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Four Ways to Put Civics Education Front and Center for Elementary Students

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What comes to mind when you think of civics? You might recall a dusty discussion of checks and balances or the branches of the U.S. government. While these are essential topics, teaching civics is also about imparting principles and values that inform daily life, guiding students to develop into thoughtful and caring adults.

As the students of Parkland, Fla., have shown in the months following their community’s tragic school shooting, effective civics lessons can translate into profound, real-life action. These teenagers are sparking new discussions about how to put civic engagement into practice.

This couldn’t be more important at a time when the world seems particularly unsettled. Students of all ages are exposed to the complex events and experiences broadcast by our daily diet of online media. Whether it be political shenanigans, violent crimes, or devastating disasters, teachers, including myself, are often at a loss to explain what’s going on. This leaves our students curious about what’s happening and where they fit in.

It is educators’ responsibility to provide the information, strategies, and resources students need to understand and engage with their communities. We should be weaving civics education and media literacy into the classroom every day, even in elementary school. As a 4th grade teacher, I have developed four strategies for bringing civics engagement to life for my young students:

1. Encourage participation in democracy.

Even though my students aren’t yet able to vote in formal elections, I want them to recognize the importance of participating in the democratic process. We vote on everything from what we will do with our free time to the designs on our school spirit clothing. I emphasize that voting is a personal and private decision, so we cover our eyes before raising our hands. This eliminates the possibility of peer pressure and ensures that all students participate.

"It is educators’ responsibility to provide the information, strategies, and resources students need to understand and engage with their communities."

I have a box for "classroom concerns," where students can drop me a note about anything on their minds—from a suggestion regarding the amount of math homework to issues arising on the playground or in the news. This is a starting place for me in deciding what topics to tackle during our class discussions.

They also practice asserting solutions to problems—a necessary skill for any democracy. When students throw in complaints about a homework assignment, I guide them to explain the reasons why, for instance, they need a more generous timeline, thereby teaching them how to turn frustration into action.

2. Celebrate culture.

As our student bodies grow more diverse and the Internet strengthens global connections, it is imperative that we prepare students with the background knowledge and open-mindedness they need to cognitively and emotionally interact with experiences, cultures, and languages different from their own. Not only do I encourage them to read literature with diverse representations, I also provide them with news stories about students around the world. Our school‘s annual international day allows students to share their cultures with their peers.

3. Thoughtfully address current events.

Staying informed is a threshold responsibility of being part of a community. To give them a strong foundation of current events, I have my students read magazines and newspapers such as Scholastic News, with nonfiction articles that deal with science and social studies topics and incorporate current events in an age-appropriate way.

When students arrive at school with unresolved emotions about breaking news they’ve heard at home, teachers should address students’ concerns while not going too deeply into disturbing conversations. I start by asking what students already know, and then I try to take their lead by being slow and sensitive. I also avoid showing images. No matter the situation, I remind my students that they are safe.

4. Demonstrate how to evaluate news.

Focus on teaching students the difference between fact and opinion. Children, who often trust what they hear adults say, might take an opinion as truth. It is essential for students to know the difference. Equally important is teaching kids how to identify fake news and find credible sources. Along with my school’s librarian, I teach students to:

• Be skeptical. Just because you see an article online doesn’t mean it’s factual—even if a friend sent it to you.
• Verify. Make sure that what you’re reading—and sharing—was published by a reputable source.
• Look for clues. Carefully note the sources cited in articles and identify the ads on the page. These kinds of clues can reveal a website’s hidden agenda.
• Get help. Independent verification can often confirm whether something read online or heard aloud is true. Use nonpartisan fact-checking sites, such as Factcheck.org and Politifact.com, to examine news reports and their sources, point out untruths, and cite evidence.

I believe our young students are hungry to learn about what’s beyond the classroom. What we teach them now will shape them. If we do our work correctly, they’ll grow up to be thoughtful and engaged citizens.

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