|“There is an old saying that the course of civilization is a race between catastrophe and education. In a democracy such as ours, we must make sure that education wins the race.”—John F. KennedyWhile our conversations about education these days tend to center around math scores and drop-out rates, there’s more to producing a well-educated citizen than teaching the quadratic equation and keeping them in school. A thriving democracy requires well-informed, thoughtful, participating citizens who understand the role of the people in making our country, states and cities run. A young person’s school experience is often their first and best chance to develop the habits of good citizenship.|
The national standards for civics and government begin with the earliest grades. Even the youngest students can begin to master the required content, including “what are some of the important things government does,” and “what are important rights and responsibilities of Americans.” To help children connect with government in the primary grades, start with their own community.
- Take a field trip to city hall. Arrange for the class to meet the mayor or a city council member. Larger cities may have staffers who give tours to school groups. In a smaller town, some students may know someone who works at city hall.
- Providing a police department is one of the most important things local government does. Invite a police officer to visit the classroom—even better, a K9 officer and his or her dog. Kids can say “thank you” with a gift for the police dog.
- Help students draft a Classroom Constitution, laying out the rights they have as students and the responsibilities they have as members of the class and the school. Make it official by binding a copy for each student with a custom cover.
How does the government established by the Constitution embody the purposes, values and principles of American democracy? Who represents you in local, state and national governments? These are some of the questions that kids in the middle school years are expected to answer. At this age, they can find and organize information on their own and begin to participate actively in their communities.
- Students can use newspapers, magazines and a myriad of Internet sources to research current issues. Have each student choose a controversial subject and research arguments on both sides. A document folder will help them organize their notes, print-outs and clippings.
- Armed with knowledge, students can form opinions about the issue and construct arguments to support their positions. Have students write letters to their representatives, letting them know how young people in their constituency feel about the issue.
- Student government teaches full frontal democracy. Encourage kids to campaign actively for the positions they want, using fresh ideas and reasoned arguments. Student candidates may want to keep their names in their classmates’ minds with red, white and blue pencils.
In high school, it’s time for teens to make a difference in their communities by stepping up to do some real work. The national standards ask, “How can citizens take part in civic life?” High school students are often deeply committed to service projects and have the energy and enthusiasm to galvanize others and make the world a better place.
- Every community has many short-term volunteer opportunities with local government or nonprofit agencies for individual students and for groups. Take a vote to choose several for the class to complete.
- Obtain a calendar of city council meetings and choose one where an issue of interest to youths will be discussed. Have students research the issue and prepare short (two minutes or less) speeches to deliver during the public comment segment of the meeting. Students may work in pairs or groups so the number of speeches is not overwhelming. Use a camcorder to record practice speeches so students can see themselves and improve their delivery.
Knowledgeable kids who are raised with the expectation that they will contribute to their communities and the workings of their government ensure that the future will be more secure for everyone.
“I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion.”—Thomas Jefferson