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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Becoming Citizens: A Stint in Student Government Can Shape One's Future

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate

When Ashraf Ghani talks about world events, his words carry the weight of experience: After twenty-three years of exile from his native Afghanistan, he returned after the fall of the Taliban to serve as finance minister for the transitional government. A veteran of the World Bank and recently on the short list of finalists to head the United Nations, he continues working to rebuild societies torn asunder.

When Ghani came to my hometown of Portland, Oregon, recently to discuss his new book, Fixing Failed States: A Framework for Rebuilding a Fractured World, the audience was expecting a global perspective. Instead, he warmed up the crowd by explaining that he had spent a memorable year of high school just up the road as an exchange student in a Portland suburb. This was his first return to Oregon in forty-one years.

What's more, Ghani credited that year at Lake Oswego High School with opening his eyes to the power of citizenship. Four decades later, he could still recall exactly how it felt to serve on the student council. "It was the first time I ever saw students entrusted to make decisions, to decide how money should be spent," he said. "And we were held accountable for our decisions." During that year, Ghani adds, he began to imagine how engaged citizens could fix a broken system. That bright vision has not dimmed.

In Afghanistan, Ghani and coauthor Clare Lockhart, cofounder and director of the Institute for State Effectiveness, have taken reconstruction efforts directly to thousands of villages. They have organized citizen meetings where villagers get to decide how to spend public funds. Many of these citizens are young: In Afghanistan, 65 percent of the population is under twenty-five. These young people are also connected -- Ghani and Lockhart note that in rural areas, where illiteracy rates run high, they still routinely meet young people who are using technology to stay informed about world events.

Indeed, Ghani helped implement a new approach to telecom licensing that has vastly increased access to mobile phones across Afghanistan. Lockhart notes, "Even in remote villages, people know what's happening in the world, and they know what they want."

The Afghan community-engagement process creates "ownership and trust," explains Lockhart. If it sounds like a glorified student-council meeting, Ghani makes no apologies. Once villagers can take part in decision making, he says, they tend to respond by saying, "Now I feel like a citizen."

By coincidence, Ghani and Lockhart's Portland visit coincided with the Oregon primary election. Both Democratic presidential candidates happened to be barnstorming the state on the same day the authors spoke. It was just the right scenario for thinking about how we can inspire today's young people to become better-engaged citizens.

When the current generation of teens looks back on their high school years, will they be able to pinpoint a hands-on experience that shaped their vision of citizenship? Will they remember how and when they learned to become active participants in democracy?

The National Council for the Social Studies thinks of student governments as "laboratories in which students can learn and practice essential citizenship skills, respect for human dignity, and the value of the democratic process." But only about one-third of U.S. ninth graders take part in these potentially powerful activities.

There's no shortage of good ideas for engaging more students in activities that will build their citizenship skills: At Hudson High School, in Hudson, Massachusetts, for example, all students take part in a school-governance process that feels like an old-fashioned town hall meeting. (See the Edutopia video, First-Class Citizens: Civics Isn't Just a Class, and the accompanying article, "Democracy in Action: Students Step Up as Key Decision Makers.") The Center for Civic Education promotes more real-world learning programs, such as Project Citizen, in which students address policy issues that affect their lives.

How are your students learning to become engaged citizens? Please share your ideas.

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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