This election season, like so many before, candidates try to attract the support of youth and minorities, groups who historically have been less inclined to vote. While most schools offer or require a course on government and civics, intended to teach students the basic principles and practices of democracy, teachers often struggle to instill habits of civic engagement in their students.
To better prepare students for the current world of politics, it’s important to encourage them to recognize that democracy depends on their engagement. Penn GSE professors Sigal Ben-Porath and Rand Quinn offer practical ideas for teachers of any subject who are hoping to introduce their students to civic engagement in the classroom.
Let students speak
The way students learn to engage with issues and ideas in the classroom can become a model for how they engage in the community. Intentionally create opportunities for students to reflect on what they are learning and formulate their own opinions and views on topics. Teachers can structure class time to encourage all students to make their voices heard. This will help students foster a sense of themselves as valuable members of their society, with critical thoughts and opinions to offer (and not merely as knowledge absorbers).
A key aspect of learning to be an engaged civic actor is the ability to consider a topic and question it based on one’s own opinions and experiences. Teachers can encourage students to bring their own experiences into the classroom, and create space for peer discussions that may evolve from the sharing of these views.
In seeking your students’ input, you are helping them understand the importance of their role in shaping and contributing to their classroom community. It’s OK if the discussion deviates slightly from your original lesson plan. They’ll be better for it in the long run.
Rethink your room
Ideally, students will be interacting with each other and not just the teacher in front of the room. Consider grouping desks together, or arranging them in a circle instead of rows. You’ll be reinforcing the idea that civic engagement is not just about listening to someone tell you information and responding to it, it’s also about sharing your thoughts and opinions with a peer group, and learning from one another.
Bring children of different ability groups together. This can allow interaction across different levels of knowledge, helping students to learn together and develop a sense of a shared relationship within one community. This is harder to achieve in the stratified environment created by ability-level grouping.
Written with Jacquie L. Greiff, a Penn GSE doctoral student collaborating on Ben-Porath and Quinn’s assessment of civic opportunities of high school students.
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