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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Why Civic Education Needs a Boost

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate

The next U.S. president won't be selected for more than a year, but election season is already in full swing. With it comes a timely -- if not urgent -- opportunity to help students become more engaged citizens.

We have some catching up to do when it comes to preparing the next generation of voters to take an active role in their democracy. A new report on the status of civic education points to a startling lack of understanding, among adults and youth alike, about the nuts and bolts of government. Fewer than half of Americans can name the three branches of government. Only a third of eighth-graders can explain why the Declaration of Independence was written. Fewer than one in five high school seniors can tell how democracy is strengthened by citizen participation. These are among the statistics cited by Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools, released this month by the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools (download a copy).

What's more, Americans living on a media diet of talk radio and Internet rumors risk forgetting how to engage in respectful dialogue or critically evaluate half-truths. As the report points out, "The only way to escape from these vicious cycles is to educate citizens to think critically and demand facts and evidence from the media and their elected officials." It's not enough, apparently, to watch Saturday Night Live parodies of the candidate debates.

Despite a gloomy introduction, the report offers reason for hope. Civic education not only prepares students for their future as citizens, but also offers opportunities for them to develop and apply the critical-thinking skills they'll need for college and careers. The report suggests that learning about civics promotes a positive school culture and may even lead to higher graduation rates. "High-quality civic learning teaches the importance of community (both within the school and more broadly), respectful dialogue about controversial issues, creative problem solving, collaboration, teamwork, and the importance of diversity," according to the authors. Acknowledging that more research is needed, they suggest that civic learning "can be a vital tool to help move America's most at-risk students toward graduation."

Classroom-Ready Resources

Many good resources are available to help you use election season as a springboard for deep and engaging learning. Here are a few examples:

  • Civic Deliberation and Social Action: Part of the National Writing Project's Digital Is site, this collection of resources curated by Anne Herrington and Charlie Moran challenges the political rhetoric of name-calling and half-truths. Instead, students get experience engaging in thoughtful discourse that can lead to positive action. Classroom-ready, technology-rich materials range from elementary units that focus on social justice to high school projects in which students engage in productive disagreements via blogs and podcasts.
  • Youth Voting: Youth voting habits offer a rich topic for relevant projects. Find data on youth voting patterns compiled by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. Ask students to consider how voting patterns change based on factors such as college attainment, race, and gender. Challenge them to plan a public awareness campaign to increase voter turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds.
  • CivicLit Lessons: Technology specialist Cheryl Davis has created a collection of technology-rich project plans that relate to civic education. Candidate Watch was created for the 2008 election but can be updated for the current cycle. It uses Google Earth to track candidates and analyze how their stories change over the course of the campaign. Campaign Ads has students analyze historical political ads, assess contemporary ads for "truthiness," and then create their own video spots.
  • Citizens, not Spectators: From the Center for Civic Education, these three-day lessons on voting are tailored for elementary, middle school, and high school audiences. Each ends with a simulated election, giving students the opportunity to apply what they have learned.
  • Sage Advice: Before the 2008 election, Edutopia asked readers to weigh in with ideas for interdisciplinary projects related to the campaigns. Their suggestions range across the K-12 spectrum, and many are ripe for a reprise in 2012.

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, an advocate for civic education, offers this observation in Guardian of Democracy: "Knowledge about our government is not handed down through the gene pool. Every generation has to learn it, and we have some work to do."

How will you share this important knowledge with your students? How do they respond to projects that ask them to put citizenship to good use? Please contribute your ideas.

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