Taking Hands On Civics to the Street

By SARAH ANDERSON

Sarah Anderson teaches middle school humanities and interdisciplinary studies at a place-based charter school in Portland, Oregon. Originally from rural Vermont, Anderson has also taught nature studies to urban middle school students in the California Redwoods, career skills to at-risk youth on an educational farm in Vermont and Civics and Global Studies at an independent school in Maryland. She earned a masters in education in Integrated Learning from Antioch New England Graduate School. Sarah is an alumnus of CWI’s Summer Institute and her essays on teaching are regularly featured in Community Works Journal.

The charter school where I teach has three areas of focus: environmental science, civics and art. Prospective parents know what environmental science and art look like, but the civics piece seems more of a mystery. Civics, as a subject, can trigger a glazed-over look in people’s eyes — it is associated with mandatory classes in high school where students memorize excerpts of the Constitution and learn the tedious steps a bill takes towards becoming a law. Many people think of civics as the “study of government.” But, by definition, civics is the study of what it means to be a citizen- the rights and duties of citizenship. There is a definite distinction between the study of government and the study of citizenship, and although they are certainly interconnected, noting the differences is essential in how we teach civics and raise citizens.

This distinction reminds me of a conversation I had with a student’s father a few years ago. At the time, I was teaching in an independent school in Annapolis, Maryland. Part of our civics curriculum involved running a student election, including a few weeks for campaigning. One young man, the son of a U.S. representative, was especially enthusiastic about running. He had been planning it for years and led a strong campaign which sometimes employed questionable tactics, including insulting and intimidating his rivals behind the scenes. I called his father to talk about how he could coach his son to run a more civil campaign, and his father demanded, “Are you teaching a class about politics or a class about ethics?” I responded meaningfully: “I am teaching civics.” Thankfully, he understood.

We have an enormous opportunity when we teach civics. What does it mean to be a “good” citizen? The answer to this question could fill an entire year’s curriculum. Not only can we teach how to be an involved, active member of society, we can coach students in how to be respectful, accountable members of their classrooms and schools. Of course, we are also charged with a substantial responsibility to teach students the basics of how our democracy functions. This has never been more crucial than now. The Annenberg Public Policy Center recently released the results of a poll which found that only 36% of Americans can name all three branches of government. If our citizens don’t understand how the government works, how can they actively participate?

After several years of teaching middle school civics, I discovered a program for middle and high school students designed by the Center for Civic Education called Project Citizen. The idea is simple: choose a government-related problem, research it, investigate solutions, propose a solution and put the solution into action. Instead of being a curriculum full of content, Project Citizen is more a formula for citizen participation in creating public policy. Admittedly, public policy is not the most exciting topic to launch on middle school students- especially if you are going to teach it traditionally. But Project Citizen invites kids into a realm that they assume is reserved for adults- important adults- and by doing so, encourages them to be active members of their community. Project Citizen is often the project my students like the best, probably because it is the unit which empowers them the most.

The first step in all Project Citizen (PC) projects is identifying community problems. Teachers can do this in different ways- look to newspapers or websites, revisit topics they’ve studied in class, or interview people. My students interview two people each- one has to be an adult and one can be under 18. We ask people what they think is the biggest problem in their community. Some years I limit the definition of “community” to mean the small neighborhood where my school is located or even just the school. Some years, I open it up to mean the entire city. Next, we share all the problems we collected and look for overlaps. This usually gives us a pool of up to 50 issues. We then divide into small groups and put each issue through a four-question filter to see if it would be a “good” problem for PC. The questions are:

1) Does government have a responsibility to deal with it?
2) Is the problem important to our community and our class?
3) Is there enough information to gather about the problem?
4) Is it a problem that we might be able to solve?

After reporting back and allowing for some group discussion, we narrow our problem list down to six or seven problems.

Students sign up to research one of the chosen issues. For the next several days, they look for information on-line, call local agencies for interviews, and conduct interviews and surveys in the neighborhood and in the school. At the end of the week, each group presents a poster outlining their issue and gives a presentation explaining why it is the problem our class should choose. After all groups have presented, we vote.

Once we have the problem, we check to see if there are any unanswered questions to research. When we feel that we have a good handle on the details, we brainstorm solutions. This is a similar process as when we chose a problem, but not as lengthy. Usually we limit it to three or four solutions. Small groups research and present what they found. This time, the class needs to come to a consensus, which means there is more discussion, persuasion and negotiation before we reach a final solution.

The last step is creating an action plan. We identify what we need to do in order to make our solution a reality and who we need to recruit as supporters.

One of the culminating events in PC is when students present their project at a showcase at the state capital. In order to prepare for the presentation, students focus on different aspects of what’s called the “portfolio.” Some students create artwork to illustrate the problem on our four-panel display board; some students write reports to communicate our research and proposals; some students design graphs and charts to show off our survey results; some students create a binder full of all of our research and notes from our meetings; and some students launch our solution into action. This stage takes full advantage of the range of students’ talents and interests; kids who are passionate about art or math or writing or organization all have a way to contribute their strength. On the day of the showcase, a group of representatives give an oral presentation to a panel of judges at the state house, which is also when the first place winner is revealed. But this is not usually the end of the project. Because this is a real-world problem that we are addressing, we work on it up until the end of the school year.

Over the past few year, my students have researched a myriad of initial problems- problems that passed the first 4-question test: pet overpopulation, river pollution, bike safety, lack of public parks, lack of e-cigarette regulation, too many empty lots in the neighborhood, too many days of school, and the need for a school cafeteria. Some of the finalists: dog owners not picking up after their pets, too many miles of unpaved city streets, the invisibility of charter schools, and need for a better playground at our school. This last year, my 7th grade class voted to work on the issue of smoking in public parks. This topic was entirely their choice, without any outside persuasion from me.

It turned out to be the right issue at the right time, since the city council had recently decided to look into the matter. Students surveyed people in the neighborhood, found research about secondhand smoke on-line, contacted health advocacy agencies such as the American Lung Association and the American Heart Association, and started a petition. One student found an article about a state representative who had proposed a bill to the Oregon legislature the year before which would ban cigarettes in the state. Needless to say, the bill did not pass, but we thought the senator might support the class effort. Indeed, the representative visited our class to speak of his experience and answer questions. He even wrote a letter of support, as did the health advocacy organization who we contacted. The students’ cause was highlighted in the city newspaper and their on-line petition gained hundreds of signatures.

The project’s display and presentation won them a first place ribbon in the PC competition at the state house. As exhilarating as that was, it wasn’t the highlight. We were invited to city hall by the city commissioner in charge of parks and offered the opportunity to give her a presentation. Again, the city paper covered the story and the commissioner asked us to return the following year to give the presentation to the entire council, once the issue was up for a vote. The students’ pride was palpable.

Through the PC process, students not only learned about government and public policy, they learned what it means to be a member of a democratic society, in which citizens take an active part of governing. This is exactly what we should be teaching kids in public education. People often see schools as places where students are trained for careers- and to that purpose, schools are creating a workforce. But in order to maintain a democratic system (or, some would argue- return to it) it is essential that we teach our young people how to be responsible, engaged citizens. Part of that means demystifying government and public policy and showing them that they are, indeed, powerful and capable. It is not just the rich, or the old who can make change in our cities and communities: it is us, it is them.

Funding for civics programing, such as Project Citizen, has recently been gutted by Congress. Four years ago, all 50 states participated in PC, now it is closer to 15. The cynical may say that this is part of a conspiracy to disenfranchise “the People” and keep us out of politics. I don’t know if I believe that, but we all know that the future of our communities rests in the hands of our young people, and it is our responsibility as teachers- and citizens- to empower, inspire and encourage them. This means changing the way we think of civics by focusing on its true meaning, and adding to it: the study-and action-of citizenship.

Project Citizen Resources:
http://www.civiced.org/programs/project-citizen
http://www.amazon.com/The-World-Want-Patrick-Davidson/dp/B003YCPUKQ
http://theworldwewantfoundation.org/

Sarah Anderson teaches middle school humanities and interdisciplinary studies at a place-based charter school in Portland, Oregon. Originally from rural Vermont, Anderson has also taught nature studies to urban middle school students in the California Redwoods, career skills to at-risk youth on an educational farm in Vermont and Civics and Global Studies at an independent school in Maryland. She earned a masters in education in Integrated Learning from Antioch New England Graduate School. Sarah is an alumnus of CWI’s Summer Institute and her essays on teaching are regularly featured in Community Works Journal.

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