How civics inspires students to get involved

Watching democracy in action shifts students from recipients to leader of their own learning
By: | Issue: November/December, 2019
November 1, 2019
In Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the civic education curriculum teaches students how to promote a cause, such as mental health care for young people. As part of the civics curriculum, hey complete projects each year in the district’s Project Citizen Fair.In Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the civic education curriculum teaches students how to promote a cause, such as mental health care for young people. As part of the civics curriculum, hey complete projects each year in the district’s Project Citizen Fair.

A civic education curriculum can reveal that students care deeply about plenty of issues in their schools and communities.

The reason they might seem disinterested is that they either haven’t been asked to get involved or haven’t been given the right opportunity—such as a robust civic citizenship education.

Political divisiveness has also left some students indifferent to the democratic process.

A strong civic education curriculum—particularly in the form of activities that allow students to pursue causes in and outside their school buildings—can be a powerful way to energize and engage young people, says Brian Brady, president of the Mikva Challenge, a nonprofit social studies curriculum and professional development provider.

“When educators up their youth civic-engagement game, they start to realize how much passion and interest youths have,” Brady says. “They’re not apathetic, but they’re uninvited to the process.”


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This approach to civics curriculum and citizenship empowers students to speak out at school board and city council meetings. Mikva Challenge recruits students to volunteer as election poll workers in Chicago.

“Once students start finding their own voices and sense of agency, it’s fascinating to watch their mindsets change from being recipients of education to active leaders in their own education process,” Brady says. “I hear students change their verb tenses and pronouns from ‘This is the school I go to’ to ‘This is my school.’”

Students rise to the challenge

A basic civic education curriculum will teach students how government works, but a high-level program that trains young people to take up a cause creates lifelong engaged citizens, says Jackie Viana, district supervisor in the Department of Social Sciences at Miami-Dade County Public Schools in Florida.

More civics success

Beyond creating engaged citizens, educators and experts see other big benefits to quality civics instruction, including:

  • Overall learning engagement: Educators who build civics learning opportunities into the curriculum report higher student enthusiasm. “Kids are more engaged in learning when they see a measurable outcome—when they see how it relates to their community and their world,” says Lawrence M. Paska, executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies.
  • Harnessing social media: Civics can show students the positive side of social media, and how it can be used to organize support for a cause and influence policy decisions. “With responsible, safe use of the internet comes access to a wide world of civic engagement,” Paska says.
  • Collaborative classrooms: Civics guides teachers in incorporating student input when creating classroom rules. Some teachers have even overseen the composition of a classroom constitution. “It sets the stage for real civic conversations in the classroom, which is the first civic or governmental space that most young people will encounter,” says Brian Brady, president of the Mikva Challenge.
  • Comfort and security: Setting rules together creates a sense of order, clear expectations and mutual respect. “We’ve seen teachers using this funny mechanism where they create a magic word, one that is not very common, like ‘pineapples,’” Brady says. “And when something happens in class that breaks the norms that the class has agreed upon, anybody, including the teacher, can say the magic word.”

To that end, Miami-Dade County holds a Project Citizen Fair each April so local and regional officials can see the community service initiatives students have worked on during the school year.

At least two projects have led to changes in state law, including increased penalties for selling drugs near schools and libraries.

Another class project resulted in the placement of more stop signs in neighborhoods where traffic was endangering students riding bikes to school, Viana says.

“We’re teaching students that in whatever profession they choose—teacher, doctor, attorney—they have a voice and they can make a difference,” she says. “It’s about empowering students to participate in their community.”

In Alabama, Amy Maddox encourages her students to make civil discourse a key part of their community work.

At the beginning of the year, she shows her Vestavia Hills High School students a video of Justice Stephen Breyer describing how members of the U.S. Supreme Court conduct internal conference sessions when ruling on a case. The justices take turns speaking and explaining their ideas, rather than raising their voices in debate, says Maddox.

On TV news and social media, however, students see mostly anger and incivility when political issues are debated, she says.

“As soon as we explain that this is about exploring all sides and being respectful and being the most mature versions of themselves, they rise to the challenge,” Maddox says.

Engaging in civil discourse doesn’t mean avoiding controversial topics, adds Natalie O’Brien, the social studies department chair at North Smithfield High School in Rhode Island.

“We bring the topics people are debating outside into the classroom,” she says. “But it can be detrimental to our society if people don’t know how to talk in a constructive manner.”

With a more civil approach, students are also better prepared to raise concerns with school administrators. Recently, North Smithfield High School students attended committee meetings to speak against a proposed schedule change, and also met with the district superintendent.

And though the new schedule is in place this school year, O’Brien says the transition was smoother because students had a chance to express their opinions to district leaders.

“A lot of adults don’t participate in the political process because they think one person can’t make a difference,” she says. “When students get a proper civics education, they’re more likely to follow the news and get involved. They start to learn they have power if they know how to harness it.”

‘Everybody’s a civics teacher’

Civic education curriculum lies at the heart of Democracy Schools, a Chicago-area school improvement plan that guides administrators in creating citizenship education that inspires students to become lifelong participants in the democratic process.

Education leaders in the Chicago network of more than 70 schools emphasize student voice in solving problems such as school security and lunch quality, says Shawn Healy, director of the nonprofit McCormick Foundation’s Democracy Program, which developed the initiative.


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“A school has potential to be a microcosm of a democratic institution,” Healy says. “The extent to which students have a voice is a lesson itself in democracy.”

The initiative has led to the founding of student voice committees at dozens of Chicago high schools. The committees meet regularly with administrators to discuss metal detector use, bathroom cleanliness and other pressing student concerns.

“The biggest civics lesson our K-12 schools teach is by how they’re governed,” he says. “Unfortunately in a lot of cases, they’re governed in an autocratic manner, and that undermines the great things that might be happening in civics classrooms.”

Schools in the network also work to bring civics concepts to subjects beyond the more obvious fits of social studies and English.

Science students can study global warming and climate policy, while math students can do statistical analyses of social issues.

“A mantra in recent years has been that ‘everybody’s a literacy teacher,’” Healy says. “Our argument is that ‘everybody’s a civics teacher.’”

Disillusionment during an election year

Presidential election cycles offer educators tremendous opportunities for civic education curriculum. To start, the right citizenship education can help reverse some students’ feelings of disillusionment with government, says Louise Dubé, executive director of iCivics, a nonprofit curriculum provider launched by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

“We are a very polarized nation, and it’s been documented that young people don’t believe in democracy anymore,” Dubé says. “It must mean that they don’t understand what the alternatives are.”


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Elections give educators leverage to get students engaged in causes they care about, adds Lawrence M. Paska, executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies.

Teachers should ask students, even those in elementary school, to consider why candidates visit certain parts of the country more often and which issues the presidential hopefuls focus on most.

“Civics learning should not be keeping score of which candidates are saying the ‘right’ things,” Paska says. “It should be critical analysis skills; the role of inquiry is to take a topic like health care and investigate how different groups, candidates and people working in that area view the issue.”

Though many standardized civics assessments have been eliminated over the past several years, states such as Illinois and Massachusetts have more recently mandated new civics learning requirements.

“Right now, civics learning in general is having a renaissance nationwide,” Paska says. “The general public wants to see students engaged in civic life and wants to know that an outcome of school is that students are ready to tackle issues as citizens.”

Matt Zalaznick is senior writer.


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