Every student is a part of a community. They are members of their classroom and school communities and their sports, church or art communities. Students are citizens of their towns, cities, states and country as well as the global community. Students want to not only belong to these communities but also feel they can have an impact on them. Teaching students about civic engagement helps them discover how to impact their community.
Let’s explore how to teach civic engagement by looking at:
- What Civic Engagement Can Look Like
- The Value of Civic Education
- How to Teach Civic Education
- Civic Engagement Activities and Lessons
What Civic Engagement Can Look Like
Civic engagement means different things to different people. This is true for students too. It can mean volunteering, organizational involvement, advocacy, government work or participating in an election. It can be an individual or collective action. Most importantly, it is the different ways a citizen participates in a community to help improve or shape its future.
A sense of autonomy is fostered when students discover the different ways to become involved in their community. Civic engagement classroom activities can explore the many types of civic participation. Finding age-appropriate lessons empowers students to seek out their own ways of civic engagement.
Types of Civic Engagement
- Community service: Giving time and energy to activities that address community needs. Includes tutoring peers, visiting the elderly or cleaning up a park or community space.
- Civic learning: Exploring a community, conducting research or gaining knowledge of an issue to build civic participation. An example is a research project focused on an issue affecting a community.
- Advocacy: Supporting efforts to bring about change or promote awareness of a cause or policy. Advocacy uses civic activism to convince decision makers to make choices that benefit the community. It includes participation in petitions, marches and emails or phone calls to government officials.
- Capacity building: Working within a community to bring people together to solve problems and make it a better place.
- Political involvement: Participating as a citizen in government processes, such as voting and campaigning.
- Socially responsible behavior: Thinking about your responsibility to the well-being of others when making personal decisions. This includes efforts toward behavior change that can ripple through the community.
- Instigating a compost or recycling plan at school
- Organizing a fundraiser for solar panel or rooftop garden installation
- Coordinating the design for a community garden
The National Theatre for Children offers free educational performances that teach, entertain and inspire students to learn how to make a positive difference in their lives and communities. These programs impact not only students but the communities they live in. This trickle up effect is exactly what civic engagement is all about.
The Value of Civics Education
Civic engagement is rooted in civics education – the teaching of the rights and duties of citizenship. This education, in turn, is rooted in our democracy. It is not only the teaching of larger power structures. It is also grounded in the individual citizen.
The branches of government, the Constitution, the rule of law, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence are important foundations. How civic participation keeps those foundations healthy and sustainable is the key goal of a civic education. The objective of a civic participation lesson plan is to teach students how to participate in community betterment.
A basic civics lesson is foundational to teaching civic engagement. From student to active citizen is a journey that begins with well-thought-out civic education lesson plans. Civics assignments do not have to be a memorization of rote facts and charts of government positions. A civics lesson that emphasizes how a democracy functions and how individual citizens take part promotes civic engagement.
Fostering Active Citizens
Civic education fosters traits of active citizens. It prepares them to participate in the political, social and economic concerns of their communities.
As members of a democracy, it is important to learn how to:
- Communicate with others who do not share your opinions
- Listen to opposing perspectives
- Work toward consensus
- Disagree respectively
The value of a civic education is grounded in fostering these traits. Value is found in student opportunities to analyze and evaluate the world they live in. It grows from students learning to finding solutions through civic engagement activities.
Knowledge of civics is important, but active citizenship involves engaging in a meaningful way. The value of a civic education helps build responsible citizens.
This helps strengthen the foundations of our democracy by:
- Promoting consistent election participation
- Fostering consistent involvement in community affairs
- Combating misinformation and propaganda
- Ensuring students know their rights and responsibilities as citizens
How to Teach Civic Education
Civic education goes beyond memorizing facts and figures and the understanding of the three branches of government. Developing active citizens involves active participation in civics lessons. Civic engagement lesson plans can show how the wheels of a democratic society turn and work together. Excitement can be created around how these turning wheels, including individual actions, impact the community and make a difference. A civic engagement assignment that focuses on civic participation can inspire students to do just that – participate.
Effective civic engagement assignments need to:
- Stick with students beyond the initial lesson
- Feel relevant to the world they live in
- Enliven the tools of civic participation
Creating community partnerships to support civics education curriculum can help build these bridges between the classroom and the community. The National Theatre for Children offers theatre-based educational programs that grow community partnerships.
Civic Engagement Classroom Activities and Lessons
Teaching civic engagement creates a space for students to:
- Grow the skills of civic participation
- Discover the importance of sustaining and strengthening the foundations of democracy
- Create a sense of belonging
- Develop self-efficacy in changing and building the world in which they live
The larger the community, the harder it is for students to see how they can make a difference. Civic engagement can be taught to show students how to be active citizens no matter the size of the community. One civic engagement assignment may not instill the goals of civic education. The key is to sustain civics education across grade levels.
Civics Lessons for Elementary Students
Elementary age students can connect their classroom to the wider world through a range of civic engagement project ideas.
Set up projects for students to interact with other students outside of their immediate community, including outside the country. Use technology to make connections via Zoom, email and social media. Students can compare and contrast things like their school day, cultural celebrations and food.
Students can conduct research projects on a number of topics. They can research other countries and create a story of what is traded between countries. This can include spices, clothing, food or other goods that students use in their everyday lives. Or they can research the primary source for a historical event or holiday, or create a project around the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution or how voting works.
Visit organizations that focus on the duties and rights of citizens. Take field trips to government offices that serve a public purpose or help with student’s daily lives. Students can see firsthand the work that helps take care of and sustain their community.
Expose students to the benefits of volunteering by having them support a local cause. They can choose a cause they find important and define how they will support it. They can organize a fundraiser or a food drive.
Speakers from groups or institutions that influence the community can connect students to the people who work for community improvement.
A model election in the classroom can show what goes into the voting process and how easy it is to vote. It can also inspire the next generation of leaders who may run for office.
Civic Engagement Activities for High School Students
High school students require more in-depth projects and lessons that create deeper connections to the world around them.
Examples of classroom projects include:
- Analyze the data of youth voting patterns and chart what influences voting results.
- Create a campaign to increase voter turnout in the younger demographic.
- Create a presentation on how a historical political movement accomplished change.
- Interview a prominent community member they admire.
- Call, petition or email government officials about a community issue students feel passionate about.
- Explore how to run for office and design a campaign for a specific office.
- Learn how Bill Tracker works and demonstrate its use to peers.
For older students, civic engagement lesson plans can include community activities that foster deeper connections.
Examples of civic and community activities:
- Participate in a protest
- Attend a town hall meeting
- Organize a community event
- Volunteer for a local cause
Civic Engagement Builds Strong Foundations
Civic education allows students to gain knowledge of how their city, state and nation work. It provides an understanding of students’ duties and responsibilities as citizens. Students can learn how to impact the world they live in through civic engagement. They can build a foundation for themselves on how to be an active participant in a democracy. This foundation can inspire civic action and, in turn, strengthen the foundations of democracy for everyone.