So, given what we've read of the Federalist Papers so far, and what we've discussed in class, how did Madison's assessment of human nature lead to his belief in the need for a government with a strong system of checks and balances? Here's a different, increasingly common scenario: This time it's a couple of buses of fourteen-year-olds pulling up to the state house in Tallahassee, Florida.
The students march through the halls, as their social studies teachers narrate what they're seeing, and remind them of the legislative issue they have prepared to discuss with the state senators who have cleared time on their calendars to meet and pose for photographs. Their conversations mostly go well.
The state senators love the photo op and the chance to field softball questions from the kids about the bill for which students are lobbying.
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Teachers beam at the students, satisfied with themselves and pleased that their charges came across as well-prepared. Then the buses are loaded back up and everyone leaves, probably with a fairly strong understanding of their chosen issue and with the powerful lesson that where they live, individuals—even young ones—have a say in state issues. Potent stuff, certainly. The kids came to appreciate the core advantage of democracy: It endows every individual with political power, a power best exercised by the knowledgeable.
Students had read up on their issue, sought out their representatives, and lobbied for their cause: That's what citizenship in a democracy looks like. But while this type of field trip and other methods for teaching "operational citizenship" are essential, they're not sufficient. If not closely paired with core information on the structures and theories of government, these methods are akin to a science teacher's doing a lab on building model volcanoes without teaching students the geophysical causes of volcanic eruptions.
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It's science, it's cool, but it doesn't support in-depth understanding—and it would be a lot stickier if it did. Although students would probably learn something from building a model volcano, think of how much more they would learn if they did so after completing a few lessons on tectonic plates. Each action would take on extra layers of meaning, as the students connected what they're doing now back to what they learned before. A science class made up exclusively of labs would almost certainly be better than nothing, but infusing those labs with relevant knowledge makes for a far richer and more engaging experience.
Likewise, authentic civics activities unsupported by knowledge of government structures and basic political theory risk providing something of a civic education sugar rush.
Civics Education Testing Only Required In 9 States For High School Graduation: CIRCLE Study
The momentary thrill of public engagement doesn't provide enduring knowledge—the how it's done and why it matters—of deep civic education. Conversely, a close study of foundational documents and historical movements risks seeming irrelevant unless students can see their effects on the world today. In short, our zeal to make civics "relevant" could end with us forgetting to teach it—accidentally swapping out essential information for "hands-on experiences.
This is especially discouraging because studies of government, economics, and history give kids and adults the conceptual frameworks they need to interpret their civic experiences—from reading breaking news to engaging in exchanges with politicians to understanding the voting behavior of their families—with sophistication and nuance. Operational citizenship needs political theory; otherwise we end up with a civic-education snake with its head cut off—a whole lot of action that lacks intentionality, context, and, ultimately, meaning. Rather than thinking about traditional government and civics instruction as something separate or exclusive from field trips to state capitals or mini-lessons on current events, educators would do well to remember the power of each to enliven the other.
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So, rather than closing the textbook on Marbury v. Madison before the current events discussion, have your students keep it open. Ask them how that decision might help us make sense of confirmation-hearing debates between Supreme Court nominees and U.
Brown Center Report on American Education: An inventory of state civics requirements
Rather than scheduling that field trip to the Tallahassee state house during the unit on a particular local issue, schedule it during the unit on federalism. Make kids explore why there are so many different types of lawmakers in our country, charged with so many different tasks, often fighting over jurisdiction on so many different issues. Why make it so complicated, rather than just concentrating power in the hands of a few people—wouldn't things run more smoothly that way?
Suddenly, students aren't just walking down ornate halls to discuss a single bill, they are witnessing the material consequences of the founding fathers' fear of monarchy. Both of us have worked with Democracy Prep Public Schools, a charter network based in Harlem that has a mission of educating "responsible citizen scholars. In this capstone class, each student is tasked with developing a Change The World project, which diagnoses and addresses a social problem that irks them—whether local, national, or global.
Over the years, students have launched book drives for underfunded schools abroad, Black Lives Matter-inspired protests outside local police stations, mentorship programs that pair Democracy Prep high school students with middle school students, and literally hundreds more—all of them driven and implemented entirely by students. The project is a good example of what we've been calling authentic civics.
But here's the catch: Class time is generally divided between hands-on work on their projects and whole-class considerations of The Prince , Rules For Radicals , the Federalist Papers , and other seminal writings on government and citizenship. The class aims to acquaint students with timeless theories that teach how to accumulate and use political power at the very moment that they are expected to utilize those theories in service of issues that are important to them.
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I could hear the commotion of the venue as I exited the L train stop on West 14th Street. My friend Ava and I had lugged a bag filled with candy, stickers, info-sheets about The Civics Center , and a hundred voter registration forms across two different NYC Subway lines. Pre-registration rates vary widely among Colorado counties.
On the second day of a legislative session that introduced a squad of newcomers who had campaigned against disenfranchisement and corruption in Albany, the New York State legislature passed a sweeping raft of voter reforms that will establish the right for and year-olds to preregister to vote, among other critical changes.
But how will these reforms be implemented and will there be adequate funding to do so?
Many high school students are hunkered down now, studying for finals, finishing their term papers and planning for graduation and their future. For many, that future seems frightening amid reports of school shootings, climate change and increasing political polarization.
They feel they have little to no control over the future of their community, state and nation. But they do. Last week Tennessee joined states like Texas that throw up barriers to citizen-led voter registration drives. Despite ranking 45th in voter registration nationwide and 49th in voter turnout , the new Tennessee law threatens people and organizations helping to register their fellow Tennesseans with fines and criminal charges for a wide range of potential violations.
In under a month, a motivated group of juniors from Centennial High School in Compton, California showed me just how quickly students can affect change in their communities.