With kids back in school, it’s clear the country is in crisis: an insurrection, mass shootings, floods and droughts caused by climate change, a Supreme Court speeding the country backward, and a Congress that acts only in fits and starts.
What can we do about it? Perhaps more important for America’s future, how can we teach our kids what to do about it? In Massachusetts, we’re in a better position than most states. In 2018, Governor Charlie Baker signed a bill that would teach students how to be effective citizens. Last month, our state upped the investment when the Legislature voted for a 33 percent increase in civic education funds.
But the Commonwealth’s school districts don’t yet understand how to turn those funds into effective action, and that’s a shame. Over the past 50 years, US civics education has all but disappeared. Districts shifted funds into teaching STEM and getting kids to pass federally mandated tests. But we need both — citizens who have the skills for essential, innovative jobs and who can actively engage in their communities and government.
So here’s how we can do it right.
The 2018 Civic Education Bill required Massachusetts public schools to teach eighth-graders a civics curriculum that immersed them in a civic action project. That’s the right approach: Once students take hands-on action themselves, they feel more confident about getting involved in their communities and their government. Playing sports teaches more lessons in teamwork than reading about sports. It’s the same for learning how to be a citizen.
Yet this isn’t happening. In fact, a report prepared for the state Department of Education reviewing the 2018 legislation found that 37 percent of teachers had never heard of the civics project legislation; only 22 percent of middle and high school educators said they were familiar with the civics project legislation and knew how it would impact their instruction. Those teachers who were aware asked for more training on how to implement the civics projects. We need to get this right.
Here’s the key: We need to teach civics differently.
Traditionally, schools have had students sit still and listen to their teachers talk about great leaders — too often, white male leaders. Then students took a test to see how much they knew about their government. Some even learned to recite parts of the US Constitution. Of course, memorizing the branches of government and making students recite facts can be helpful — but it doesn’t teach them to be active citizens.
Two important things need to change. First, the “Great Man” version of history — in which a few powerful figures seemingly wave magic wands and transform the country — unintentionally leaves students feeling powerless, as if they were watching history unfold like a movie rather than helping to create it. For instance, when we teach that Woodrow Wilson gave women the right to vote or Abraham Lincoln freed people from slavery, we leave out all the people — everyday people — who wrote, protested, lobbied, voted, harangued, ran for office, and otherwise agitated for change.
In other words, traditional teaching leaves out the real story. Not only is the Great Man story false, but it leaves students feeling like history’s audience rather than its authors — especially if they are women or people of color, whom textbooks rarely cast in leading roles.
Second, teachers must help students practice democracy in their everyday lives. We can encourage students to run for student government, organize a mock trial, write letters to their city councilors or state representatives about an issue that matters to them, or protest a local policy.
In classrooms across the state, teachers are doing hands-on civic education. One group of students recently protested to their school board to get Columbus Day changed to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Other students have worked to have a Salem ‘witch’ be absolved. I’ve seen students organize to support local chapters of Black Lives Matter, work with their principal to change school policies so every classroom has recycling bins, launch letter-writing campaigns to their state senators about the lack of paid family sick leave, organize boycotts of companies that do not pay livable wages, and create and star in PSAs about the dangers of driving under the influence.
All of that is civics education in action.
Those are small and local examples. Hit with a much more horrific tragedy, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students have spent years becoming successful gun control activists following the 2018 school shooting there. They mobilized much of the country during the Trump years — and, after the Uvalde school shooting, helped pass a federal bill that raised the minimum age for buying rifles. They pushed the Florida Legislature to create a three-day waiting period for all gun purchases in the state. Those kids have turned themselves into heroes — after their own teachers taught them how to grab and move the levers of democracy.
But small or large, when students see for themselves that they have an effect, it changes them for life. They may still be upset when they watch the news — but they also know how to do something about it. At the very least, they can vote, which a third of Americans did not do in the contentious 2020 presidential election.
I have been teaching for almost 20 years, working with all types of students, from kindergarteners to PhD students. I have seen education transform lives and make lasting changes. But with all the demands on educators and schools, we have failed to deliver in one of our most essential roles: creating informed citizens. We need to use education’s power to invest in civics and transform how we teach history.
Massachusetts has already chosen to invest in civics. Now let’s get the teaching right.
Kaylene Stevens is program director for Social Studies Education at Boston University Wheelock College of Education & Human Development, a faculty affiliate with Boston University’s Center for Anti Racist Research, and co-author of “Teaching History for Justice: Centering Activism in Students’ Study of the Past.”