The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

We talk a lot about civic education. Here’s how to get kids really engaged in it.

George Washington presiding over the Constitutional Convention, 1787. Hand-colored engraving of a 19th-century illustration. (North Wind Picture Archives via AP Images)

We talk a lot about civic education, usually about how little of it too many students get in school. In this charged election season, the subject has rarely, if ever, been more relevant. But here’s a different kind of discussion: how kids are actually being engaged in it. Below are several examples that could be used in any school.

The first piece is written by Molly W. Andolina, an associate professor of political science at DePaul University, and Hilary G. Conklin, a former social studies teacher and associate professor in the College of Education at DePaul University.  Andolina’s publications examine generational differences in civic engagement, with particular attention to the political activism of Millennials. Conklin’s research focuses on teacher preparation, social studies education, and middle grades education.

The second piece comes from by Steve Zemelman, director of the Illinois Writing Project and author of From Inquiry to Action.

All of the authors are working in Illinois, where a law was recently passed requiring high schools to provide a semester-long civics course that includes community action of some kind. It says, “Civics course content shall focus on government institutions, the discussion of current and controversial issues, service learning, and simulations of the democratic process.” But what they say can apply across the country.

By Molly W. Andolina and Hilary G. Conklin

Educators around the country continue to wrestle with how to address this campaign season’s unprecedented nature and historically divisive rhetoric.  Educators often use adult politics as an opportunity to engage young people in vital civic learning — assigning debate-watching homework, conducting mock elections, and simulating campaigns and democratic processes.

But in a presidential campaign season in which analysts have tallied candidates’ interruptions of each other, and the public has questioned whether debates require mature audiences ratings, politicians could stand to take some civic cues from high school students. Alongside the discouraging adult antics of this year’s election season, a more hopeful form of civic participation is brewing: young people across the country are learning to speak publicly about divisive, difficult issues, and they are also learning to listen to each other in the process.

Last fall, we conducted research that examined what more than 200 high school students across the city of Chicago learned from participating in Project Soapbox, a civic education curriculum that is currently taking place in classrooms from Seattle to DC. The curriculum invites students across the country to tell the next president about an issue that affects your community” and “what should be done to address it.” As part of the Soapbox activities, students choose a community issue that is important to them, research the topic, learn about the elements of good rhetoric, and then write and deliver a speech to their peers, along with outside adult community members who serve as judges.

What we found surprised us. Not only did students’ participation in Project Soapbox cultivate adolescents’ speech-writing and speaking skills — essential proficiencies outlined in the Common Core English Language Arts Standards — but it also fostered their listening and empathic skills.

The students we studied chose serious speech topics that they face in their daily lives and felt strongly connected to: gun violence, relationship and domestic violence, racism and discrimination, depression and suicide, among other issues.   When they delivered their speeches in class, their peers listened attentively and provided supportive snaps and claps of encouragement.

When we asked students what they thought they had learned as a result of participating in Project Soapbox, many reported — as we observed ourselves — that they learned speech-giving skills: how to organize their ideas, give evidence for a point, and use rhetorical devices. What we did not anticipate was the significant number of students (almost one out of every five) whose key lessons from the curriculum centered on listening to their peers and learning to appreciate the issues that others face.

One student wrote, “I learned a lot about my classmates’ struggles…and things they think are important.” A student we interviewed said she realized, “how every person goes through something different…maybe sometimes you might be able to relate to that, or it just makes you more aware of what people go through.” Another student observed, “It kind of broadens your horizon, or your way of thinking, when [you’re] interacting with somebody who had different experiences from you…I feel a little bit more sympathy for the topic than I did before the speeches.” Students not only learned valuable skills from giving their speeches, but through actively attending to their classmates’ speeches, they also learned the value of listening. In other words, a curriculum designed to teach students how to speak also taught them how to listen.

Although democratic orientations such as listening and cultivating empathy are often sidelined in the realm of formal civic education, our current political climate highlights their necessity. Indeed, research indicates that students need to develop tolerance, to cultivate the capacity to engage with people with whom they disagree, and, as University of Pennsylvania President and political scientist Amy Gutmann has argued, hone the ability to work collaboratively with others to reach solutions to common problems. Central to these democratic practices is the value of what University of Washington civic education scholar Walter Parker calls listening to strangers — harnessing public school students’ diversity as an asset in the deliberation over public problems. Essential components of listening to strangers are efforts to take the perspective of another (reciprocity), assuming one’s understanding of someone else’s ideas is incomplete (humility), and moving slowly before responding (caution).

To be sure, democracy requires much of its citizens. Young people need to learn the fundamentals of the political system, including how our government functions, the premise and history of democracy, and the rights and privileges that citizens enjoy.  And schools play a pivotal, if unrealized, role in imparting these lessons to our youth.

But when students are given the opportunity to do more than learn about facts and processes, and are taught to listen to others and to engage in controversial discussions at school, they experience even greater gains in civic skills and orientations. Moreover, they develop empathy, an integral element in social-emotional learning — learning that sets the stage for many other forms of success.

In an election year that 70 percent of voters say has “brought out the worst in people,” it’s clear that the American public is yearning for better civic participation practices.  It’s time to turn our attention away from the adults on the national stage and toward our youth. Teaching the next generation of citizens and leaders how to listen and learn from each other is a worthwhile investment towards a more civil and hopeful political future.


By Steve Zemelman

Many teachers are struggling with how to guide classroom discussions about the 2016 election. But while there’s plenty to consider about the campaign itself, a larger question hovers above it all: the sentiment of students, teachers, and many citizens across the country that they have no voice in decisions affecting their lives and work.

When we asked a number of high school seniors in a struggling community who are old enough to vote, they said they wouldn’t because they didn’t see how their voice could make any difference.

So while teachers may conduct learning activities around the election, perhaps it’s even more important to do much more to develop a generation of citizens with the dispositions and skills to step up, connect with others, and take action to improve their lives and communities. Fortunately, school leaders and legislators are increasingly realizing the importance of students’ civic learning and engagement. In Illinois, a new law requires high schools across the state to provide a civics course that includes community action of some kind.

This is why I’ve been passionate about student civic engagement projects since I began learning about them a few years ago. In these projects, students don’t just read, discuss, or role-play. They take the lead identifying an issue in their school or community, research it, plan, and then take action to try to address it. They learn by experiencing the real process of advocacy and change. I’ve seen in school after school, across grade levels and subject areas, how such projects change students’ perceptions of themselves, giving them a sense of efficacy, a set of skills for promoting thoughtful action, a habit of respect and caring for one another, and a commitment to their academic learning as well.

What do these projects look like? An outstanding Chicago high school teacher, Elizabeth Robbins, offered a powerful explanation in a TEDx talk that got me started on this. She described how students in one class, deeply concerned about teenage date violence, researched the issue, and disliking the school curricula they found on the topic, created their own. They had teachers in their school try it out and then proposed its adoption at a Chicago school board meeting. From there, they were referred to the schools CEO, who green-lighted it for use in high school classes across the city. You can view her talk here.

Yes, that’s at an urban high school, but younger students in small towns can just as readily do this.

Here’s how the fifth graders at Park Forest school in State College PA tackle what they’ve named CHIRPS — Current Human Issues Research Projects. The teachers start with community-building activities to tune them in to their peers’ needs and outlooks, and provide lots of local news articles to alert them to community issues. Each student writes a proposal to explain an issue to individually explore, and once these are approved by the teacher and fellow students, the kids get to work researching and then creating web pages on their projects. One girl, for example, organized a cohort of fellow students to provide support for other kids who have disabilities or struggle with their learning. Another worked to establish a program for Saturday meals for students who qualified for free lunch during the week.

It’s important to ask whether the students, once they are adults, actually practice stronger civic engagement, and more research is needed to determine that. However, one study has shown that kids’ attitudes toward civic participation grow stronger while still in school. And students testify to the power of this work. As one girl in Chicago commented, “Before I didn’t think I could actually make a difference, but now I am working with people at my church on anti-gang activities.”

Of course, social action is hard and not every project goes smoothly. But kids are resilient. As a group of middle-schoolers campaigning against gun violence in their neighborhood explained, “We thought we were going to change our city, but what we really did was change ourselves.”

Numerous organizations help teachers add this kind of learning to their curricula. The one that inspired me is the Mikva Challenge, started in Chicago and now also working in Los Angeles and Washington D.C. (I do not work for them, myself.)

Our country needs this. And we can make it happen.