American Values: What are they?
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American Values: What are they?

To help students discover the breadth and variety of values that Americans hold dear. Then, to help them notice and discuss how sometimes those values can come into tension, not necessarily as a matter of good vs. evil, but more as a matter of competing goods.

Time to complete:

40 minutes 

What principles, ground rules, and concepts are at play here?

  1. Seek a brave space.
  2. Notice who's not in the room, and try fairly to imagine what they might say if they were
  3. Consider that your information might be incomplete
  4. Disagreement is fine; don't try to solve it or paper it over.

How to do the exercise

Set up a space - whiteboard, paper, screen - where you can record and organize a lot of student responses.

Start out with a prompt like this:  "Today, we're going to talk about American values.  What are they?  We're going to try to identify some that you believe in or hold strongly.  We're also looking to identify some values that you think some Americans hold, even though you don't share them or even if you feel strongly that a certain value is problematic or wrong.  Once we have our list, we're going to try to notice some places where American values might come into conflict or tension, where it might be hard or even impossible to uphold two values at the same time."

If you think students need some help recognizing values, give them one or two "down the middle" examples e.g., honesty, hard work.

Then ask students to take a few minutes to think individually and jot down a few American values that they can identify.  They can be things they've learned from family, school, faith communities etc. or things they noticed through media. Remind them that they don't necessarily have to agree with a value to put it down on their list. We're looking for as complete a picture of American values, in all their variety, as we can put together.

Watch the class to get a sense of when most students have written a few things down and seem done.

Then ask: "Who'd like to go first in naming a value?"

If what a student says is clear, thank him/her and write it down on the list. If it's incomplete or unclear, ask some clarifying questions, e.g.:

  • Can you tell me a little more?
  • Could you say that another way?
  • I'm hearing you say X? Is that right? Would Y be another correct way of putting it?

Then ask the rest of the class: "Did anyone else have that value?  Do you have anything to add to how this value is described?"

Try to keep generating values at a good tempo.  Remind students that it's fine, in fact a useful thing, to also mention values you know some Americans hold, even if you don't agree with them.

Try to notice what realms of American life might not be getting mentioned, and see if you can elicit any thoughts about the values that animate those sectors, e.g.:

  • "What about the economy and the business world? Can you think of any values that are important there?"
  • "I notice we haven't said much about religious faith.  Anything to add there?"
  • "Anyone ever lived in another part of the country? Any values that are big there that you don't hear so much about around here?"
  • "What about the worlds of sports and pop culture?  What values do you see at play there?"

Give the class 10 to 15 minutes to generate a good list.  Then ask students to form groups of four or five people to discuss the following prompt for 10 minutes:

"Looking at the list, have each person mention one or two values that he/she/they really holds strongly.  After each person speaks, have the group try to identify one or two other values on the list that they see as connecting well with the values he/she/they mentioned.  Notice any differences of opinion, but don't try to resolve them. Then see if you find any values listed that don't go work well with that person's expressed core values. What are they and what's the conflict or tension that you see?"

For the final piece, bring the class back together and ask a couple of groups to report on a set of values that they saw as going well together, as mutually reinforcing.  Then ask different groups to report on values that they saw as in tension or in conflict.

Put those groupings up on the whiteboard or screen. 

Ask students what they notice about those groupings, what it tells them about values affect American people and American society?

You may not get too much response to this 30,000-foot question but leave it with students as something they might think about and share insights at the next CWT? session.

Follow-up activities

  • Students could ask their parents what values their parents taught them growing up, and which ones they've tried to pass on to their children, and which, if any, they've moved away from.
  •  Students could pick one person they admire and ask them what values are most important to them, and how that those values have motivated and helped them do what they've done in life.
  •  As part of a current-events discussion about an ongoing controversy, ask students to identify which values are at play in the situation.  Identify any values that seem to be in conflict or tension?  Can they see any ideas for dealing with the situation that could honor each of those conflicting values - whether equally or to different degrees?

PA State Standards

  • 5.1.C.E. / 5.1.12.E. - Analyze and assess the rights of people as written in the PA Constitution and the US Constitution.  
  • 5.1.U.D. - Compare and contrast the basic principles and ideals found in significant documents: 
    • Declaration of Independence
    • United States Constitution
    • Bill of Rights
    • Pennsylvania Constitution. 
  • 5.1.U.C. - Analyze the principles and ideals that shape United States government.
    • Liberty / Freedom 
    • Democracy
    • Justice
    • Equality
  • 5.1.C.C. - Evaluate the application of the principles and ideals in contemporary civic life.
    • Liberty / Freedom 
    • Democracy
    • Justice
    • Equality