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Usable Knowledge

Civic Engagement in 2020 and Beyond

How teachers can help their students become informed, engaged, and active leaders in the world around them
Voting box

Only 1 in 4 eighth graders performed at or above proficient in the most recent nationwide assessment of students’ knowledge of civics. With a presidential election and issues that impact the daily lives of young people at stake, how can educators move those numbers and ensure that students become engaged, informed citizens?

For Eric Soto-Shed, the answer is in helping educators design adaptable curriculum that not only allows students to engage with issues in this election but will build the necessary skills to be informed and active citizens of the world. Soto-Shed, a specialist in the teaching of history, is offering a new professional learning workshop on teaching the 2020 election to help educators address the issues that many students and their communities are facing.

“Teachers need to have instructional strategies and resources that engage all students thoughtfully and meaningfully in the 2020 election and the most pressing issues we are facing as a society,” says Soto-Shed.     

Here, Soto-Shed outlines several key elements that educators — at all levels and in all subject areas — can highlight in their teaching to help students grow as active citizens:

Building Student Skills in Citizenship

Once students know what they value and what they want to ask of their government, educators can then give students the concrete skills they need to find their voices and act. For Soto-Shed, the skills students need for the 2020 election are:

  • Asking questions: “Asking and answering questions is central to civic engagement and youth participatory politics,” Soto-Shed says. Students should generate their own questions about politics and their communities. To help, teachers should prompt students to think about why it matters to them and provide guidelines to help them refine their questions. Teacher-generated questions can also be useful in providing expertise, finding common ground among students, and ensuring required topics are covered.
  • Analyzing and synthesizing information: In a world where information is available at their fingertips, students need to be able to determine if a source is reputable and be able to seek out a variety of perspectives. “On one hand, social media offers access to previously unheard voices and perspectives, but on the other, there’s fake news and misinformation,” says Soto-Shed.
  • Taking informed action: Once students have solidified their perspectives, they also need to think about how and what they share with the world and their communities. Soto-Shed suggests that educators should tap into their students’ capacity to become civic actors. “I think we are seeing a real sense of youth ownership and agency — we’ve seen young people come to the forefront and leading this push for change.” Along with traditional forms of activism and political engagement like marching, “There is a tremendous opportunity, for young people to leverage social media, multimedia, and technology right now,” says Soto-Shed.

Though Soto-Shed acknowledges that the pressing issues may vary by region and are rapidly shifting, the top three issues he feels educators should keep at the forefront as the election approaches are:

  • Voting: “This year is really an opportunity for young people the real impact voting can have on the nation, but also their lives, and create a real investment in the voting process.”
  • Systemic racism: “Not only is it central to this country’ past and a fundamental problem now, but it’s so central and evident in everyday life right now — you’re seeing it being talked about in sports, entertainment, and pretty much everywhere.”
  • Economic equity: “We don’t talk about poverty enough and it impacts so many other issues we’re dealing with like the pandemic, racism, and climate change.”

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