Bitney Prep social science teacher encourages students to practice informed citizenship
“Our government is supposed to be of the people, for the people, and by the people, so it is our role as citizens to know how exactly the government works and what rights we are entitled to. It is also critical that we know our history, and understand how to be civically engaged. Our voices inform the government that represents us — whether they be heard through our vote or a through protest.” This is the foundation that Bitney Prep High School’s Social Science Teacher Tori Newman Harris uses to teach her senior Government class this year in what has been a divisive and rancorous election cycle.
“People who do not receive a comprehensive civics education may feel helpless to understand or engage with an ‘all-powerful’ government,” said Harris. “Civics education teaches our young people how to be informed, that every voice counts, they have rights guaranteed by the Constitution, and that they can truly make a difference. This is the most important thing that I want students to take away from my course.”
Harris grew up here in Nevada County, attended Nevada Union High School, got her BA from UC Santa Barbara, and her Master’s Degree and teaching credential from UC Davis. Bitney Prep is her first full-time teaching position and she has quickly become a student favorite among the Bitney community. Harris has used the relationships and trust she has built with her students to help them navigate all the false information, polarity, and mudslinging that made up so much of the latest election season.
One of Harris’ most effective tools in helping students make sense of what they have been consuming is that she focuses on teaching students to do their own research. As she says, “It is key for them to look at a variety of viewpoints from a variety of sources, taking into account bias and historical context, in order to understand issues affecting our nation today. We can only responsibly decide our own views after considering history and the views of others. It is essential that students understand all sides of an issue and engage in positive discourse when their perspectives are challenged.”
Finding the balance between making sure all of her content aligns with CA History/Social Science and Common Core standards while teaching about the moment in the moment is something Harris has mastered. Her ability to do it in a way that honestly connects to her students is remarkable. Harris empowers her students to find their own way and gives them pride in their nation and a sense of ownership of their citizenship. “I take the line of neutrality as an educator very seriously. It is important for students to come to their own conclusions about their views and political beliefs, away from influence from family, friends, and teachers. I stand by teaching a relevant curriculum and allowing students to make up their own minds after examining various viewpoints and hearing different perspectives. If a student expresses a political belief, it is because it is theirs, not mine.”
And this is evident from the reactions of her students. Bitney Prep Senior Will Godwin says, “I definitely looked at myself as non-political before taking Tori’s government class because I just thought it was pointless to get involved in politics. But throughout the course, she helped me realize many people have fought and died for the right to have our voices heard, and my choosing to be non-political was a prime example of being privileged. Especially when we are lucky enough to live in a Democracy and not a Dictatorship. She did such a great job giving us the tools and unbiased information to form our own beliefs on topics we find important. The only way to progress as a country is to stay united and accept each other for who we are and what we believe in.“
As the flurry of election news begins to abate, Harris continues to empower her students to be active and informed citizens. As she says, “Aligned with my goal to strengthen the next generation of informed citizens, every Friday we have a Current Events Discussion, a favorite activity with the students. It is there that I see the most participation from the kids as they bring up and react to the different headlines and stories of the week. Although the election is over, I am sure our discussions will continue to be rich as the political landscape keeps unfolding.”
Mia McKnight, another Bitney Prep Senior, sums up the class’s feeling about Tori Harris, “I think she is a phenomenal teacher. She maintains a balance between professionalism and relatability, keeping everyone entertained without losing sight of her lesson plan.”
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