Engaging All Students in Civic Learning

As principals, one area that can get lost among our responsibilities is placing an emphasis and value on civic learning. Civics is not a government-mandated assessment, but rather a measurement of how we create an educated citizenry to progress the ideals of democracy and sustain and mold America for future generations. Creating a community, state, and country while preserving democracy is the ultimate test for which we are preparing students.

Education is an important conduit for civic learning. This American axiom was articulated by Thomas Jefferson: “An enlightened citizenry is indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic. Self-government is not possible unless the citizens are educated sufficiently to enable them to exercise oversight. It is therefore imperative that the nation see to it that a suitable education be provided for all its citizens.”

When youth are engaged in civic learning, those habits often carry into adulthood. However, civic involvement is predominantly centered around white and more affluent students. These students are more likely to participate in civic learning outside of school, such as through scouting, church youth groups, and community clubs. Students of color and from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely to be actively involved in the school and the community as a whole. Civic learning is an equity issue, and we as educational leaders have the capacity, access, and ability to address this important opportunity gap.

Closing the Gap

Our school bucks these inequitable trends. As an urban school serving students in grades 6–12 where nearly 70 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch and 80 percent of the students are Latinx or African-American, Marshall Fundamental Secondary School purposefully focuses on civic learning to ensure our students will have a voice in their community, state, and country.

As we worked to make civic learning a priority, the first thing we discovered is that we were already engaging students civically in multiple ways, but it was never an explicit focus. A similar pattern emerged as I worked with other schools—civic learning was present, but the tools needed to be sharpened and the successes celebrated more.

Four tenets will help guide the work of creating equitable voices in your school and for the future of our citizenry:

  • Be purposeful and explicit in your work around civic learning
  • Innovate
  • Connect your school with the community
  • Be the megaphone for the students’ voices.

Be Purposeful and Explicit

To improve civic learning, we created new activities for students; however, the biggest and easiest change was explicitly and purposefully calling out civic learning within the school community and letting people know we were facilitating students’ influence beyond the school.

In professional development, I pointed out that teaching informational writing—something we already were doing—is part of civic learning as it teaches students to communicate ideas. We focused the writing we were doing on civic-minded topics, such as researching and writing mock grant proposals to community organizations that would effect change in policy and practice.

Take what you already do and find a way to connect it beyond the school. With staff, students, and parents, align curriculum and projects to a greater purpose that you hope will influence the community. Let people know their ideas and actions matter—listen and respond. When students and teachers feel like the work matters, they will give more of themselves.

Innovate

We discovered that our curriculum and work often lacked authenticity. So we added a schoolwide project with the purpose of authentically engaging students in civics—we innovated.

As we had already publicly communicated a message that we wanted to be a driving force in our community, an opportunity came to us that we were ready to receive. Amid an epic drought in Southern California in 2014, Eliza Jane Whitman, founder and CEO of EW Consulting Inc. and a parent at the school, approached me and suggested that students create and develop solutions to mitigate water consumption.

Whitman flexed her professional connections and brought in speakers from local water agencies for an assembly to kick-start the project. She then recruited friends in the industry to adjudicate the student papers and presentations.

My role as principal was to get teachers on board to engage 2,000 students across all grade and ability levels to write papers and produce presentations. Using the department chairs, we developed a timeline for the project, a rubric for grading, and the role each subject level would have. Over four months, students studied the drought, developed solutions, and submitted papers, all while continuing their regular courses. A teacher cleverly named our work the “Innovation Project.”

The key to the Innovation Project’s success is that we defined the work and its purpose. The goal is to engage every student in work focused on making change, to include all academic subject areas to show how all subjects can be used to drive progress, to require a written document and an oral presentation, and to invite industry professionals to listen and provide feedback.

The work was messy, and not everyone agreed how—or even if—it should be done. It’s hard to get 80 teachers all working together at the same time on the same project. But we could not let a handful of things that didn’t go well undermine the entire purpose and work, so to turn this from a harebrained idea into something the school valued as an ingrained part of our school culture, we purposefully and collaboratively did the following: 1) participated in reflection together as a staff, 2) created a common understanding of why we were doing this work, 3) embraced negative feedback, and 4) celebrated.

We started by acknowledging that parts of our work did not go as planned or as smoothly as we had hoped. We then made sure we all came to a common understanding and belief around civic learning. The entire staff was in agreement that we wanted our students’ voices to be heard, valued, and respected in our community. We did not shy away from crucial or negative feedback, because it was within the context of making us better in future years.

Then, most importantly, we celebrated what we had accomplished. We read and listened to student projects and praised the work they did. We listened to the praise the legislators, scientists, and businesspeople heaped upon our students. We recorded the community partners on video praising the work to take back to the entire staff. The students and teachers felt validated and invigorated to continue. We taught our students to be resilient and not give up, and we as a staff were resilient and didn’t give up.

We have completed five consecutive years of Innovation Projects, each year refining the project to make it more powerful and meaningful. We have worked on vast topics: drought, transportation, waste, housing, and health. Whitman wasn’t able to continue helping to the extent she did in the first year and some of the original teachers who led the work have moved on, but the project continues because it is not about a single person. It is about our belief in civic learning as a central and articulated part of our school culture.

Connecting the School and the Community

A key component from the outset was the intentional connection of our school to the community. Each year, the teachers select the top papers and presentations from the Innovation Project, and those students are taken on a field trip to present to scientists, legislators, and businesspeople. Students have presented at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Metro headquarters in downtown Los Angeles, city hall, and CalTech. Judges have been so impressed that students have been invited to return and present at board and council meetings to have their ideas considered; one judge helped a student start his own 501(c)(3). Students have been offered summer internships and several have earned college scholarships based on their Innovation Project work.

One of the more memorable outcomes occurred as the students presented at La Kretz Innovation Campus, a space in Los Angeles that houses green energy startup companies. The innovators working in this space came to the amphitheater and sat down to listen to our students because they could hear their presentations over the speaker in their office and were curious. Several of the startup CEOs then spoke alongside the students, jumping in to ask questions. Kismet brought together the innovators and bright minds of green energy with local public high school students of color from low socioeconomic backgrounds in a way that never would have happened if we had not purposefully and explicitly put our student voices out in the community.

We had to be in a place and willing to take on the extra work at the leadership level to make it happen. While one parent provided a significant amount of personal and political capital, most of our students and families did not have that access. In subsequent years, it has often been me getting on the phone and cold calling someone. Just by telling the person on the other end of the phone that I am a local secondary public school principal, I have been able to strengthen connections for our students. This concept of an authentic community-based project for every student began because Whitman came to us. It continued because we reached out and furthered our connections.

Student Voice

Work such as the Innovation Project gave our students a platform to develop ideas and have them considered. If the school had not connected with industries and made the effort to bring the students to them, their voice would not have reached as large of an audience. It was important for us to take the students to industry rather than have the industry professionals come to the school—it changes the dynamic of what they are doing and why they are doing it. When students leave the school to do their work, it gives them the mindset that their ideas are going more places.

Student government is an established program that also can be used to amplify student voice beyond fundraising and planning activities. Use student governance to engage students in the community and develop ideas for reaching out to the community, including local leaders. One member of our student government asked for a tour of city hall. The students sat in on city council, just to observe. This turned into summer internships with city council members and student voice on the city youth council. Once connections are built, they snowball, and soon everyone wants to take part. And when students feel their voice matters within the system, they will not try to disrupt it to be heard.

Civic learning is a vital part of preparing all students to engage in the community beyond high school. Currently, affluent white students have the most opportunities for civic learning in school, which carries over into their involvement in local communities in adulthood. To change the paradigm, we need to involve all our students in civic learning. It does not need to be a new initiative we add to the school; teaching civics is already a graduation requirement. But we can expand authentic engagement to all grade levels and all students by purposefully calling out civic learning in what we do and engaging students in simulations and purposeful involvement in the community.

Thomas Jefferson spoke his vision of public education almost two and a half centuries ago, and his words still ring true. The way to improve society is to build up youth—all youth from every ethnicity and socioeconomic class—to take the lead.

Mark Anderson is the principal of Marshall Fundamental Secondary School in Pasadena, CA. He is the 2019 California Principal of the Year.

1 Comment

  • Anastasios Koularmanis says:

    Mark,
    I enjoyed reading your article. For us implementing a Civics Curriculum was about building character. We believed that these two ideas go hand in hand. This is the only was our students can feel empowered to bring about positive change for for their future.

    Anastasios Koularmanis

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