Aviv Cohen: One international student’s passion for Civics Education

For Aviv Cohen, “Where are you from?” is a hard question to answer. Born to Israeli parents in the United States, he attended school in Connecticut through third grade before moving to Jerusalem where he grew up. Coming to Teachers College for graduate school, he felt more like an Israeli coming to the United States, not like an American returning home.

After completing high school, Cohen completed his requisite time in the army, followed by a Bachelor’s and Master’s in political science in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Students who plan to work in academia are very much encouraged to gain experience amidst the sort of academic discourse prevalent at universities in the United States or England. “I was specifically encouraged by two professors I worked with. One in particular had her degree from TC, so she very much pushed me to come here. And I heard about Anand Marri, too, and his work in civics. I’m interested in civics education, so I knew this was the place.”

Cohen cites one main advantage of studying in the United States as the feeling of professionalism. Working with experts in the field offers the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the issues at hand. “One aspect of that is the fact that you have time to sit down and think about things.  I’ve had a lot of talks with our professors. I had a chance to talk about the deeper levels of thinking, of education of civics, which I think is very helpful. In Israel, it feels like reality is more of a struggle. You’re constantly holding your head above water; that’s how it feels. You don’t always have time to sit back and think about things.”

Social studies in Israel includes civics, history, and geography. Cohen points out how if you read the Israeli curriculum standards from when the state was established, the first sentence states how everything you teach is aimed towards civics. “In that sense, the whole education system kind of resembles the social studies idea, that you teach history not only as history but rather for a larger goal. In Israel in general, because it has such an intense atmosphere, you feel that very much in all the topics taught.”

Having taught civics in Jerusalem, Aviv was able to gain perspective on that educational system in comparison with that of the US. “I thought it would be very different, but it’s not. People are people. I thought that was interesting: students were students.” He was surprised to find that even the way teachers are treated is very much the same in the US as in Israel.
On the other hand, there are some differences. One Cohen points out is that in Israel students have a “home class” where they stay all day, while their teachers come around to them, as opposed to changing classes and going to different teachers’ rooms as it is here in the US. He describes the home room teacher as being like a mother or a father. The students “belong to group, and part of their education is belonging to that group.”

Besides civics education, Cohen is trying to learn different approaches by taking courses both in and out of the Social Studies program. As a student, as well as when he worked as a Teaching Assistant in Professor Gaudelli’s Teaching of World History and Geography class, Cohen tries to connect everything to civics. “I took a course in public policy in the leadership program. We talked about policy, but I tried to connect all these policy issues to civic issues. Brown versus Board of Education is a civic issue, not only a policy issue.  I took a course in the International Department, in comparative education. The main thing I enjoyed from that course was the concept of borrowing and lending policies across the globe.” Aviv was so interested in this aspect of the course that he chose to write his final paper about the different aspects through which civics is taught around the world.

This summer, Cohen taught an online course entitled Civic Education: An International Perspective. The concept for the course was to look at cross-cultural examples of civic education in different settings across the globe in order to help pre-service and in-service teachers reflect on their own teaching of civics. His aim was to encourage each student to explore how civic education is taught in different countries around the world.

Now in his fourth year as a PhD candidate in the Social Studies Education program, Cohen is currently doing the fieldwork for his dissertation. Back in Israel, he is collecting data regarding the teaching of civics in three high schools in Jerusalem. Additionally, he will teach a graduate course about civic education at the Hebrew University and has recently started working for the Israeli National Parks Authority as a pedagogical editor for their educational materials.

Cohen’s long-term goal is to work to try to improve civic education in Israel. “I like the approach of social studies, putting together geography, history and other topics toward the civic aim. So I hope to try to reinforce that back home.”

One thing Aviv enjoys is the feeling of “getting out of my own bubble, my own nation, my own home, and moving somewhere else. It’s hard and it’s challenging, but it’s also opened my eyes to different cultures.” His advice to other TC students would be to take advantage of being surrounded by international students, students from around the country, and students in all the different programs here at TC. “Learn about different cultures and reflect on your own culture, your own self, your own nationality. That would be my main message to the Masters students: take advantage of that aspect of the program. Because we are in New York City. Just the diversity of people here, it’s great.”

Aviv is enjoying being back home but does miss the people in NYC. “While going through the program, the interactions with the other students were intense and I miss that experience of belonging to a group of peers.” He also misses having casual conversations with the faculty.

The Social Studies program misses Aviv as well and wishes him the best of luck as he collects his data and moves toward completing his dissertation!