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The Importance of Civics Education (Updated)

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Truth be told, I always disliked history and government classes as a Kindergarten through undergraduate student. I found it dry, boring, irrelevant, and unimportant. I believe this was due to it all being about memorization . . . memorizing events and dates in history; memorizing the branches of government; memorizing states and their capitols. This type of learning reflects only remembering, the lowest level of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Now that I am a teacher of gifted education, I believe it is important for my students, for all students to participate in civics education. There is a problem with knowledge of civics by today’s children and youth (adults, too). The Center on American Progress stated in The State of Civics Education:

Civic knowledge and public engagement is at an all-time low. A 2016 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that only 26 percent of Americans can name all three branches of government, which was a significant decline from previous years. Not surprisingly, public trust in government is at only 18 percent and voter participation has reached its lowest point since 1996. Without an understanding of the structure of government; rights and responsibilities; and methods of public engagement, civic literacy and voter apathy will continue to plague American democracy. Educators and schools have a unique opportunity and responsibility to ensure that young people become engaged and knowledgeable citizens.

For civics education to be effective, though, it needs to be engaging, exciting, authentic, and relevant for learners. Here are two civics education practices that can be implemented within the classroom” 

Schools should provide direct instruction in government, history, economics, law, and democracy in ways that provoke analysis and critical thinking skills. These subjects are vital to laying the foundation for civic learning and may also contribute to young people’s tendency to engage in civic and political activities over the long term. However, schools should avoid teaching only rote facts about dry procedures, which is unlikely to benefit students and may actually alienate them from politics.

Schools should incorporate discussion of current local, national, and international issues and events into the classroom, particularly those that young people view as important to their lives. Engaging students in civil dialogue about controversial issues provides opportunities to foster character and civic virtue–important civic dispositions that are the habits of the heart and mind conducive to the healthy functioning of the democratic system. Examples include civility, open-mindedness, compromise, and toleration of diversity, all of which are prerequisites of a civic life in which the American people can work out the meanings of their democratic principles and values (Revitalizing Civic Learning in Our Schools).

As discussed in the NEA article Forgotten Purpose: Civics Education in Public Schools , the value of civics education goes far beyond politics:

civics

Now I am including civics education as part of my gifted education instruction for my 2nd through 6th grade students. There are two reasons I am doing so:

  1. The political climate, not just in the United States, but worldwide has become contentious and toxic. I believe that this is due, in part, to a lack of education in civics.
  2. There are online tools like Brainpop, Newsela, and iCivics that make civics education more interesting and engaging.

Update

This is an update of the original post in which I discussed the midterm elections – see below. I have a group of 5th and 6th grade gifted students who selected the global citizenship class I offer one day a week for 1.5 hours per meeting time. This means that they are interested in this topic. They have been working on their presidential candidacy speeches as if they were going to run for being the president of the United Speech. Today, April 11, 2019, we watched some Brainpop videos

2019-04-12_0649

I stopped them at several points to ask questions, “Who is the vice president of the United States?” Them, “I don’t know.” “How many terms – how long can someone be president of the United States?” Their response, “I don’t know.” How many branches of the US government are there?” Their response, “I don’t know.” Yikes – more evidence that civics education is needed in our schools. 

I teach at two Title 1 schools with a predominately Hispanic student body. An article from the NEA had this to say about civics education in lower income schools: 

Only 25 percent of U.S. students reach the “proficient” standard on the NAEP Civics Assessment.  White, wealthy students are four to six times as likely as Black and Hispanic students from low-income households to exceed that level. Here’s why: Students in wealthier public school districts are far more likely to receive high-quality civics education than students in low-income and majority-minority schools (Forgotten Purpose: Civics Education in Public Schools ).

Midterm Elections

The midterm elections provided a great teachable moment for my students to get some civics education. We began with a KWHLAQ Chart developed by (what do I Know, what do I Want to know, How will I find out, what have I Learned, what Action will I take, and what further Questions do I have) developed by Silvia Tolisano. We then watched some Brainpop videos on voting using the follow-up review quizzes. Students were then asked to choose an article from the Newsela Civics category to read, and play iCivics games. Here are the slides of activities I shared with students in our Google Classroom so students could have access and work through the Newsela and iCivics activities at their own pace, making choices of news articles and games based on their own interests.

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Because of student choice and the interactive nature of Newsela and iCivics (I can’t overstate how much all of my students love iCivics), students found the activities engaging. These activities also tapped into higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. This is a start. I plan on integrating civics lessons throughout the school year. 

There are no so many fun and interactive ways to teach civics as well as suggestions and tips for best practices such as  the ones recommended by The National Center for Learning and Civc Engagement in a guidebook entitled Six Proven Practices for Effective Civic Learning.

The necessary elements of effective civic education include classroom instruction in civics & government, history, economics, law and geography; service learning linked to classroom learning; experiential learning; learning through participation in models and simulations of democratic processes; guided classroom discussion of current issues and events, and meaningful participation in school governance.

Access to this document can be found below; and the NEA has a list of civics education resources found at http://www.nea.org/civicseducation.

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

November 18, 2018 at 4:38 pm

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