Innovating Civics Education

Thomas Jefferson once said, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. An informed citizenry is at the heart of a dynamic democracy.” Universal and timeless, Jefferson’s sentiment is especially relevant to our republic today. In a renewed focus on promoting civics education within the United States, students, teachers, and communities across the country are finding innovative ways to improve the quality of instruction, with the intent of cultivating the next generation of both leaders and involved citizens. Here are just a few examples of how they’re doing it.

Simulating the Democratic Process

A Junior Achievement program called BizTown® provides the opportunity for students to participate in a simulation of the democratic process. BizTown is a scaled-down city built for kids and designed to model many communities in America. It includes a bank, a medical clinic, television station, public utilities, and even a city hall. The simulation allows students to learn about voting in real-life scenarios as they take on active citizenship roles, such as business owners, consumers, and elected officials.

In Tucson, AZ, fifth graders from Senita Valley Elementary School use an 18-hour classroom program to introduce economic fundamentals, such as banking procedures and economic terms. Students then work together to raise money to pay for their virtual trip to BizTown. Upon arrival, the students engage in a democratic process to staff jobs and choose public officials required to run the town. They elect a mayor, appoint a CEO for each business, and pay taxes for the town’s public programs. Also, elections are held for sheriffs and judges. If a rule is broken, the offending party can hire a lawyer and present a case before one of the elected judges.

Senita Valley Elementary’s principal, Connie Erickson, says of the program, “All of our kids look forward to 5th grade and the BizTown experience.… We are always encouraging our kids to think about what they are doing for themselves, their community, and their world.”

Driving Community Engagement

A popular pedagogical model for delivering civics education is “service-learning.” The National Service Learning Clearinghouse defines the approach as “a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities.” When applied, it can have a profound effect on students’ willingness to engage and become active in their community. This promotes the concept of responsible citizenship.

civics education

Chicago Public Schools encourage interested teachers to apply service-learning in their classrooms. An important program in the district, Calumet Is My Backyard (CIMBY), highlights the benefits of using this pedagogy.

Over the course of the 20th century, Lake Calumet, located on the southeast side of Chicago, suffered significant environmental degradation as a result of the thriving steel industry that operated in the region.

In partnership with Chicago’s Field Museum, every year over 700 students from CPS’s twelve high schools participate in this clean-up program. Students work in 11 distinct areas of the Lake Calumet region to study the condition of the environment, to remove invasive plants, and to formulate ways to restore the region’s natural wetland habitat. The program provides students with a means to directly engage with an important natural space within their community.

Connecting with Public Figures

Educators can also encourage students to take what they’ve learned in the classroom and make connections to people currently engaged in the governing process.

That’s certainly true of students at Milford High School and Applied Technology Center in Milford, NH. David Alcox, a social studies teacher at the school, uses a program in his classroom that introduces and explores the principles of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Besides versing his students in the fundamental institutions of the country, Alcox takes his instruction a step further. He states, “Any time we have a candidate or Supreme Court justice come through town, I try to pull that into whatever unit we are discussing.” And plenty do pass through New Hampshire, given the state’s importance in the primary system during presidential elections. “We always have good access,” Alcox acknowledges, “and that makes it really tangible for the students. It makes it real.”

An Exercise in Governance

Making a connection with presidential hopefuls and local community leaders can give students ownership of their civic responsibility. So too can participating in a form of governance.

In 2006, the Iowa Department of Human Rights created the Iowa Youth Congress (IYC). Each year, the organization seeks up to 100 underrepresented Iowa high school students from all regions of the state, ages 15 to 18, to participate in the program. The mission of the organization is for students to establish, and then pursue, a legislative agenda that tackles a variety of issues directly affecting the state’s youth.

Once a year the IYC convenes to propose bills, debate their merits, and vote to approve formal legislation. The bills that pass are then submitted as proposals to the Iowa Congress, where IYC members lobby officials to turn their proposals into state law.

On the IYC’s 2017–2018 legislative agenda are issues that include implementing cultural education in existing K–5 social studies classes, raising the age for purchasing tobacco in the state from 18 to 21, and creating an incentive program to encourage Iowa professionals to become STEM teachers.

Cultivating the Next Generation of Citizens

Civics education
By The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (Youth Tobacco Town Hall Meeting_6751) (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons

These innovations in civics education are having a noticeable impact. Beyond strong classroom instruction, strategies such as service-learning give students the opportunity to directly apply their classroom learning to benefit their local communities. A hands-on approach to civics education truly promotes a sense of responsibility for students to have a stake in what happens in the community. It also allows them to learn and implement 21st century skills. As the philosopher Confucius once said, “Tell me, and I will forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I will understand.”

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