go about this, and how these projects support broader academic goals?

BROUGHTON: Absolutely. We do something called Project Citizen. During that time, the children find a problem that can be solved by public policy and they investigate it. So there we have our reading. We take surveys, we do research--we are incorporating math. We learn about how democracy works and where you go to have a policy changed, so we're learning civics. [Students] propose alternative solutions [to the policy problem], so they're using evaluating skills, and they're still reading and writing and researching.

They select the policy they think would be the best solution to the problem and propose it to the policymaking board. So they're developing public speaking skills, and they've written and presented a portfolio.

These are all [policies] that the students select. I'm the facilitator, so I let them come up with their ideas.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Do you want to describe a few of the things you've actually done?

BROUGHTON: One of the things my students did is that they learned that our town is located beneath a dam, an earthen dam. They found out that there was no warning system [for dam-related hazards], and that the people living below this dam thought it was concrete because a road went across the top of it.

We live in prime earthquake country; I'm in the Rocky Mountains. So this was a pretty dangerous situation. There are three different ways the dam could fail. The students investigated this. We met with the local GIS coordinator for the county, and [my students] proposed some alternative solutions to how this problem could be solved and how the people could be made aware of it.

They presented it to the county commissioners, who had not even thought about it. [The commissioners] at that time directed some of their members to investigate it. They got a state grant, and my kids testified again at a state hearing. [The county] initiated a couple of the changes the kids had suggested, and then they also got, just this past year, a $27,000 grant from Homeland Security to do all the measures the kids have suggested.

They have suggested an early warning system on the dam. They have suggested an evacuation route sent and explained to all the people who live in the path of the water, because a 40-foot wall of water would hit our school. They suggested a reverse 911. All those measures are being instituted now.

[The students] send briefing papers to whichever board they're testifying before, and a  four-panel portfolio. Then they also have a binder. The last time they testified in front of the city commissioners, the [head] city commissioner looked out at the audience, which was full of people trying to get things passed, and said, "If you would present your materials as clearly as these sixth-graders just did, you'd get your things passed the first time, too."

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: As you do this kind of work, which really gets the students engaged directly in the community, how do you bring in civics content? Things like history and government?

BROUGHTON: Students absolutely have to understand our American story. They have to understand our history--how we've been successful and how we've failed, and how our ideas have progressed over the centuries. So when we're doing this sort of thing, especially in the sixth and seventh grades with public policy, [students are] learning how their local government works--who’s in charge, and how to go to a source to have something fixed or changed or even to find information. Then when I have them in eighth grade I take them through, "We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution," where they study American history in-depth.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Do you have any plans with your students on the occasion of the presidential inauguration?

BROUGHTON: We had a nice, long time studying the election--following it and learning all about it. My kids can explain the Electoral College, which many adults can't explain.

And yes, we will definitely have a couple of days of celebration [for the inauguration]. We'll look at the parade route, and I have a lot of things planned.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Do you do anything to involve parents and families in the work that you do?

BROUGHTON: Absolutely. I have parents help us with interviews. For example, when we went house-to-house in the community I had a flock of parents go along with us, because I couldn't send the kids out on their own. When we did surveys downtown and stood on the street corners, interviewing pedestrians about bathrooms, I had lots of parents [present]. Parents definitely attend the meetings when we testify. So yes, I have lots of parents involved.

Because I've done this for quite a while, the community is very respectful of what we're doing. The county commissioners are always eager to hear us. They're always willing, [as are] the city commissioners and even the school board, to [put us] on their agenda and to see what the kids are doing.

I do this because I so strongly believe in civic education, and I think it's such an important thing. If we want our democracy to continue to exist, we have to teach these children how to connect to the democracy--how to make it work and how to participate.

Our next century, I think, is going to be very challenging, and I think we need to prepare. After all, I'm not going to be here forever, and I want to leave the students in good shape to perpetuate what we have today.