New Civics: Building Engaged Communities from the Classroom Up

Written by Maureen Kelleher

Jessica M

Jessica Mouttet could be a poster child for all the obstacles teachers face in trying new approaches to civics education. She teaches a state-mandated civics course to 7th-graders in Miami. Her curriculum is tightly prescribed and ends with an exam that has high-stakes consequences for her students—and her paycheck. On top of all that, she’s a young, motivated teacher in a school where the overall energy for change is low.

Situations like Mouttet’s drive attrition rates among young teachers. As many as 20 percent leave within the first five years of their careers. But she’s not leaving. In fact, she and other Miami teachers are working together to bring new civics—an approach that encourages students to bring their voices and perspectives to bear on issues facing their communities—to Miami in creative ways. Mouttet says she sees possibilities in options like “a club, or in an elective like law studies.”

Meanwhile, teachers from more than half a dozen schools in Charlotte, North Carolina are forming a network to showcase their students’ action civics projects and expose more educators to the possibilites. “ We want to build a movement around new civics,” said Amanda Berger, a middle-school social studies teacher. “We want to help teachers reignite their passion.”

IMG_9142On June 24-25, more than 200 educators from around the country took part in the New Civics Practitioners Conference, co-sponsored by Mikva Challenge and the National Action Civics Collaborative. The conference had two clear goals: to make space for educators to share best practices and to build grassroots energy for a teacher-led New Civics movement.

The need for a new model of civics education is great. “The United States is more politically polarized now than at any time since 1880,” said Diana Hess, a Spencer Fellow researching schools’ ability to foster political participation. “It used to be that moderates participated in political activity. That’s less so now.” But her new book shows that teachers and schools can boost the chances students will take part in political life.

Forget the civics classes of yesteryear, where a teacher lectured and student voice was limited to reciting the preamble to the Constitution. Today, teachers from many disciplines are looking to reinvent civics education in ways that connect students’ lives and communities to public institutions and the democratic process. The conference featured many paths to that goal, from deliberating controversial issues or fact-checking Internet rumors to planning and executing projects that solve problems in their communities.

IMG_9119 IMG_9128 IMG_9134All participants walked through Mikva’s Issues to Action curriculum, through which students select an issue in their school or community, conduct action research to inform their thinking, analyze the power relationships involved in implementing change, develop change strategies and take action. Many teachers found the experience inspiring. “I’m going to try my hardest to implement some of these things because I think they are so valuable,” said a participant from Akron, Ohio.

During a panel discussion, leaders of schools and districts where new civics is taking hold shared their thoughts and experiences in making new civics a reality. As two panelists acknowledge, the first step is often just shutting the door and doing it—asking forgiveness, not permission.

But the later steps—bringing principals, multiple schools and district leaders on board—require an organizing strategy. “You’ve got to do your homework, show that you’re prepared and be willing to speak up,” said Tony Terry, principal of the RISE small school within Hawkins High School in Los Angeles. Referring back to the six-step toolkit for taking Issues to Action, Terry said, “As teachers, we’ve got to be willing to do those things.”

A coalition strategy worked in Chicago, where service learning is a graduation requirement and central office provides tools and curricula. “We had people inside the system to advocate, teachers to create demand, and nonprofits to push from outside,” said Jessica Marshall, manager of civic engagement for the Chicago Public Schools. “A civic leader—the McCormick Foundation—stepped up, not just financially, but politically. They can secure meetings with district leadership that I can’t.”

When an Orange County teacher asked how they could bring this kind of training back home to teachers who weren’t able to attend, the answer came back to organizing. “If you’re that strong in demanding it, you’ll get it,” said Brian Brady, Mikva’s executive director.

By the time Miami’s Mouttet was heading for the airport, she and her local colleagues had planned to pilot action civics in a handful of schools, relying on law studies teachers. For herself, Mouttet was planning to work with her principal to find ways to bring action civics to the state-mandated course. “It takes big steps,” she said, “and I think I’m ready to start walking.”

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A huge thank you to The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Robert R. McCormick Foundation for making this conference possible.