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Trends in Teaching

Ask the Expert: Civics Education

Written by Kristin Rearden, clinical professor of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) / science education

Anthony Pellegrino 200x213Civics is a required class for most middle and high school students. Related standards are typically focused on learning the basics of the federal government, such as how a bill becomes a law, the roles and interactions of the three branches of government, and the process for amending the Constitution. Even with this required course, civic engagement by young people is relatively low. With the 2020 national election nearing and the historically low rate of civic engagement, we asked Anthony Pellegrino, associate professor in social science education in the department of Theory and Practice in Teacher Education (TPTE), to share some of his insights regarding the strategies he recommends to teachers to maximize civics-based learning opportunities and promote civic engagement.

How do teachers effectively create opportunities for students to understand civics?

The first step that I suggest is to recognize that civics is more than just understanding how the federal government operates and who the players in that system are. If we want students to become civically aware and engaged, then we should start with seeing civics as everyday interactions with members of communities and neighbors as well as how the government functions. If students understand civics from that most elemental level, then they can see relevance to their lives and see themselves as part of the civic fabric. Otherwise, civics seems like abstract ideas about people in power, and students feel no agency in being able to affect change in their lives. With that attitude, students are far less likely to get involved.

How can teachers make time for students’ social concerns and shape them into the civics curriculum?

A good start is seeing students’ concerns as real rather than just as adolescent griping or fleeting issues that will be forgotten before any action can be taken. By helping them understand that their interactions with each other are civic experiences, teachers can capitalize on that embedded relevancy. Some teachers like to carve out time for current events in their civics classes, but taking time to understand students’ concerns will pay dividends when it comes to seeing how those concerns play out in the larger civic curriculum.

How do teachers create opportunities for marginalized students to be the focus of civic action in your classrooms?

The National Council for the Social Studies uses a framework called the C3 – College, Career, and Civic life. In that framework, students are challenged to first develop questions that are important to their lives. Then they gather and analyze evidence to help them understand the question and possible answers to it. Finally, they use that information to take informed action. This final step is the one that I see as the most challenging and most overlooked but most important. If we are interested in increasing civic engagement through expanded notion of the civic, then this step of taking action on questions that are important to them is the key to making sure that young people are more aware and involved in making changes to our society.

Do you have any resources that you would recommend for teachers?

The Stanford History Education Group provides online resources to foster civic engagement. It includes media literacy as well as ideas to create and shape inquiries in civic education. Other groups like Teaching Tolerance and Facing History and Ourselves offer great lesson plans, modules, and resources. The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) focuses on youth civic engagement specifically. Lastly, iCivics is an online simulation platform for learners across K-12 that includes a range of games and role play experiences where students are challenged to tackle real world issues.

Resource Links:

Stanford History Education Group

Teaching Tolerance

Facing History and Ourselves




Ask the Expert: Cultural Competency

Written by Jud Laughter, associate professor of English education.

Over the past two years, TPTE faculty members Chonika Coleman-King, an assistant professor of urban multicultural education, Brittany Anderson, an assistant professor of urban education, and Jud Laughter, an associate professor of English education, have worked to develop and deploy cultural competency training for all employees of Knox County schools. In March 2019, Interim Chancellor Wayne T. Davis, announced a plan to require immediate and ongoing cultural competency training for all faculty, staff, and administrators coupled with an expansion of training for students. Together, these initiatives have demonstrated the interest in this area of professional development and training. Below we share some insights from those Theory and Practice in Teacher Education (TPTE) faculty members working to deliver this important training to teachers, faculty, and other members of our educational community.

What is cultural competency?

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) defines cultural competency as “the capacity to understand, respect, and respond effectively to different students’ cultures, communities, and power dynamics across social groups; integrating personal awareness with a systematic change orientation.” (American Federation of Teachers, 2015)

Let’s unpack that definition.

To understand is to have accurate knowledge about oneself and about other people. To respect is to have a disposition combining openness to different worldviews with the objective of seeing value in others.  To respond effectively is to consistently engage in self-reflection and open dialogue with others about how to accomplish common goals. In the ideas of Paulo Freire, cultural competency is a praxis of knowledge (understanding), action (respect), and reflection (effective response) that builds and maintains authentic relationships.

But to what end?

This praxis of cultural competency is aimed at different cultures, communities, and power dynamics. While the AFT focuses on teachers and students, cultural competency is something everyone should develop and employ in any interpersonal or institutional relationship. We each embody a culture and we each come from a community. Those cultures and communities deserve to be understood, respected, and engaged. However, there are power dynamics that seek to disrupt that understanding, respect, and engagement.

Disparities in academic achievement, scholastic discipline, community achievement, and economic and social capital are the results of systemic forces of oppression that must be tackled through ongoing, integrated efforts of diverse coalitions of committed individuals. Cultural competency is not about everyone learning how to be nice to each other. Cultural competency is about tearing down the structures of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cis-sexism, ageism, ableism, and any other -ism that works to privilege some and oppress others.

This goal is the final piece of the definition: integrating personal awareness with a systemic change orientation.  

While cultural competency starts with educating the self, its objective is the reorganizing of systems and institutions in ways that are equitable, just, and available to all. Thus, cultural competency is not the result of a single professional development session or freshman orientation but the development of relationships and long-term capacity to address disparities.           

Succinctly stated:

Cultural competency is about relationships – how to initiate, build, and maintain relationships across all the demographic barriers and stereotypes built to separate us. While a lot of teachers and teacher educators think about cultural competency in terms of classroom skills and knowledge, it is much more than that. Cultural competency is about a posture of humility and openness to others with an awareness of the systems that prefer to keep us apart.

Citation: American Federation of Teachers Racial Equity Task Force (2015). AFT: Reclaiming the promise of racial equity in education, economics, and our criminal justice system. Washington, DC American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO.


Ask the Expert: What is dyslexia, and why is it getting so much attention currently?

Sherry Mee Bell photo


Sherry Mee Bell, PhD 

TPTE Department Head, Professor of Special Education and School Psychologist


Overview of Dyslexia

The International Dyslexia Association (2012) provides a comprehensive description of dyslexia:

Dyslexia is characterized by difficulties with accurate and / or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.

Prevalence estimates of dyslexia range from 5% to 20% of the population worldwide. Dyslexia occurs naturally and often has a hereditary component. It may be exacerbated by medical and environmental conditions.

Dyslexia-related Legislation

In recent years, laws have passed in over 40 U.S. states that require K-12 schools to screen and/or assess for dyslexia, and require universities to prepare teachers to work with children with dyslexia. A grassroots parent-led group called Decoding Dyslexia has been instrumental in the passage of these laws.

Federal guidelines specify three subtypes of specific learning disabilities in reading: 1) basic reading skills (includes phonetic decoding and sight word recognition); 2) reading fluency, and 3) reading comprehension. Dyslexia is listed as a type of specific learning disability in the federal special education law Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (2004), but in federal guidelines on how to implement the law, the term specific learning disability is used. Because federal guidelines do not specifically address dyslexia, some state and local education agencies historically have not recognized dyslexia and have not made the connection between dyslexia and specific learning disabilities in reading.

Identifying, Assessing, and Addressing Dyslexia

Some reading experts disagree with using term dyslexia because they fear that the use of labels can be damaging. However, experts from a wide range of fields agree that specific learning disorders, of which dyslexia is the most prominent, are valid disorders. Often, individuals with dyslexia and their caregivers find comfort in understanding the nature of their reading difficulties and in learning about appropriate instructional strategies and accommodations.

Assessment of dyslexia should include a range of cognitive and academic skills including phonemic awareness, phonological awareness, rapid automatic naming, phonics skills, sight word recognition, spelling, reading fluency and reading comprehension. Currently, there is no single assessment to identify dyslexia, although one is under development by Western Psychological Services (Mather, McCallum, Bell & Wendling).

Individuals with dyslexia benefit from explicit, systematic and multisensory instruction. They also benefit from exposure to a language-rich environment with many opportunities to read, to be read to and to talk about what is read. Accommodations can include extended time for testing and text-to-speech software for reading. In her book Overcoming Dyslexia, Yale researcher Sally Shaywitz describes dyslexia as a “weakness in a sea of strengths.” With appropriate education and accommodations, these strengths can emerge.