Teaching Civics Has Never Mattered More

by Carol Kocivar | June 14, 2020 | 5 Comments
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A Wrenching Moment

Whether it’s protests about police violence and racism or defiance of government orders to wear a mask during a pandemic, the most fundamental issues of our democracy are being played out every day in front of millions of people.

This unique time in history, a confluence of pandemic, prejudice and protest, makes teaching civics more important than ever.

A Teachable Moment

Children are not born knowing the basic ideas of democracy. It is up to each generation to teach them. And that is a central role of our public schools.

Can you and your children answer these basic questions about our democracy?

  • What rights do we have to protest racist actions by the government? (1st Amendment)
  • How much force can the police use to keep the peace? (4th and 8th)
  • Can the government restrict our rights in order to protect public health? (14th)

What Does Civics Teach?

Civics is not just a class. It is a topic woven through many classes from elementary through high school grades. The teachers are not "civics" teachers but classroom teachers with their main focus on many subjects. In total, civics instructs students about how our government works, which can help put today’s events in context. But civics does a lot more. Intentional instruction about civics can help students become engaged, responsible citizens. These classes can help students develop skills to make decisions based on facts and issues rather than personalities and attacks. It's not just about "teaching civics" — it's about conveying civic values: concern for the rights and welfare of others, fairness, and a sense of public duty. It matters for our democracy that everyone understands how to participate and make a difference.

Time to Talk About Race

Discussion is critical to developing a civic understanding of controversial issues. And today, racism is at the top of the list. Here are some resources to start the conversation.

How Well is Your School Teaching Civics?

Luckily, California’s updated History-Social Science frameworks emphasize civic learning and have many resources for K-12 classrooms. But there is a big difference between strong state resources and what happens at school.

What Does A Great Civic Education Program Look Like?

The gold standard, which is part of California’s civics frameworks, is described in Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools. It highlights six practices that high quality civics programs use:

  • Classroom instruction in government, history, law, and democracy
  • Discuss current events and controversial issues
  • Service Learning (Provide students the opportunity to apply what they learn in the curriculum through community service.)
  • Extracurricular activities (Opportunities to get involved in school or community)
  • Student participation in school governance
  • Simulations of democratic practices:

How many of those practices does your school provide to all students K-12?

Recognizing Excellence

California recognizes outstanding civics programs through Civic Learning Awards. Below are examples. (You can find the rubric on how schools are scored here. It will help you compare your school to these award winners.)

Civic Learning Award Winners

La Costa Heights Elementary School, San Diego County

Fifth graders picked a state bill to research and advocate for with their state legislators. Students chose to focus on pay equity with Assembly Bill 271 and presented their findings and recommendations to lawmakers. Students also helped design and install 40 environmentally friendly drop boxes in the community for voters to cast absentee ballots.

South Junior High School, Orange County

Students prepare and deliver two-minute “soapbox” speeches that include a call to action on issues of importance, such as the death penalty, gun laws, and college tuition. They later deliver their speeches before a panel of local judges. The school also created its own “Soapbox Night,” giving students the opportunity to present issues they are passionate about in a public platform.

Savanna High School, Orange County

All students participate in the Raising Student Voice and Participation program. Over the course of a year, each class identifies and seeks solutions to a problem on campus. In Economics classes, students use Google Maps to choose a vacant lot and create a video to pitch a valuable project for the community. Government class students can train as poll workers and many work 15-hour shifts on Election Day.

A Bit of Inspiration

This video shows how one high school has become a laboratory of democracy.

Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Alisa Sabshin-Blek August 25, 2020 at 9:34 pm
Great ideas to promote at schools and we rise to address the systemic racism that impacts our students. Will bring to our PTSA meetings and website,
user avatar
Vivian Chan July 31, 2020 at 2:37 pm
Civics is such an important topic for one to understand if one were to truly become an involved and responsible citizen. Luckily, many high schools already cover this class as a required class. However, it is up to the students to apply what they've learned in real life. It is very inspiring to hear about the programs receiving the Civic Learning Awards.
user avatar
Anna Meza June 26, 2020 at 12:51 am
According to the video, "The social environment of a high school is an important environment," and I would add that addressing issues related to the pandemic, prejudice, and protest should be considered when traditional school resumes because these topics will require discussion that may be difficult in the virtual learning environments that students are experiencing right now.
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