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Civics Gets Real

When civic education is local and personal, real change can happen

June 2, 2016
Illustration of high school kids making presentation to town leaders

“You want us to talk to the headmaster? Like, to the real headmaster?” Four incredulous faces stare at me.

“Yes, of course!” I tell my students. “This isn’t pretend.” Yes, I really want you to meet with the headmaster and share your ideas about how to stop Islamophobia in our school.

They tried to talk sense into me. “We aren’t actually  going to talk to the headmaster, right?”

For the last month, my three U.S. history classes have been teaming up to tackle school- and community-wide challenges that matter to them. Two days a week, we’ve traded in lessons about World War II for discussions about how to become local civic activists. We are working with the national nonprofit Generation Citizen, which teaches students in grades 6–12 how to tackle issues they care about by giving them the tools to create real change.

My classes have taken on weighty issues of their own choosing: Islamophobia in schools; lower expectations and discrimination experienced by ELL students; and a lack of support to help teen mothers graduate.

New Civics in Action

My classroom is a laboratory testing out a question that interests a growing number of educators and policymakers: What should 21st-century civic education look like? After years of dismal test scores, the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) suspended the civics portion of its test in 2013. Yet, increasingly, states are adopting — or considering adopting — civic tests as a requirement for high school graduation.

But civic education should not be limited to knowing constitutional amendments or one’s elected representative, although such information is obviously important. As Helen Haste, a visiting professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, describes, we need a much broader definition of civic involvement, one that looks beyond voting in state and national elections. Students should be given the tools and the confidence to effectively propose realistic ideas to their representatives.

In class and out, my students have dived into the work, going far beyond their level of investment in “regular” assignments.

One bubbly Brazilian student has been championing her team’s petition — “the school needs more cultural competency training for staff and students” — making presentations to classes and snapping up signatures. By the end of the first week, she and her team had collected close to 250.

A quiet Khmer girl has been spending her lunches in the computer lab, entering survey data and making colorful graphs for more than two weeks.

One morning, I get a text from another student. “I’m really sick and decided to stay home, but I’m still gonna work on Generation Citizen, so text me what you need me to do.”

This is what can happen when civic education is local and personal.

Challenging Bureaucracies

Such work is inherently less structured. Gone is the comfort of a familiar five-paragraph essay or Powerpoint presentation. Petitions and memos require re-write upon re-write — not for a grade, but because they will be read by real people outside of our classroom. Such fluidity comes easy to some students. Others struggle with the absence of clear guidelines.

Working together on op-ed drafts, poring over survey data to determine how to present a powerful story, practicing a presentation for the eighth time, so it’s just right: These are the types of 21st-century skills that writer and educator Tony Wagner declares that we need. To create change as adults, our students need to know how to collaborate effectively, problem solve on their feet, think innovatively, and communicate their ideas clearly and powerfully. Watching my students begin to master these skills is a reminder that more lessons throughout the year should feel like this.

The most challenging hurdle turned out to be navigating school bureaucracies. My students are now eager to create change, but the school — perhaps realizing they are serious — has become much more trepidatious. We found, to our frustration, that our school’s administration barred us from asking for a meeting or otherwise directly contacting a number of district and state officials.

Relinquishing even small amounts of control can be difficult. But if school systems are committed to fostering civically engaged young people, they must be ready to take seriously the voices and ideas of their students.

Student Voice — and Change

In the days leading up to their final presentation at the Massachusetts State House in Boston — Civics Day, as it’s called — my classroom becomes a flurry of activity. Groups of students stake out corners and rehearse presentations they are giving to members of the school administration about proposals on poster campaigns and cultural competency professional development. One afternoon, I walked to our local school district’s central office with three very amped-up students who, once inside, proceeded to confidently lay out their proposals for supporting teen mothers to none other than the assistant superintendent, with whom we did manage to snag a meeting. She listened attentively and took many notes.

And then came Civics Day itself, my students looking sharp in suits and dresses. They were more than nervous, but I watched transfixed as they took deep breaths and assumed control. Without my direction, each team huddled up and took charge. They practiced their presentation again, and again, and they gave each other pep talks. Beaming, I watched from a distance.

They were off: Four rounds of presentations, four rounds of judging by Boston-area professionals who had come to hear how students were making real change in their communities. I floated between my three teams, but kept to the periphery; my students had become the teachers, explaining their work confidently, answering questions thoughtfully, and speaking with conviction.

When successful, civic education should be transformative. After all, civic engagement is about seeing needs in the community, knowing how to make change, and believing you have the power to do it. On that day, my students came away sure in their voice and confident that their voice was heard.

After the presentations and the speeches and the awards, my students relived the day over sandwiches, sitting across the grand marble stairs of the State House. Every few moments, they would race off to speak with and thank a Civics Day judge or another official they had spotted, the morning’s nervousness completely gone.

But the best moment came days later, when my students learned that the ideas and proposals they had worked so hard to craft will all be implemented next year, in some form or another. It is part of their legacy and gift to our school and to their peers. But it is just the beginning.

I can’t wait to see what challenges they will take up in the future — and what changes they will create.

About the Author

Photo of Jessica Lander
Jessica Lander
Jessica Lander, a high school teacher and a 2015 graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, writes about education for Usable Knowledge, the Boston Globe, and other outlets. For two years, she wrote a regular series of blogs for Usable Knowledge about her experiences as a new teacher. With Karen Mapp and Ilene Carver, she is a co-author of Powerful Partnerships: A Teacher’s Guide to Engaging Families for Student Success.  Follow her on Twitter at @jessica_lander
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Civics and History K-12 Learning and Teaching