Education Opinion

Teaching Democracy: A Hands-On Exercise

By Contributing Blogger — September 28, 2015 6 min read
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This post is by Tara Kini, senior policy analyst at the Learning Policy Institute.

I had the privilege of teaching history and civics to 61 8th graders in San Francisco this past year. Our school is a segregated one: 75 percent of students are Latino, 60 percent low-income, and half are learning English. My teaching materials were limited--the district-issued U.S. history textbook was published in 2005; California has not adopted any new textbooks since adopting the Common Core State Standards in 2010 in any subject.

Learning about our system of government by reading about it in a textbook and listening to me talk about it had not felt terribly successful last year. A recent California Task Force on K-12 Civic Learning noted that nationally, fewer than half of eligible young people ages 18-24 voted in the 2012 elections, and that the U.S. recently ranked 139th in voter participation of 172 democracies around the world. I was worried that my standard approach to teaching civics was failing to prepare my students for their future roles as voters, jurors, and civic leaders.

Gaining the skills to meaningfully participate in our democracy is especially critical for low-income students, both because our current weak campaign finance laws allow those with money to speak louder in our democracy and because too many students from low-income families have parents who cannot vote due to their immigration status or criminal records. In California, voters must be prepared to read a 100+ page ballot pamphlet and decide whether to vote yes or no on dozens of state and local referendums on Election Day. Jurors may be called upon to listen to complex arguments about topics like trademark infringement and medical negligence. The ability to listen to the news, engage in civic debate within their communities, and make their voices heard to elected officials are just a few of the skills Americans are called upon to use when navigating a 21st century democracy.

So this year, I tried an approach to teaching civics that would get my students participating in government rather than just reading about it. Partnering with Generation Citizen, each of my classes picked an issue in our community that the students wanted to address. Over a ten week period last fall, we went through a process of choosing an issue, studying it, identifying a goal for how to address it, developing an action plan and list of key decision makers to influence, and then taking action. It was a messy process. In one class students vehemently disagreed with each other about which issue we should work on. When the class picked their issue by majority vote, students experienced democracy in action.

My students picked issues that they care deeply about and that personally affect them: evictions in the Mission District, youth violence in San Francisco, and sexual harassment at our school. None of these issues are easily solved. I worried my students would walk away from this unit having learned “adults don’t care what we have to say” or “these types of problems are too big to solve.”

But instead, this learning experience taught my students that their voices do matter. On Election Day they educated dozens of voters at the local subway station about a housing ballot measure. The measure lost by 4 percentage points, and the students were disappointed. As we debriefed the experience, though, I realized that they walked away from that day with the knowledge that individual votes matter and that they can affect how people decide to vote. They learned that just 53 percent of registered voters in our city had voted; if just a few thousand more had cast a ballot, their measure could have won. Three months later, they met with San Francisco City Supervisor David Campos to share their ideas for local affordable housing legislation.

Another class worked with school board member Matt Haney on passing an anti-violence resolution, an issue that had deep resonance for them (and me) after losing a classmate to violence at the beginning of the school year. The students read a draft of the resolution, discussed its strengths and weaknesses, and suggested ways to strengthen it. They wanted the school board to provide long-term counseling to students affected by violence for as long as they need it, not just a counselor who parachutes in for a week. Their proposal became part of the final resolution, and a dozen students testified at a packed school board meeting in support of the resolution, which passed unanimously.

My third class met with our school administration to present the problem of sexual harassment on campus and request the opportunity to lead a staff training on it. Our principal said yes, and three months later, the students led an hour long training for all of the middle school staff in which they shared personal experiences being harassed, gave a presentation about the issue, and facilitated small group discussions with teachers. The teachers gave the student trainers rave reviews, and students reported a marked decline in sexual harassment over the course of the school year simply because they had raised awareness of the issue at our school.

I’m not sure my students could tell you what branch of government is established in Article III of the Constitution, or how many representatives there are in the House. But that’s knowledge, and they can get the answer in an instant of Googling. (Maybe you need to do the same.) But by learning about our system of government in a project-based, hands-on way, my students gained the skills they will need to meaningfully participate in our democracy. They demonstrated the ability to identify a problem and then collaborate with their peers to solve it and to communicate effectively and persuasively. These types of skills are ones they will also need to be successful in college and in their future careers. Equally important, this unit gave students control over their learning. Each class got to choose the issue they worked on and could see how their learning connected to the world around them. They understood that their work products had real meaning.

At the end of the semester, students presented their portfolio of work to policy makers and other adults at “Civics Day,” a Social Studies fair organized by Generation Citizen. Not only did the students receive feedback from “real” adults (not their teachers or their parents), but they also had the chance to compare their work products to that of students from other schools. It was a more powerful form of assessment than any test I have ever given.

This fall, Congress is on the verge of passing a new federal education law, with a conference committee negotiating and reconciling the two widely different versions of an ESEA rewrite passed by the House and the Senate. Disappointingly, both versions of the bill continue to treat social studies as a bastard subject, as it has been under NCLB for the past 14 years. What’s not tested is not important.

So it will be left to states to decide what matters. Let’s hope states focus on setting standards for social studies that will prepare all students not just for college and career, but also for meaningful civic engagement. And with luck in the conference committee process, perhaps the new federal accountability system will give states some freedom to allow students to show they have met academic standards as my students did, by producing work that matters to them and to adults in the real world, not simply by filling in bubbles on standardized tests.

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.