The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court writes an annual Year-end Report on the Federal Judiciary. This year, the report attracted unusual attention because Roberts chose to focus on the importance of civics education, a topic of more general interest than he usually chooses. As a U.S. history teacher, I always believed that helping my students understand how their government works—civics education—constituted a key part of my responsibilities. I actually made them read the Constitution in its entirety and I tested them on it. In retrospect, I'm not sure that was the most effective method, but it gives you an idea of the importance I placed on the topic.
Roberts uses his report to draw attention to all the excellent educational work the federal, as well as state, courts and a number of other organizations are doing. However, one senses a larger purpose. He begins his report by talking about The Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay's essays originally written to persuade New Yorkers to vote in favor of the Constitution. He calls them "America's greatest civics lesson," but his purpose in referencing these seminal works has little to do with the essays themselves and more to do with why Jay (whom Washington later appointed as the first Chief Justice) wrote so few of them. A rumor that medical students at New York Hospital were dissecting the recently deceased body of a young boy's mother sparked a riot. When the rioters stormed the jail near his house where the doctors and medical students had taken refuge, Jay grabbed his sword (he was a Revolutionary War veteran) and joined Governor Clinton in protecting them. In the fray, Jay sustained a serious head injury from a rock thrown by a rioter, preventing him from writing for several months. The power of a rumor provides Roberts' segue into civics education: "In our age, when social media can instantly spread rumor and false information on a grand scale, the public's need to understand our government, and the protections it provides, is ever more vital."
We are all very aware of the danger associated with disinformation. Effective civics education will not alone prevent the misinformation campaigns from gaining traction. It would, however, help by arming citizens with better knowledge about how their government works, knowledge that could serve as a bulwark against disinformation. Even without misinformation campaigns aimed at influencing elections, current events demand an understanding of how our government works to make informed opinions: for example, impeachment, the presidential election (including the actual powers of the presidency and how the electoral college works), and Virginia's historic passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.
At Holton, to make what can be a pretty dry topic engaging, we use an experiential approach to teaching civics. In fifth grade, after studying American colonial and Revolutionary history and learning about the different branches of government, students create their own political parties, complete with a name, slogans, and an animal symbol. At a "convention," each party presents its platform, which students have developed using the U.N. Sustainability Goals (which inform our entire Global Education Program) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They create posters, buttons, and other campaign paraphernalia and make speeches to convince their classmates to vote for their political party, a process done by secret ballot.
Eighth graders in U.S. Political History spend the first trimester on civics. They learn about the Constitution beginning with the Convention, each of them researching one of the delegates and representing them in a virtual environment. They learn about the branches of government, balance of power, and how a bill becomes a law.
The Public Policy Project, however, is my favorite aspect of the course. As the instructions explain, the purpose of this project is:
[To] learn about why laws get passed and what their purpose is. During this project, you will learn about public policy, its purpose, its effect on you, and how you can become an active citizen in your local community.
Each girl chooses an issue that matters to her neighborhood and then develops a public policy to address it. They identify what part of government would be responsible for addressing the issue. They research what kind of policy, if any, already exists that relates to the issue, and they identify stakeholders. Through a variety of sources, they find different perspectives on the issue. They even need to consider why people care about the issue as well as who is pressing for solutions and how they are conducting that pressure. As they develop their policy, they must answer the following:
- The advantages and disadvantages of their policy.
- The level of government that would be responsible for creating and passing this policy. What journey would this policy take from idea to policy? How would it get passed?
- The level of government that would be responsible for carrying out the proposed policy. Why is this level of government responsible and how would it carry out the policy?
- The policy's source of funding. If the municipal/state budget funds the policy, where will that money come from?
- The effect of the policy on stakeholders.
- Ways to drum up support in the community for the policy.
They finish by presenting their policy in poster form to classmates and teachers.
Girls have identified a wide range of issues, such as installing sidewalks for pedestrian safety, rezoning in Fairfax Country to alleviate overcrowding at McLean High School, developing a more effective and efficient composting program in Montgomery County, and lowering the voting age in D.C. to 16.
I really like the real-world nature of this project, as well its depth and breadth. The girls truly learn how to take action on an issue that matters for their community, gaining an understanding of the workings of local and state government in the process. They are learning how to be active, engaged citizens.
Seniors in Advanced Topics in Government have a similar experience. Teacher Bob Tupper observes, "In almost every unit, I try to encourage them to think about the ways in which citizens involve themselves in the American democracy." More specifically, he asks them to "put their classroom learning into action" by completing a "participation project" that resembles the eighth-grade assignment, but obviously at a more sophisticated level. For the assignment, they:
- Identify a way of attempting to influence policy making--other than voting.
- Write a paper discussing the issue or policy they hope to affect.
- Take action.
- Write a second paper afterwards in which they discuss the method of participation, their experience in participating, and the degree of efficacy they believe their actions have had.
Two members of that class, along with two other student volunteers, went to Annapolis last week to testify in support of a bill that our Assembly Delegate, Sara Love P '21, is sponsoring that closes a loophole in a law that prevents anyone except security personnel from carrying weapons on public school campuses; her bill will extend this prohibition to private schools. These students represented the school admirably and learned about the state legislative process firsthand.
These kinds of real-life experiences are obviously invaluable. Whether our students are undertaking action through school assignments such as those above or whether they do it on their own, working on a campaign, participating in Montgomery County's Teen Court, or attending protests, they are putting their beliefs into action and developing the habits of engaged citizens.
Taking action constitutes one of the four pillars of global competency. We want our students to be informed, engaged citizens who know how to take action. As Sandra Day O'Connor said, "The practice of democracy is not passed down through the gene pool. It must be taught and learned anew by each generation of citizens." We're doing our part.