In an era of political polarization, disinformation and bombastic rhetoric, eighth-graders in Terry Messmer’s civics class at St. Helena’s Robert Louis Stevenson Middle School are learning about the fundamental pillars of democracy.
“Eighth grade is when kids start thinking for themselves and questioning,” Messmer said. “Eighth graders are hungry for justice, so it’s a perfect time to open their minds.”
Adolescents who are stepping out of the self-absorbed shell of childhood are shocked when they learn of injustice happening around the world, from Guatemala to Syria, Messmer said.
They also get more interested in current events, many of them for the first time.
“They start noticing things like, for example, ‘President Trump is trying to have kids put in cages on the border’ – whereas they would never have noticed that before,” she said. “But now they look at something like that and they either think it’s tremendously unjust or they might agree with it.”
Messmer said students typically mirror their parents’ values, especially at first, but then sometimes their opinions start to diverge. Messmer said she’s careful not to tell students what to think about controversial issues – she just wants to give them the tools to make up their own minds.
“It’s really hard sometimes, but I try not to put my bias into it,” she said.
The class covers each layer of government – city, county, state and federal – with the help of guests like former Mayor Alan Galbraith, then-City Councilmember and current Mayor Geoff Ellsworth, Supervisor Diane Dillon, an aide from Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry’s office, and Beth Lincoln of Women Stand Up – St. Helena. Congressman Mike Thompson addresses the entire eighth-grade class toward the end of each school year.
“When I call people they usually come,” said Messmer, adding that she’d love to have other members of the community address the class about civics.
The most recent class studied the November midterms, researching the candidates for mayor, senator and governor and holding a mock election (Galbraith, Kevin de Leon and Gavin Newsom won).
A common complaint from students during that part of the course is, “Why are we even talking about the election when we don’t have any power?” Messmer said.
“I kept saying yes you do,” she said. “You can talk to your parents and give them your opinions, you can encourage other adults to vote, and in four years you’re going to be voting yourselves.”
Messmer uses online resources like Global Citizen, an organization devoted to fighting extreme poverty, and iCivics, a group founded by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor that provides free civically minded video games like “Court Quest” and “Do I Have a Right?”
The class also covers “digital citizenship,” teaching kids about online etiquette and how to glean reliable information from the Internet. They use the online news literacy program Checkology, which teaches students to distinguish facts from fiction.
The civics class is now in its third year. The Students For Change club formed earlier this year at St. Helena High School was organized mostly by freshmen who’d taken civics the year before.
That class had particularly strong feelings about issues, Messmer said, but even the less politically aware classes start to “get it” toward the end of the three-month term when they learn about things like the Civil Rights Movement.
Messmer hopes the class produces knowledgeable citizens and voters who can think independently.
“Protecting our democracy has never been more important,” she said.