Educating Youth to be Active Citizens

When I saw the list of topics for the German Marshall Fund’s Triennial Transatlantic Leaders Retreat, I was intrigued. Halfway down the list was a topic on which I have previously written- “Youth quake: Engaging youth worldwide in learning and service.” I immediately  began thinking about what I’ve written and what I might add to those ideas to create something as if I were there as a guest speaker on that panel.  My overall premise is that if we want to engage youth, they need to have a framework around which they can build, and they absolutely must have opportunities for political participation.

A Framework
For the past four years I have used the Millennium Development Goals, and now the Sustainable Development Goals, in my classes.  Seeing as how the SDGs constitute a “plan of action for people, planet and prosperity,” they are ideal for giving youth opportunities to be active citizens.  As a framework in class, not only do they help us learn about the work of the UN and NGOs, we also come back to them when we discuss current issues.  Giving the students a framework they can reference throughout the year makes increases their retention of the material and provides them with a base for their political participation.

Opportunities for Political Participation
While there are a number a ways citizens can participate in the political process, I want to focus on three- writing letters, presenting policy proposals, and volunteering.

When it comes to the MDGs and SDGs, I’ve given the students numerous opportunities to research a variety of those goals and then to write letters to UN officials with their opinions about addressing those problems (see my previous post about this activity here).  When we get a response from those officials, it lets the students know that their voice matters.  This year for example, we heard from Laurent Thomas of the FAO in response to the students’ letters about food security.

A second idea is to give students the opportunity to present policy ideas to their elected officials.  The U.S. can learn much from our friends across the Atlantic in these regards, especially with their children’s parliaments and the European Youth Event (see my previous post about this idea here).  If our youth feel they have a say in the process, then perhaps it will lead to increased political participation.

Finally, besides voicing their opinions on how to best cure the ills of society, students should actually have opportunities to work improving society.  This year, my students and I started VeronaAid, a student-driven charity whose “mission is to deliver aid to the impoverished citizens of Dane County and to make a difference in the lives of those affected by the Syrian refugee crisis.” We meet once a week to work on spreading our message and coming up with ideas for fundraising.  Because the students have a voice in this venture, they have an interest in seeing it succeed.  If you would like to see examples of their activities, please check out the website and our social media accounts (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram).  If we tie this back to my idea of a framework, SDG 1 is “End poverty in all its forms everywhere;” the students of VeronaAid are working towards this goal with every diaper bag or backpack they fill and every presentation they give.

Questions
What do other teachers do to encourage their students to engage in political participation?  How can we coordinate our actions at my high school with those of other schools in the area and even around the world?  Are politicians ready to listen to students’ policy ideas and give them serious consideration?

Thanks for reading.

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Should I Stay or Should I Go?

With the rise of Donald Trump as the GOP frontrunner, I’ve been struggling with whether or not I should stay in the US should he be elected president.  Apparently others have had the same issue because after Super Tuesday, Google searches for emigrating to Canada dramatically increased. 

Should I Go?

If you’ve read any of my previous posts, it should be clear that I agree more with the European-style welfare state and subsequent policies.  So, a move to Europe (probably Germany or the UK) would be a welcome change in lifestyle for me personally.

Additionally, I’ve got think of my children.  We’ve got numerous examples of minorities being pushed, shoved, punched, and spit on at Trump’s rallies.  Why would I want my children to grow up in a society where that type of behavior is celebrated?  Do I want them to live in a country whose population voted for man who incites hatred, violence, and bigotry and who has no clear vision for the US?

Should I Stay?

Or, would it be better to stay and fight the system?  If I want to see European-style welfare state policies enacted here, I can’t promote them and work for them if I leave for overseas.  So if I stay, should I run for office?

Additionally, if Trump is elected, and we have a subsequent brain drain, who will be left to stand up for those targeted by Trump and his followers?  Would I be abandoning them by emigrating?

Your Thoughts?

What do you think?  If Trump becomes president, is leaving the US an act of cowardice, or is it the act of someone who wants a better life for his family?

Thanks for reading.

Lowlights of a Congressional Hearing on the Refugee Crisis

On November 4, the House Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats held a hearing titled, “Challenge to Europe: The Growing Refugee Crisis.”  The full hearing is below (it begins roughly 59 minutes into the video).

Going into it I thought I would hear members of the committee talk about how the U.S. could cooperate with our European allies to alleviate their burden and what we would do to address the crisis.  Instead, I heard Congressmen resort to fearmongering and partisanship.

In his opening statement, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), said that if the flow of refugees went unchecked, “it will change the fundamental nature of European countries.”  He went on to add that as a result of the influx of refugees, “what we are witnessing is the destruction of Western Civilization.”  After that he focused on violence and extremism, but at no point did he discuss what the United States was doing to help, nor did he offer possible solutions to the crisis.  For Rohrabacher, the refugee crisis is not a humanitarian issue; instead, it is about preserving Western culture and stemming the flow of the barbarian hordes.

His colleague, Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX), began his statement by pointing out that not all of the refugees are from Syria and that some may have “other motives as well.”  The problem with this line of thinking is that a refugee, no matter where they are from, is still a refugee and deserves humanitarian assistance.  The U.S. cannot say that only refugees from certain countries deserve our help.  Additionally, the scare tactic that they could be coming with sinister intentions is unfounded and quite frankly, ridiculous.

Rep. Poe also mentioned that Hungary, which has built a border fence and used tear gas and water cannons on refugees, is only trying to protect its national sovereignty.  He went on to say “the United States, rather than trying to understand the situation in Hungary, even last week the U.S. ambassador dressed down the Hungarians, for what the State Department believed was not the right course in dealing with migrants.  That does nothing to help our relationship with Hungary, a NATO ally.”  First, does Poe really believe the State Department and other American government officials are not trying to understand the situation?  Really?  Second, it is unclear what Poe is referring to in regards to Ambassador Bell, although it is probably her speech from October 28 titled, “We Will Build a Stringer Bridge.”  In the speech, Bell address numerous areas of cooperation with Hungary but also mentions issues of concern, notably corruption, a free civil society, freedom of the press, and the refugee crisis.  Countries that are truly allies should be able to express concern about issues; keeping quiet only exacerbates the problems.

Rep. Rohrabacher also jumped on the Hungary bandwagon, stating that it has been a “tremendous friend and asset to the peace and stability of the world.”  He went on to take a jab at the White House, saying it should stop complaining over every little thing they disagree with.  I’m sorry, but those issues of concern are not “little things.”  For somebody who claims to be “a most forceful spokesman for human rights and democracy around the world,” Rohrabacher’s words seem contradictory.

Rohrabacher continues to praise Hungary and resorts to fearmongering- “Hungary was totally justified in what it is doing to try to stem the flow, and frankly if our European allies are not willing to stem the flow of large numbers of people who are not native to their territory, they will lose their territory.”  Basically, this U.S. congressman just gave his support to the xenophobic far-right throughout Europe.  That’s right, if you don’t keep non-Europeans out, you will lose your country.

The only highlight came during Rep. Albio Sires‘ (D-NJ) opening statement.  In it, he proposed the U.S. should look to the root causes of migration and “for a political solution to the war in Syria.”  Rep. Sires went on to say that the world looks to the U.S. “to lead when it comes to the refugee resettlement.”  The problem, of course, is that we are not providing that leadership.  We have fallen far short in resettling refugees from the crisis; 10,000 pales in comparison to the over 1 million in Lebanon and over 2 million in Turkey.  Fortunately, he went on to add that the U.S. “can do much more,” and that we must “provide assistance and increased coordination to our European allies to help them cope with the number of migrants and refugees.”

Besides the close-minded scare tactics and pandering to Hungary exhibited by Reps. Poe and Rohrabacher, the other concern I had about this hearing is that out of the thirteen members of this subcommittee, only five showed up (Reps. Weber and Frankel make appearances during the questioning of the two witnesses).  If the refugee crisis is truly the largest migrant crisis the world has known, as was pointed out during the hearing, then where were the other members?  Wouldn’t we want “all hands on deck” to address this serious issue and from a humanitarian response to help our European allies?  (It should be noted that one member was absent due to a heart attack.)

My fear is that absurd sentiments like those from Reps. Poe and Rohrabacher will win the day and influence policy to the point where the U.S. fails to act and give the necessary assistance so desperately needed.

Thanks for reading.

Arming Teachers: A Response to Donald Trump

In the wake of the mass shooting last week at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, Donald Trump had this to say, “Let me tell you, if you had a couple teachers with guns in that room, you would have been a hell of a lot better off.”

We’ve heard this argument before, most notably after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.  As a high school teacher, and as a veteran of the U.S. military, I’ve finally had enough of this argument.  Arming teachers is not the solution.

Let’s look at this from a logistical standpoint.  Where do we store the firearms and ammunition?  In our classroom?  In a safe somewhere in the school?  It defeats the purpose of arming teachers only to have them run through the school during a shooting to get the ammunition, thereby leaving their students, and then to have to run back through the school to their classrooms.  Let me tell you, if somebody decided to begin shooting in my school, there is no way I would ever leave my students.  EVER.  For this preposterous proposal to work, both the firearm and ammunition would have to be stored in the teacher’s classroom.  “Hi kids, welcome back to school, it’s going to be a great year!  That?  Oh, that’s just my M16A2 in case of a mass shooting.  Don’t you feel safer now?”

Now that the teacher has both a firearm and the ammunition in the classroom, what’s going to stop students from overpowering the teacher and starting a mass shooting?  To make sure this does not happen, the ammunition would have to be stored in a safe somewhere else in the building, bringing us back to the point I made above.

In addition to the logistics of storage, we also have to discuss training.  We cannot just give teachers firearms and expect them to know what to do in case of emergency; now we need to have marksmanship training and qualification.  Would they have to break it down in a certain amount of time, just like in basic training?  How about cleaning the weapons?  That’s always a fun task with a bore brush and the little pads that leave the strings behind.  Would this be in lieu of professional development?  “No more pedagogy or content for us this year, instead, we’re focusing on Breathe-Relax-Aim-Squeeze.”  When would we go to the firing range- the weekend, after school?  It couldn’t be during the day because, oh that’s right, we’re busy teaching.  Of course, once school is over we have loads of free time on our hands, so this training would be a welcome respite from sitting around with nothing to do.

If arming teachers is not the solution, which it clearly is not, then what is?  More police presence in the schools?  We already have one police liaison at my school, do we need to add more?  If we do, who pays for that?  Since Mr. Trump and his ilk would like to lower taxes, that plan won’t work; therefore, we would have to eliminate teaching positions to bring in more police officers.  Why would we want more teachers, when we could have more police?

Maybe, instead of arming teachers, we should improve school infrastructure to keep students safe.  Build fences around the school at least ten feet tall with razor wire at the top.  After that, construct guard towers to make sure would-be assailants can be spotted before they get in.  Within the school itself, it would be wise to build doors that could be shut and locked (from some sort of central command structure) to limit mobility in case of a mass shooting.  Finally, we could increase police presence to get a ratio of 1 per 4-5 inmates (I mean students).

Since arming teachers and turning schools into prisons are not logical solutions, then what’s left?  Gun control?  That would be absurd.

Thanks for reading.

Lessons from Europe: Child Allowance

Governments in both the United States and Europe recognize that having children places greater financial burden on parents.  In the U.S., the federal government has in place the Child Tax Credit.  Taxpayers with children “may be able to reduce [their] federal income tax by up to $1,000 for each qualifying child under the age of 17.”  The problem with the CTC is that it is taxpayers might qualify for the credit, and even then, the amount might not be the maximum of $1,000.  In Europe, on the other hand parents receive monthly allowances to help with the costs of raising children.

Children’s Allowances
Instead of listing the amount for each country, I am going to use Germany, Great Britain, and Sweden as examples.   In Germany, parents receive an allowance called Kindergeld.  According to the German Embassy in the U.S., “In 2010 the amount paid for a couple’s first child was raised 20 euro to a sum of 184 euro per month [$207] per child. For a second child, parents receive an additional 184 euro per month and for a third or fourth child, 190 [$214] and 215 [$242] euro respectively.  Parents or guardians are eligible to receive Kindergeld at least until the child’s 18th birthday.”    So, a family with three children, for example, would receive 558 euro [$628] per month.  That makes the $1,000 CTC seem quite paltry.

In Great Britain, parents receive £20.70 per week [$32] for the eldest or only child, and £13.70 [$21] per additional child.  Going back to our family with three children, that comes to around £192.40 [$296] per month.

Finally, in Sweden, “Child allowance is SEK 1 050 per child [$124]. The amount of large family supplement depends on how many child allowances you receive.”  The allowance is paid every month up until the age of sixteen.  Under this policy, our family of three would receive SEK 3754 [$443.11] per month.  Here’s a helpful chart breaking this down:

Swedish Child Allowance
Swedish Child Allowance

For more information, the EU has a great website called the “European Platform for Investing in Children,” which includes country profiles and summarizes each Member State’s policies.

Lesson
If American legislators were truly concerned about family values, they would enact policies to establish children’s allowances.  The CTC does not even come close to helping parents with the costs associated with raising children.  An extra $300-400 per month could mean the difference between a parent working a second job or not.  Receiving children’s allowances could also help improve child nutrition, which in turn, helps with the health of a child and could reduce healthcare costs.  According to UNICEF, the child poverty rate in the U.S. in 2012 was 32.2%, up from 30.1% in 2008.  A monthly child allowance could reduce our rate of child poverty.

Change in Child Poverty
Change in Child Poverty

It should be noted that there is one case where parents can receive a monthly children’s allowance in the U.S.- foster care.  Here in Wisconsin, foster parents can receive between $232 and $499 per month, depending on the level of care.  If a state government realizes that a monthly allowance is helpful to cover the basic needs of foster children, why doesn’t every family, regardless of whether they have foster children or not, receive one?

Thanks for reading.