It would be inaccurate to say we live in an increasingly polarized culture. It’s more like we exist in a Thunderdome of controversy which occasionally masquerades as a functioning society. Almost every day we’re confronted with a pressing new issue that demands our attention, and all too often our opinions on said issue stand in contrast with somebody else’s. To make matters worse, most of our dialogue takes place over social media, on platforms where “respectful discourse” has long since gone extinct. Given the circumstances, it’s not surprising that many people choose to avoid divisive topics altogether.
But what about our students? Classrooms are made up of kids from diverse backgrounds who frequently struggle to make sense of current events. No one is teaching them how to have constructive disagreements with their peers or how to recognize a good argument as opposed to propaganda. While many educators feel pressured to remain neutral in these situations, neutrality should not mean complacency. Civic engagement in the classroom can be a healthy part of any curriculum, and right now the timing couldn’t be better.
The Importance of Civics
Recently, the school district of Fairfax County, Va. announced it would allow students to take one day off per year for civic engagement. I think this is a good idea. We frequently tell students that the knowledge they acquire in school is what they’ll use to navigate the real world. Yet, rarely are they given the opportunity to apply what they’ve learned in a meaningful way. As a recent article from Edutopia states, encouraging students to participate in public events not only allows them to invest personally in their learning, but it can build their social-emotional skills as well:
“Children will carry civics lessons into adulthood—their impact can last a lifetime. The takeaways are not only about government and democracy but also how we treat one another, communicate, instill empathy, and fight for justice. If we impart those values when children are young, they can use them to improve their community, society, and world.”
These lessons don’t have to be limited to events outside of school either. Our very own classroom’s can serve as a perfect microcosm for teaching students how to identify, articulate, and advocate for positive change.
Ways to Engage
If you’re looking for ways your students can participate in civic engagement, you might want to consider the following ideas:
- Make a Podcast: In the Blue Apple project, Take a Stand, students create a podcast in support of a public policy issue that matters to them. Through respectful discourse, they construct and articulate well-researched positions on a topic of their choice. This method can teach students about the importance of using reliable sources. It also shows them how to craft a persuasive argument.
- Hold a Mock Election: What better way to explore the electoral process than by holding an election in your own classroom? Have your students campaign for different positions by writing ads, giving speeches, or holding press conferences. These activities give the election a sense of authenticity. They can also show students how multifaceted the electoral process can be.
- Write a Book: Do your students understand the importance of sustainable living? Does their home state have any unique geological features or animals? Task your students with researching these natural wonders and record their findings in a book. Once that’s completed, work with them to create sustainable living goals so both they and their hometown can prosper!
- Simply Ask, “What Do You Believe?”: Try presenting students with a local problem and encourage them to discuss their thoughts and feelings. For example: “A city wants to build a new outlet mall next to a grassy marsh. The outlet mall will provide jobs and supplies to the citizens. It could also negatively affect the local bird population. What do you think they should do?” Have students deliberate on what they believe is the best solution.
Sharing Your Awesome
We often underestimate the impact young people can have upon our world. But give them the tools they need, and you’ll be shocked at what they can accomplish. Just take Greta Thunberg, who has become the face of climate change activism. Malala Yousafzai captured the world’s attention through her education advocacy. It could even be the 9-year old boy in Colorado who convinced state legislatures to overturn an old law banning snowball fights!
As the VAEI’s Ben Talsma once wrote, “Your classroom doesn’t prepare students for the real world – your classroom is the real world.” Just give your students the right direction and you won’t believe the kind of future they’ll build!
What about you? How do you encourage civic engagement in the classroom?
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