Students gain new perspective through deliberating with peers in Mexico

In today’s political landscape of discourse and disagreement, we cannot lose site of the importance of freedom of speech and having healthy exchanges where conflicting views can be heard and valued.

With the understanding that deliberation requires instruction and practice, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Healthy Students sponsors a "Deliberating in a Democracy in the Americas" grant. Five schools in Minnesota, including Champlin Park (CPHS) and Coon Rapids (CRHS) high schools, participated in the grant.

Through the program, CPHS’s JoEllen Ambrose and Ann Anderson and CRHS’s Ryan Severson traveled to Mexico in July where they were teamed with teachers. This fall, Mexico and Minnesota teachers taught three of the same lessons – voting, juvenile justice and freedom of expression – to their respective law and Spanish classes. Students communiate together three times to share the lessons’ conclusions. Skype allows people to communicate via video over the Internet.

Anderson’s Spanish 5 class did all of the deliberations and skyped with the students from Mexico. Ambrose’s Social 12 Politics and Law classes skyped with the students, and all of her ninth and twelfth grade classes did the deliberating strategy with different public policy issues.

Ambrose, who had used the Deliberating in a Democracy lessons in the past, became aware of the grant through the Minnesota Council for Social Studies. Because she’s been involved with many civic projects throughout her career, Ambrose signed up for the grant. Because of Anderson’s background in Spanish and knowing it would add to the experience for students, Ambrose encouraged her to get involved.

Interacting with students from Mexico on shared lessons was a valuable experience for the CPHS students because they learned about how another government works. While in Mexico voting is seen as a responsibility and there is a high expectation people vote, in the U.S. the emphasis is on individual freedom and it’s a personal decision if someone votes or not. When CPHS students learned that juvenile offenders are not punished as adults in Mexico, they disagreed with this until they learned that some young people commit crimes because they are forced into gangs or to work in the drug trade.

"In the discussion about juvenile justice, they talked about things that would have not entered a Minnesota student’s mind," Anderson said.

Both the ability to use their Spanish and the materials they had to study were attractive to Anderson’s students.

"The readings, available in Spanish and English, were a great resource," Anderson said. "It was nice to have contemporary material for my students to read and use to form and express an opinion."

Ambrose enjoyed the experience because she gets energized when she is involved in activities where she gets to meet fellow educators. In addition to meeting the teachers from Mexico, the Minnesota teachers had an opportunity to interact with each other.

"This is a valuable learning tool," Ambrose said. "It was really fun to see what creative strategies and ideas the teachers were using in their classes."

In early March, Gabriel Zamora, Gaby Chavez, and Guadalupe Munoz visited CPHS. Debby Krzesowiak, student teacher from the University of Minnesota, served as a translator in Ambrose’s class.

Zamora, of Mexico City, teaches law and history in a high school of about 600 students. He is also a practicing attorney. He said he enjoyed his visit to CPHS and liked how every teacher had his or her own classroom and could hang up materials. In Mexico for the most part, the students stay in one classroom and the teachers move around.

"The students are a little loud, but they are all very respectful," Zamora said.

A professor at La Universidad La Salle in Pachua, Mexico, Chavez teaches law, history, politics, and economics. She was invited to join the project and agreed because she wanted her students to participate in politics. Chavez also found the CPHS students to be respectful, happy and willing to listen to their teachers.

A chemistry teacher at a high school in Mexico City, Munoz thought CPHS was very beautiful and well organized.

"I’ve been to schools in Chicago and the students here are more interested and more prepared to learn," Munoz said.

Munoz said she likes the Deliberating in a Democracy in the Americas program and wishes more students and teachers would get involved.

The teachers from seven states and their four partner countries will see each other again in June in Chicago. They will gather to debrief about their experiences this year.

When asked if she would participate in this program again, Anderson was quick to answer.

"In a heartbeat," she said.