The policy class challenge + The 1619 Project

I love teaching policy. I have taught it at the BSW level for close to 20 years, whether the foundation class (an overview of key social welfare policies) or the policy practice class. The one I have taught most frequently is the former, which includes a fair amount of history (to set the stage for the policies we have now) as well as a staggering amount of content in order to give a general “big picture” look at key policy issues. I love teaching it, but most students come into the semester not knowing what to expect of it, or even (as they admit later) dreading it. In every cohort there are a couple of students who come in with a mindset of loving policy, but they are in the minority to their peers.

Knowing I have an uphill climb to get students interested and engaged in policy is one part of the challenge. The other challenge I have faced consistently is the choice of a text. I have never found any text that I felt covered all that needed to be covered, was worth the price point for students, was organized in a way that made sense, and was updated frequently enough. Every year this has been a frustration point for me as the textbook selector and teacher, and for students as the readers/learners.

For this year, I have decided to use a non-traditional text and supplement with a number of article readings. Most weeks find us reading a chapter or two from The 1619 Project along with peer reviewed articles on everything from TANF, the Every Student Succeeds Act, The Farm Bill, the Violence Against Women Act, and more….aligned with whatever is our major content focus for the week.

We are in week 3 of the semester, and I am loving our class discussions so far. They are intense, and highly participatory with almost 100% “out loud” student participation. From The 1619 Project they have read the Preface, Chapter 1, Chapter 2 and Chapter 13. From these sections alone we have had rich discussion on all the things we didn’t learn in our K-12 education, history and current issues of women’s rights, and the role of churches in social issues. Students have come with passion, with other suggested readings, with questions about what they can do to make a difference in everything from “book bans” in certain states to healthcare access, and with the stated desire to learn more. My class is a MWF class and by Friday at the end of class I was exhausted with trying to pay attention to all the nuance of the responses.

While I know there will be points at which people will question what they read, will experience resistance, will have some cognitive dissonance (which has already happened) and more, I think the value of this book in getting them to read and think critically about ways history shapes our current policy landscape is invaluable. I will try to remember to do a summary at the end of the semester of highs and lows of using this book, but feel free to reach out with questions, a syllabus copy, etc. I shape it every year and know it isn’t perfect, but I love teaching the topic and love to talk with other policy teachers.

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