Today’s students are engaging in civil discourse—constructive dialogue that seeks to advance the public interest—and activism well in advance of casting their first ballot. However, most of our current civic education practices fail to prepare students for a world where civil discourse begins the moment you have access to a smartphone and social media.
Socializing students for democracy doesn’t belong to one subject area: It belongs to all of us. Here are four strategies that you can use to foster those skills in your classroom.
Strategy 1: Practice Healthy Civil Discourse
Democracy is a system built upon civil discourse as the means to work out our differences peacefully, but evidence suggests that such discourse is on the decline. According to Pew Research, 45 percent of Americans report that they have stopped talking to someone as a result of their political views. When we avoid challenging conversations, we stop developing the skills needed to have them. This has been the trend in classrooms as teachers have steered away from controversial topics.
Here are some classroom strategies to foster civil discourse:
Civil discourse in action. Park districts, conservation districts, and city governments have hearings, and not all of them are contentious. Let them add to the conversation. Older students may participate in person, while younger students can craft a statement for their teacher to read. Being a part of that process makes each student more likely to do so in the future.
Use dialogues instead of debates. A dialogue is about identifying ambiguity, inviting inquiry, and discovering collective meaning. Dialogues invite an understanding of differences and honor silence in the process as opposed to trying to elevate one idea over another in often-heated discussions.
Engage in online discourse. Most Americans were never socialized in the norms of online communication, and so they may think of online discourse as doom-scrolling through Twitter. Instead, children can be prepared for civil online discourse by taking part in virtual civil discourse. Posting ideas to small-scale class chats in an LMS or providing feedback to students in schoolwide public forums is one way to make that real. Small-scale structured conversations can teach norms that protect students when they later engage in online conversations on their own.
Strategy 2: Use Exciting Resources That Enhance Engagement
Educators around the world have leveraged games, simulations, and student competitions to enhance student engagement. Why not employ these strategies for civics?
Here are some that we recommend:
- iCivics: Founded in 2009 by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, this high-quality collection of civics resources features a variety of engaging games and simulations such as “Do I Have a Right,” “Cast Your Vote,” and “News Feed Defenders.”
- Games for Change: This collection of games focuses on engaging players in experiences related to social issues facing modern society. You can use the search filter to identify games aligned with civics, history, politics, conflict, empathy, and more.
- Informable: A mobile game created by the News Literacy Project, Informable helps students develop skills needed to effectively sort fact from fiction.
Students who enjoy civics may also enjoy participating in competitions. Some of these include the following:
- Generation Citizen’s Civics Day: Billed as a “science fair for civics,” Generation Citizen’s Civics Day competitions provide students with an opportunity to present their action projects to local community leaders and public officials.
- We the People Competition: This Center for Civic Education program culminates with mock congressional hearing competitions that are organized at the local, state, and national levels.
- Kidizenship: This exciting new program organizes competitions every few months aimed at merging civic action and creative self-expression. Winners of contests such as “Sing Your Anthem” and “Make Your Speech” can also win cash prizes up to $1,000.
Students also need education in media literacy. How are misinformation and disinformation different? In what ways do news and social media amplify the spread of misinformation? What impact does this have on our democratic society and institutions? These questions should be a core component of civics instruction, since these issues play such a vital role in modern civic engagement.
Although these topics are not always easy to tackle, there are several high-quality resources that can help teachers navigate the complex world of news and information literacy:
- The Stanford History Education Group’s Civic Online Reasoning program offers free, research-based lessons and assessments grounded in three driving questions: Who’s behind the information? What’s the evidence? What do other sources say?
- The News Literacy Project has created Checkology, a series of free online modules aimed at enhancing news media literacy and featuring real-world examples and experts in the field.
- Newseum Ed has a free Media Literacy Booster Pack with student challenges around recognizing bias, filtering out fake news, and detecting propaganda.
- For fans of the author and videoblogger John Green, Crash Course has a new video series titled Navigating Digital Information.
Strategy 3: Integrate Authentic, ‘Action Civics’ Projects
Students should not just learn about how to be citizens; they should actually engage in the practices of democratic citizens. We can’t think of a better way to do this than immersing them in an action civics project. These projects have students examine local community issues, refine the topic, research public policy solutions, build consensus, reach out to community partners and representatives, and then engage in civic action to advocate for their policy proposal.
If you’re interested in implementing an established action civics program and curriculum, consider Generation Citizen or the Center for Civic Education’s Project Citizen. Other examples of action-civics-style programs include the Mikva Challenge and Earth Force.
These strategies call upon students to do something, participate, and engage with others. They focus on actively building skills rather than on the simple diffusion of facts. In this way, students gain a deeper understanding of what it takes to be a citizen and to engage in democratic processes. These skills will prepare today’s students for the task of taking ownership of our democracy.