So much to teach and so little time to teach it all! Educators are tasked with preparing students for a multitude of tests while they are also pressed to prioritize STEM education. Furthermore, the growing interest in adapting lessons to personalized learning and performance-based tasks only adds to the demand on their time. As a result, some subjects seem to be falling by the wayside. One subject that is often sidelined is civics.
A recent 2018 nationally representative survey conducted by Education Week Research Center noted, “More than half of principals, assistant principals, and other school leaders say schools don’t focus enough on civics…” Still, educators are finding different ways to incorporate civics in other curriculum areas.
Civic Identity Expressed through Literature
Classic novels and stories that characterize the richness of American literature provide an opportunity for students to discuss the civic issues associated with those works.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn presents author Mark Twain’s portrayal of American life in the antebellum South as it underwent profound change leading up to the Civil War. Instructors can leverage the novel’s exploration of American life to help students make connections between the civic issues and values that characterize many of today’s current events. While analyzing the interactions among the novel’s characters, students can find opportunities to discuss how civic values and attitudes were expressed during this time period. In using literature, students have the opportunity to ask questions and debate specific civic issues in a neutral environment that allows students to maintain civil and productive conversations about complex and often charged topics.
This is just one example of the many ways educators can promote learning from both an ELA and civics perspective. Consider the opportunities other American classics such as The Great Gatsby, 1984, and To Kill a Mockingbird provide educators to immerse their students in an examination of the complexities of civic issues that shape American society. Recently, a wave of dystopian novels, such as The Hunger Games and The City of Ember series, allow students to consider the government’s role in society. In reading and discussing these works, students draw connections between characters’ values and how those values drive their actions. Societal structures and questions regarding equality are also a prominent feature of many modern dystopian stories in which students can draw parallels to our own societal structures. Thus, it is through literature (and expository texts) that teachers often incorporate strong civic instruction into the curriculum.
Applying Mathematics in Civic Learning
Supporters of the civics curriculum repeatedly state that the instruction should stress the value of direct engagement with the local community. Ultimately, these values should compel students to get involved in issues facing their communities. Educators who teach mathematics can identify opportunities to apply mathematical concepts toward solving community problems. Groups of students who work together to collect relevant data, interpret and organize the data, and present their findings to a public audience are civically engaged citizens. Applying mathematics instruction in this way brings a tangible experience to the individual.
In helping students understand how our government and institutions operate, teachers can use mathematical concepts to model how systems work. Math lessons examining proportions can use the Electoral College to demonstrate how voting power is distributed among the states in our presidential elections. Macroeconomic forces and their impact on communities across the country afford students the opportunity to evaluate statistical data, practicing how best to analyze data in order to draw meaningful conclusions about what is happening in an economy. Even exercises in calculating the average cost of living in a given area can allow students to better understand the challenges lawmakers face when they attempt to allocate a community’s fiscal resources in the best possible manner.
This interdisciplinary approach forms a lasting impression of civic engagement in students, who can actively participate in their civic development through a variety of other core competencies. Students gain experience in evaluating and determining solutions for the issues they’ll face as citizens when they reinforce the required skills necessary for proficiency in mathematics.
Redefining Civics Instruction
In the effort to promote a renewed emphasis on civics instruction in public schools, educators are developing lessons that go beyond simply asking students to memorize facts about our government and key historical events. Lessons seek deeper connections between the historical past and the modern world, serving as case studies for the relationships between ideas, movements, and actions that define all of history.
Civics instruction that incorporates debate fosters critical thinking, introduces effective research methodologies, and cultivates several 21st-century skills that students require for success in today’s workforce. It contributes an appreciation for the processes that define our government and institutions, promoting a sense of shared responsibility in the individual. Creative civic lessons highlight history’s relevance to our everyday lives.
Efforts to provide the resources educators need to promote civic instruction in their classrooms have experienced a recent revitalization. iCivics, founded in part by Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor in 2010, is a notable source of free lessons and interactive games designed to immerse students in civic concepts. Students can manage a county, role-play a state representative in Congress making laws, and even assist a Supreme Court justice in ruling on an important legal case.
Service-learning programs are also becoming a popular strategy for promoting civic instruction. Service-learning integrates classroom instruction with active engagement in the community. For example, students may explore an issue related to voter participation and registration in their state or county and develop solutions that promote increased voter turnout in elections.
Educators today continue to find creative ways to use their time to incorporate aspects of civic instruction into their lessons and promote the development of the next generation of active, engaged citizens.