The Mathews Center convened its first ever Students’ Institute on November 15 & 16, 2012 at the University of Montevallo John W. Stewart Student Retreat Center. Thirty students from the Gifted Resource Class (GRC) at Montevallo Middle School participated in the two-day institute. The institute provided the students with an opportunity to deepen their understanding of citizenship and to develop skills for more effective civic engagement.
Upon arrival on the first day, students were randomly assigned to one of four small “problem-solving work groups.” Students spent time getting to know their small-group facilitator and fellow students, and developing a team name and group identity before the formal agenda began.
After brief introductions by Carol Bruser, Career and Community Services Liaison for the University of Montevallo, and Cristin Foster, DMC Assistant Program Director, the students explored various aspects of citizenship through a variety of games and exercises. Through an energetic game of Apples to Apples, students practiced making decisions from the perspective of another. Throughout, DMC staff and facilitators encouraged the students to value their own perspectives, while also actively listening to the perspectives and opinions of others.
The students then demonstrated their civic knowledge by answering questions from the U.S. Naturalization/Citizenship Exam. The students passed the exam with flying colors!
The problem-solving work groups then examined several quotes on the meaning of citizenship taken from the writings of famous Americans. Students were given time to define citizenship/civic engagement and identify the roles and responsibilities of a citizen.
After exploring what the students hold valuable in relationship to citizenship, demonstrating their civic knowledge during the citizenship exam, and learning about the perspectives of others, Cristin Foster introduced the students to one of the most important activities citizens engage in – public deliberation. In public deliberation, citizens examine multiple approaches to an issue, actively listen to diverse perspectives, weigh costs and consequences, and make decisions to act together. The students practiced deliberative skills through a variety of exercises with their small groups.
After sharpening their civic skills and increasing understanding of what it means to be an active citizen, students were tasked with naming and framing an issue of public concern. The students identified the issue of Focusing on/Retaining Youth as an issue of concern for citizens of Montevallo. The students framed three approaches and outlined numerous examples of what can be done and consequences to consider.
Throughout the two-day institute, I was impressed by the thoughtful energy the students brought to exploring citizenship, and naming and framing an issue of public concern. The Mathews Center looks forward to convening a number of community forums in early 2013 to give citizens across Montevallo the opportunity to deliberate on the issue that the students named and framed. Our hope is that real actions – driven by collaborative partnerships – emerge as a result of the forums.
The Mathews Center is incredibly grateful to a number of people for making this institute a success. Most importantly, our deepest thanks go to Montevallo Middle School, Coach Ron Holsombeck, and the GRC students for wholeheartedly engaging in our first Students’ Institute. The extraordinary Carol Bruser deserves our thanks for helping out with logistics. Many thanks go to our wonderful facilitators: Ashley Kontos, Aaron Traywick, Marlene Carver, Madeline Mechum, Hannah Gentry, and Courtney Bennett. Additionally, this project would not have been possible without Dr. Hollie Cost and the University of Montevallo Office of Service Learning. We would also like to thank Dr. Mark Wilson and the Jean O’Connor-Snyder undergraduate interns who developed the “Students as Citizens: An Experience in Civic Life” program that inspired many aspects of the Students’ Institute!
- Cristin Foster (DMC Assistant Program Director)