How to raise a generation of better citizens

But Commonwealth school districts still don’t understand how to turn those funds into effective action, and that’s a shame. Over the last 50 years, civics education in the United States has all but disappeared. Districts shifted funds to teach STEM and get kids to pass federally mandated tests. But we need both: citizens who have the skills for essential, innovative jobs. Y that they can actively participate in their communities and in government.

This is how we can get it right.

The 2018 civics bill required Massachusetts public schools to teach eighth graders a civics curriculum that immerses them in a civic action project. That’s the right approach: once students take practical action themselves, they feel more confident about getting involved in their communities and their government. Playing sports teaches more lessons about teamwork than reading about sports. It is the same to learn to be a citizen.

However, this is not happening. In fact, a report prepared for the state Department of Education reviewing the 2018 legislation found that 37 percent of teachers had never heard of the civics bill legislation; only 22 percent of middle and high school educators said they were familiar with the civics bill legislation and knew how it would affect their instruction. Those teachers who were conscious asked for more training on how to implement civic education projects. We need to get this right.

Here’s the key: we need to teach civics differently.

Traditionally, schools have made students sit still and listen to their teachers talk about great leaders, all too often white male leaders. After the students took a test to see how much they knew about their government. Some even learned to recite parts of the United States Constitution. Of course, memorizing the branches of government and having students recite facts can be helpful, but it doesn’t teach them to be active citizens.

Two important things must change. First, the “Great Man” version of the story, in which some powerful figures seemingly wave magic wands and transform the country, inadvertently leaves students feeling powerless, as if they are watching the story unfold like a movie instead of help create it. For example, when we teach that Woodrow Wilson gave women the right to vote or that Abraham Lincoln freed people from slavery, we leave out all the people, ordinary people, who wrote, protested, lobbied, voted, harangued , they ran for public office and so on. shaken by change.

In other words, the traditional teaching leaves out the real story. The story of the Great Man is not only false, but it makes students feel like the audience of the story rather than its authors, especially if they are women or people of color, whom textbooks rarely assign leading roles. .

Second, teachers must help students practice democracy in their daily lives. We can encourage students to run for student government, host a mock trial, write letters to their city council or state representatives about an issue they care about, or protest a local policy.

In classrooms across the state, teachers are delivering hands-on civics. A group of students recently protested to the school board to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Other students have worked to have a Salem ‘witch’ acquitted. I’ve seen students organize to support local Black Lives Matter chapters, work with their principal to change school policies so every classroom has recycling bins, launch letter-writing campaigns to their state senators about the lack of sick leave paid family, organizing boycotts. from companies that don’t pay living wages, and create and star in public service announcements about the dangers of driving under the influence.

All of this is civic education in action.

Those are small, local examples. Struck by a much more horrific tragedy, the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have spent years becoming successful gun control activists after the 2018 school shooting there. They mobilized much of the country during the Trump years and, after the Uvalde school shooting, helped pass a federal bill that raised the minimum age to buy rifles. They lobbied the Florida Legislature to create a three-day waiting period for all gun purchases in the state. Those children have become heroes, after their own teachers taught them how to grasp and move the levers of democracy.

But big or small, when students see for themselves that they have an effect, it changes them for life. They may still be upset when they watch the news, but they also know how to do something about it. At a minimum, they can vote, which a third of Americans did not do in the contentious 2020 presidential election.

I have been teaching for almost 20 years, working with all types of students, from kindergarteners to PhD students. I have seen education transform lives and make lasting changes. But with all the demands on educators and schools, we have fallen short of one of our most essential roles: creating informed citizens. We need to use the power of education to invest in civic education and transform the way we teach history.

Massachusetts has already chosen to invest in civic education. Now let’s get the right teaching.

Kaylene Stevens is director of the Social Studies Education program at Boston University’s Wheelock School of Education and Human Development, a faculty affiliated with the Boston University Center for Anti-Racist Research, and co-author of “Teaching History for Justice: Focusing Activism on the Study of Students’ Pasts.”

Leave a Comment