Brooke Blevins

By Megan Willome

Making civics civil again

The practice of democracy is not passed down through the gene pool. It must be taught and learned anew by each generation of citizens.” — Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor

After she retired from the Supreme Court, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor developed the iCivics curriculum to help young people become engaged with civics. In partnership with then-Baylor University President Ken Starr, Justice O’Connor came to work with Baylor to evaluate the iCivics curriculum. That’s how she got connected with Dr. Brooke Blevins.

“Justice O’Connor is deeply committed to helping increase the civic knowledge, skills and dispositions of our nation’s youth. The iCivics.org program is a testament to her legacy as a champion for civic education and action,” Blevins said. “We presented the findings of our study to a ballroom full of people at the Waco Convention Center. After we finished presenting our findings and and I walked over, shook her hand and knelt down as she shared how grateful she was for our work. It was one of the most memorable moments of my career. I was also about seven months pregnant and wasn’t really sure if I would be able to get back up after kneeling down, but I did.”

That research study led to the formation of iEngage, a weeklong summer civics camp for fifth- through ninth-graders, created by Blevins and Dr. Karon LeCompte, along with other in-school interventions to make social studies come alive for students.

Blevins is an associate professor and the chair of curriculum and instruction in Baylor’s School of Education. In 2020 she was named the Conwell G. Strickland Endowed Chair in Education. She’s also the media and book review editor for “Theory and Research in Social Education,” an academic journal.

Wacoan writer Megan Willome spoke with Blevins by phone about her passion for social studies, how she defines civics education and what children think about the polarization they witness in American adults.

WACOAN: Did you know you wanted to go into education when you went to undergrad?

Blevins: Yes. At Trinity [University], you get a bachelor’s in a content area, then you do a fifth-year program called a MAT [Master of Arts in Teaching] where you get your certification to teach. I did know from the time I went to Trinity that I would be a teacher.

I figured out what I wanted to major in. I loved speech. I had no idea I would love economics. That was not a part of my brain that I knew I was good at. So then I wanted to do a major in economics too. Trinity has you get the undergraduate degree to be strong in content and then get the teaching certificate in the master’s program.

I taught in Ronald Reagan High School in North East ISD [in San Antonio]. I was also the speech and debate teacher and theater teacher.

WACOAN: And both those majors, speech and economics, are part of social studies?

Blevins: With my background in economics, also with coaching debate, there’s a lot of social studies and also communication involved: how we have deliberative dialogue, weigh multiple perspectives, use evidence to make claims, talk in civil ways.

My interest in social studies emerged when I decided I wanted to pursue my doctorate. I applied to [University of Texas, Austin] because it was the closest university to where I was teaching in San Antonio. I applied to the UT Department of Curriculum and Instruction. They called me and said, ‘We see you’re applying, but we would love for you [specialize in] our social studies education program.’ It’s the best decision I made, for sure! That’s when I developed an interest in social studies education, in the disciplines of history, geography.

It’s continued in terms of my work at Baylor. I still have that passion in terms of how do we have deliberative dialogue? How do we interact in civil ways? How do we use evidence to support our claims?

WACOAN: For those of us who’ve been out of school for a while, what is social studies? What all does it encompass?

Blevins: When you get a secondary certification, it’s for grades 7-12. Social studies includes all sorts of things. In seventh grade we start with Texas history, so state history. Eighth grade is U.S. history, pre-Reconstruction. In ninth, things are changing. It used to be world geography. Sometimes now students move right into world history. There’s another U.S. history in 11th grade, post-Reconstruction. The senior year is one semester of government and one semester of economics.

Our teachers we prepare at Baylor, most are social studies composite teachers, capable to teach all of those subject areas. Some are only history-certified. Most are composite-certified. I think what it means is you have to be an expert in so many different disciplines — a mile wide and an inch deep understanding. It’s hard to know all you need to know to be successful. We do a good job at Baylor to prepare them for that, but it’s not an easy task, by any means.

WACOAN: And how many years of social studies are currently required in high school?

Blevins: Currently it’s three years of social studies. They have to have that second U.S. history and government/economics. They pick between world geography and world history.

I would call my work civics education. My particular focus is in that one direction.

WACOAN: Define civics education.

Blevins: I would say civics education is developing an understanding of how we work together to sustain our communities and our systems of government and structures. Civics education is often characterized as only a limited definition of understanding the process of government — and it’s a significant part, an important piece.

I would also add that civics education is not only knowing those things but being able to do those things. What that means is civics education should also involve preparation for young people to be active and engaged in their communities.

My work centers around action civics, which is a pedagogical way of teaching about civics that has students behave as citizens while also learning about concepts of civics and citizenship. We teach students about how to be engaged in their communities and processes, like going to their city council members, approaching local and state legislators. We have them engage in processes with those people.

We say, ‘Let’s look at a local community issue you care about and work with members of your community. Who could you partner with who’s already doing this work? How might your representative help address this problem? What powers do they have?’

The students work through that process because they’re trying to solve this problem, and alongside it they’re learning about the structures and processes of government. It’s a move away from traditional civics education, a sit-and-get, let’s open up a textbook. It’s turning it into more of an active process.

WACOAN: Is that what you’re doing with iEngage Summer Civics Institute?

Blevins: It is. It’s based on that premise.

In 2012 we were approached by a national organization, iCivics.org, an online civics education platform that houses a number of digital games and simulations as well as robust resources for teachers. It was the brainchild of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. She wanted to have an independent study of iCivics done, so she came to Baylor, and my colleague and iEngage co-founder Dr. Karon LeCompte and I set about to do that.

We worked with about 500 students in Waco ISD and Midway ISD along with 23 teachers and 10 administrators. It was a six-week intervention. We found positive results. Students developed an increased understanding of civics and political processes. We worked alongside Baylor Law School to help teachers with the context. Justice O’Connor came to Waco, had a big symposium, had professional development for teachers. It was really fun.

We decided we wanted to do more, not just have students’ knowledge increase but can they take this and put it in action? Can they do something with it? We were approached about applying for a grant from the Hatton W. Sumners Foundation. They left a good deal of money to further civics causes. We wrote this grant, got it, that was the burgeoning of iEngage Institute, in 2013.

WACOAN: And it’s for middle-schoolers?

Blevins: It’s one week long, for entering fifth through ninth grade students. It’s a day camp, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. It’s free because we have funding. We try to recruit students from diverse backgrounds, students from low income or students of color who have less access to high quality civics education in school. Our goal was to mitigate that. It’s been really fun to see [the camp’s] evolutionary process.

The camp revolves around the action civics curriculum. The students pick an issue that they care about. They spend the week diving into that issue, researching it, finding what we call the root causes. [At the beginning] we found that students would pick issues like animal abuse but only look at surface-level causes. They want to go volunteer and pet animals. They’d have surface-level solutions that weren’t the real issue. We wanted our students to delve down deep. What is the root cause of overpopulation of animals? How do we solve that versus apply a Band-Aid solution?

We know for many community issues there are many root causes. Like homelessness. It could be trauma, could be [post-traumatic stress disorder], especially for veterans. It could be mental health issues, could be loss of job, lack of transportation. We want our students to focus on one root cause and set a goal and a plan on how to solve that root cause.

They’re working collaboratively. They have to come to consensus. Each student has to present their issue and why it’s important. At the end they present their solutions to the community — families, principals, teachers, whoever comes to our final community showcase. It’s a fun event. In addition to the through line of the camp, we introduce students to cool resources. Each day they play an iCivics game. And each day is guided by an essential question, like what does it mean to be a good citizen?

WACOAN: What are those five questions?

Blevins: Day 1: What does it mean to be a good citizen? Day 2: How can citizens investigate community issues? Day 3: What does it mean to advocate? Day 4: How can we advocate effectively for an issue? Day 5: Advocacy Project Workday and Issue Showcase

We structure activities in a day around each question. We open each day with a guest speaker who talks about that question — maybe a city council member or a grassroots organizer or someone from the health district or someone who does economic development in the city, like someone from the chamber of commerce. We’ve had representatives from the [Cen-Tex] Hispanic Chamber and the [Cen-Tex] African American Chamber. They share how their organization is working to solve community issues.

Then we partner with [W.R.] Poage Legislative Library at Baylor. It houses papers of Texas legislators. [The students] get to work with primary source documents. They look at communication between legislators and their constituents. They get to see these real-life artifacts. They can look at old election machines, what that looked like before it was all digital.

We also partner with Baylor Law School. We have a day where students spend time at the law school, learning about legal aspects of civics. How do you create evidence-based claims? They go to various stations and learn from law students and professors.

Our students then have the opportunity later in the week to present their projects to an expert shark tank panel — professors and community leaders and school leaders. Students give a five-minute pitch: here’s the issue, here’s the cause, here’s what we want to do about it. Then they get feedback. They’ll be asked, ‘Have you thought about this or that?’ Students can refine their thinking and revise their final projects.

It’s about how do we communicate with one another? How do we collaborate with one another? How do we engage in dialogue that’s civil and thoughtful and evidence-based? In our political sphere, we don’t do a lot of listening. We have a lot of polarization because people are not listening to each other. They’re making claims not supported by evidence. Students learn we can talk to each other even though we have different opinions. That’s the underlying goal of our work.

WACOAN: Do you think students are aware of the polarization in the nation? Do they think it’s always been this way?

Blevins: They do see it. They see and wonder, ‘Why can’t people talk to each other? Why are they so mean? Why do they call each other names?’ They’ve also seen it modeled, that this is the way people talk.

Our hope is to disrupt that. Let’s look at a model for how this can be done differently. They feel the tension of issues related to social justice, race, class — they feel that in school but don’t always have words to name it. Because we help them think through root causes, they can name and claim their world. Now they see it, and they see how we might solve this or work together, even if we don’t agree, to move these projects forward and be encouraging.

WACOAN: How is the Baylor School of Education involved with iEngage?

Blevins: The great thing is that the counselors are our pre-service teachers. They’re going to be social studies teachers, so they have this great opportunity to lead students in rich, high quality social studies education that they may not have seen in their own schooling or in their student teaching, especially if they were at the elementary level. Social studies in elementary can be subsumed into reading and math because that’s what’s tested. After the camp, teachers say, ‘We see the possibility.’

Then our graduate students, many of them former teachers, are the research team on the effects of the camp.

We also hire local teachers to serve as master teachers. One master teacher might have three groups they’re working with.

We didn’t get to have [iEngage] last summer. This summer will be our eighth summer.

WACOAN: I didn’t realize so many undergraduate and grad students were involved.

Blevins: They are huge helpers in the development of curriculum. Each year we reevaluate, based on the evaluations we receive, what needs to change, what worked and didn’t work. We have a think tank with faculty and grad students, who are becoming experts in the field. They get to help us think through the evolution. No one year looks like the next: Here’s what we know now that we didn’t last year. We’re always reinventing and thinking about what’s the next step going forward?

WACOAN: Do students apply to be part of iEngage?

Blevins: Kids apply. We try to diversify our pool based on school district, schools, racial and ethnic makeup, socioeconomic. We’re trying to create a diverse body. Not everyone gets in. We always have a waiting list.

WACOAN: You said something earlier about discrepancies in social studies education for low-income students and students of color. Why is that the case?

Blevins: There’s been lots of research around this topic. What we know about high-quality civics education is that it involves the opportunity to participate in local politics, field trips, use of simulations, student government — all those are important parts of it. Generally schools that are low socioeconomic don’t often have Model UN or various things that, in addition to a course in social studies, support those skills and dispositions.

In terms of access to outside activities, kids from low socioeconomic backgrounds often don’t have Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts or the opportunity for participating in organizations that might help young people understand the world around them. It’s through no fault of their own. It’s time, finances, transportation issues. Then the cycle continues because students who have less access are those who are typically disenfranchised in political processes.

Hopefully our work is breaking the cycle. There’s much work still to do. That’s been a focus the last couple of years.

We have now run this program at schools too. Karon has worked with a rural school in East Texas. That was a three- to four-week program. We’ve done it in an after-school program at J.H. Hines [Elementary] as part of Transformation Waco. We’re finishing up a program in Longview, a 12-week curriculum with eighth graders. Before COVID we ran one at Waco Montessori School.

It’s all part of our continued goal. We love the out-of-school experience, but we can only serve 100 students. How do we spread this far and wide? Our curriculum has evolved as we better find what’s workable in schools.

WACOAN: When did you become chair of the department of curriculum and instruction?

Blevins: I became chair in June 2019, so I had from June to the beginning of March in a normal chair role. Now I’ve been chair almost as long in COVID-world, which is a different type of leadership, not one I expected. I’ve grown a ton as a leader.

On my desk I have an index card. At my first faculty meeting when I was chair, I asked everybody to write down their Why — why we do this work? Because we get caught up in the day-to-day grind. We forget the overarching goal. So I pick it up often and reread it. It’s a reminder that although life is crazy right now, I’m doing this for something greater, a bigger reason, so remember that.

WACOAN: How has your role shifted during COVID?

Blevins: I love that part of my job, but it’s been difficult, given COVID. I’ve described it as a harrowing experience, leading in COVID, because we never know what tomorrow is going to bring.

For me, leadership so well dovetails with my understanding of civics education. It’s caring for the people you’re entrusted to lead. I have to do my best to clear away obstacles, to empower the people I lead to do their best work. It’s been hard in COVID for people to do their best work. There are so many demands on their time. As leaders, we have to recognize that’s OK. We have to tell our communities that we’re not OK, but we’re in this together, and what can I do as a leader to help you do this as best you can with these circumstances.

One of the key things during COVID is communication. People want to know what’s going on. When this all started in March, I felt like I needed to communicate with my faculty regularly so they knew not just what was going on but that I was their cheerleader and here to support them. Communication for me has been not only about sharing information but also communicating a shared sense of purpose and action and a shared sense of we’re-in-this-together. We’re doing remarkable things under extraordinary circumstances.

It’s been hard also because I can’t see my people. I’m at the office, but most of my faculty is at home. There are not near as many students on campus. I miss the interactions with them in the hallways in informal ways. I miss that desperately. I get so excited when I see them, even with a mask. We do Zoom meetings, some formal and some check-ins to say how are you doing? People hate Zoom. They’re tired of it, but that connection is so important, even if it’s 20 minutes. It shows someone cares about what’s happening, so they have a support system.

WACOAN: You’ve recently been named Conwell G. Strickland Endowed Chair in Education. What does the position entail?

Blevins: I was named in June 2020. It’s a legacy gift provided by the wife of Conwell G. Strickland. It’s designed to promote our partnership with local schools: how do we educate teachers to go change the world, and how do we continue to do this work to which we were called?

I was awarded that for the work I do with local area schools and in promoting teachers. It’s designed to promote that mission, advocating for collaboration with schools and their improvement and supporting research around that, not only what I can do but how I can empower my faculty to do that work and find them resources to engage in that work that will promote local partnerships with schools.

Before me there were two chairholders, and I was the first female to hold it.

WACOAN: Tell me a little about your family. You have three children?

Blevins: I have a daughter in third grade. I’m going to a thing at her school now — the biography presentation that she has been working on for several months. She’s doing [former Supreme Court Justice] Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

I have three children: an 11-year-old, this daughter that’s 8, and the littlest is 4 1/2, almost 5. My husband’s name is Ben. He’s a stay-at-home dad. We have a reversal of roles.
WACOAN: Is there anything else you want to mention about your work?

Blevins: The why of civics education: Why does this matter? Why is civics education more important than ever? I think that social studies and civics education needs to have as much prominence as math and literacy. We can be literate and mathematically literate, but if we don’t know how to work together as communities, if we don’t know how to care for one another, to talk in a way that is civil and reasoned, if we can’t talk across difference and dialogue, it’s all for naught.

The goal of social studies and civics education is to get us to become better humans so we can make our world a better place, where future generations are going to thrive and find connection and belonging. More than ever we need civics education if we want the future of our society to look different than it does now.

Brooke’s 5 Must-Have Items

1. RTIC travel mug. A warm insulated coffee cup as I leave the house. At that point I’ve only had one cup of coffee, and I’ll need another one.
2. NYX butter gloss. I love lip gloss. I put them by all of my computers and in my purse. Particularly in Zoomland, lip gloss goes a long way to looking like you got dressed for the call.
3. Digital calendar. My calendar is digital and color-coded, so every meeting has a color. That’s how I organize my life. My phone has that calendar, my computer. I can’t imagine going back to a paper calendar.
4. My index card with my Why. It reads, “To shine Christ’s light. To encourage, to uplift, to help grow others. To cultivate community and care for others. Ultimately this work is done so that through education we might change the world and make it a more humanizing world.”
5. Steno pad. I have a notebook that I make a to-do list with check boxes that I make myself. I still do that by hand.

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