George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

4 Ways to Develop Students’ Civic Engagement Skills

When students study policy-making, they can have conversations about education policy and engage more deeply in their communities.

August 19, 2022
Hands reaching for sun.
Michael Austin / The iSpot

Policy making about education often feels at odds with the sense of reality that administrators, teachers, and students experience in their everyday lives. This year I am serving as a California Policy Fellow with Teach Plus, a national nonprofit organization aimed at developing teacher leadership. I am working with a group of brilliant and engaged educators on codifying culturally responsive and sustaining pedagogy and materials in the California education code.

Through this process, I have developed a set of skills and a deep literacy in terms of public policy: recognizing differences between philosophical arguments and policy positions, identifying stakeholders and levers, building consensus and solidarity, understanding funding and budgetary mechanisms, and writing for different audiences with different purposes. Most important, it has helped me channel the frustration I often felt about decisions that run contrary to the facts on the ground in schools and feeling uninvolved in conversations about my students’ day-to-day lives.

I’ve also realized the importance of passing on policy-making literacy to students, who are even less represented in conversations about the what, why, and how of schooling. In my classroom, I incorporate pedagogy that centers student voices, experiences, and solutions. These strategies can be implemented across the curriculum to teach students how to engage in policy making.

4 Strategies to Engage Students in the Policy-Making Process

1. Connect students to the broader world: During my first years of teaching, amid economic catastrophe, social upheaval, continuing injustice, and political violence, I attempted to shut my door to things I felt I could not control and focus on the things that I could. I could teach my students valuable things that would serve them in the uncertain world outside. We could build community based on care and mutual respect. We could build a space that advanced justice and equity.

I quickly learned three things:

  • First, there was no way to shut the classroom door to the world outside. Events, policies, and tragedies were very much embedded in my students lives, as well as the context and climate of learning. To ignore the world was to do them a disservice.
  • Second, I learned that my students were not just interested in discussing the state of the world, they were also already adept at developing solutions.
  • Third, I came to the grim realization that when students and teachers step out of conversations, especially those involving education, voices far more removed and less qualified step in, producing policies that govern education without the care it deserves.

2. Direct attention beyond the classroom: Rather than have students design and tailor products for teachers alone, expand their horizons. Frequently, students in my English classes write and submit letters to the editor. We also have developed presentations for the school board around social justice initiatives or calls to action to local and national politicians. Not only does this go beyond stale notions of “the essay,” but it teaches students that learning is not just a performative act—it is a communicative one.

This is easy in humanities classrooms, but it can just as easily be applied to science or math, aiming to explain the importance of water fountain pH to the district office or explaining to the regional transit authority how increases in the student body over time require more early-morning bus routes. 

3. Working with communities: This strategy requires teachers to emphasize and students to understand that they might not be the best positioned to develop and propose solutions. Instead, there is great value in working in solidarity with communities, especially those communities whose voices are often excluded or minimized, to codevelop and advance policies.

The central notion here is that communities are not groups that need to be saved and pandered to but are thriving networks with their own understanding of their lives and organic solutions to local problems. Schools become platforms to help raise awareness and advocate for policies that better reflect the will of those impacted by public policies.

In humanities classrooms, this can involve emphasizing the value of people in the community as sources for research-based writing, whether through oral narratives, ethnography, or even autoethnographic writing. There is a great opportunity, however, for science and math classes to look at who has been excluded over time in public discourse, whether in environmental protections or in census counts, and produce responses in concert with those communities.

4. Propose solutions to negative policies: A final strategy involves countering specific policies with ones developed by those within the school community, especially students. This strategy exercises two separate competencies in students: First, it exercises critical reading skills, as teachers and students have to navigate and understand the swampy morass that is American public policy. This is a challenge, obviously, but this challenge is a part of the reason why public policy remains inaccessible to most folks. Unpacking it—even just a little!—can lead to progress in responding to it. Second, it trains students to go beyond merely identifying problems by also proposing solutions. Our political landscape is cluttered with critique but has a dearth of well-formed and informed solutions.

  • Requiring students to propose their own electoral maps in their U.S. government class or climate change adaptation strategies in environmental science study hopefully will ensure that solution-oriented thinking becomes a reflex.
  • Instill a robust sense of civic engagement and power in young people: High-performing education systems worldwide tend to assign students a great deal of autonomy and control, supporting them in developing as participants in a pluralistic, shared society.
  • Portfolio defense projects, where students have to explain not just their learning but also how they raised awareness and worked for positive change, are one easy example of how this strategy can be implemented across content areas. Meanwhile, work on my campus, for example, to build student leadership on student-led antiracist committees and affinity advocacy groups builds capacity for activism on campus.

The health of a democratic society depends on students feeling that they are equal participants with perspectives that matter. Consistent efforts in classrooms can make the importance of civic engagement explicit to students and inspire them to think critically about policy making.

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  • Social Studies/History
  • 9-12 High School

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