High school graduates don’t know enough about American government.
That’s the conclusion of a Department of Education report from 2012, which highlighted the fact that less than a quarter of high school seniors scored proficient on the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) civics test. Civics learning, the department maintained, was an add-on in too many schools and was seen as a distraction from the core subjects.
“The need to revitalize and reimagine civic education is urgent. That urgent need brings a great opportunity—the chance to improve civic education in ways that will resonate for years,” then- Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in 2011.
And the students themselves are looking to boost their knowledge of American government. The current politically charged atmosphere is drawing a record number of high school students toward current events, according to the New York Times.
Students are seeking out more information about civic engagement through social media and from their high school teachers.
To support schools as they craft their new civics classes, a wealth of online resources and curriculum content are available that present the facts and history of American government, provide an overview of the ideas and the issues that divide our nation and introduce students to the various methods for participating in American politics.
The first step in any civics or government class is to instruct students about the institutions of government. The three branches of federal government, checks and balances, the process of creating laws, federalism, the basic mechanics of elections, and the role of parties and interest groups in this country all need to be mastered. Like any good board game, students have to know the rules of government in order to play.
After students have a strong understanding of the institutions and process of government, the next step is learning about the substance of politics. Here, students learn about the issues and the values that divide our nation. They must take positions on controversial topics and state their opinions in a civil manner. They have to discuss the details of current policies, such as those related to the military, education, housing, welfare, and immigration. Research shows that students who are used to discussing current affairs are more likely to be politically active as adults.
The last step in any good civics class is to present the various ways that students can wade into politics and have their voices heard. Voting is the most basic form of participation, but citizens can also sign petitions and attend marches. They can attend local town hall meetings. Even calling an elected official to ask a question or stating your position on an issue is a way of participating. Hopefully, some students might even work on a campaign or run for office in the future, or at the very least gain an insight into and respect for the machinations of government that affect all American lives.
The following resources help teachers provide their students with deep knowledge of the institutions of government, the ability to wade into the hot buttons issues of the times, and the tools to directly participate in American politics.
- Discovery Education’s Social Studies Techbook offers instruction on the structure and processes of the U.S. government through an inquiry-based learning process. It provides teachers with primary source documents, exclusive videos, and other dynamic digital content. New online-entry features check students’ understanding, allowing them to apply their learning to new situations, and contribute to classroom conversations. Discovery Education Social Studies Techbook also includes interactive features in which students practice civic discourse with debates and role-playing.
- iCivics is a set of free online educational games developed by a nonprofit organization founded by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Last November, the game was played roughly 3 million times, according to Education Week.
- Newseum, a Washington-based museum about current events, provides free learning tools on media literacy and the First Amendment.
- C-SPAN Classroom offers extensive classroom lesson plans and free videos developed by teachers and the C-SPAN staff.
- The Center for Civic Education is an independent, nonprofit organization whose mission is to promote an enlightened and responsible citizenry that is committed to democratic principles and actively engaged in the practice of democracy. It offers a variety of lesson plans related to elections on topics such as voting requirements, the power of the senior vote, and amendments. Handouts include a chart of political slogans. Did you know that Herbert Hoover’s slogan was “a chicken in every pot (and a car in every garage)”?
- PBS NewsHour Extra has a variety of videos and lesson plans for Grades 7–12 civics teachers. Civic Engagement and Ways for Students to Get Involved is a three-day lesson plan that guides students through the various ways that citizens can participate in the political process.
- The American Bar Association has lessons plans on a variety of topics, including antitrust laws, the Second Amendment, and the environment. One lesson plan involves a discussion of the use of censorship in Ray Bradbury’s book Fahrenheit 451.
- The Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools is an advocacy group that promotes civics education at the state and national level. Its website provides links to over 90 organizations and schools that provide teachers with free lesson plans and inspiration, including EarthForce.org and the Constitutional Rights Foundation.
Over the past thirty years, Laura has been involved in education as a teacher, a researcher, a professor, a parent, and a writer. She began her career in education as a teacher of students with multiple disabilities in the South Bronx. Later, she earned a Ph.D. in political science with a specialty in education policy, while working as an education policy researcher at CUNY Graduate Center. She has taught political science and education policy classes at Hunter College, Teachers College at Columbia, and Ramapo College. Now, she writes about education for several publications, including Discovery Education’s Front and Central, Edutopia, The Atlantic, and Pacific-Standard. She has two kids — one is getting ready for college, the other is a special ed student in middle school.