Over the past month, students at Majorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., have captured the nation’s attention with their courage, determination, and eloquence in their campaign against gun violence. How did they learn how to make such an impact? The students credited in part their government teacher and their school curriculum. Since 2010, Florida has required that its public schools teach civics.
Surprisingly, Massachusetts does not. But, this could change due to a bill that the state legislature is now considering. The proposed law would ensure that public schools teach civics and include student-led civics projects. It would also provide funding to train teachers to teach civics.
Traditionally, civics education has focused on teaching basic facts about government. Such knowledge is certainly necessary. But it is not enough. To cultivate actively engaged citizens, we need to provide students with real-world opportunities to develop and practice civic skills.
Some Massachusetts schools are already demonstrating the potential of hands-on civics.
In 2006, students in a science class at Springfield’s Renaissance School conducted a water-quality assessment of a local pond that was closed to the public. After a semester of research and tests, the students presented to the city their findings that the pond was safe for swimming.
This fall, eighth graders at Boston’s Orchard Gardens School organized a meeting with key city officials, after finding used needles in their playground, an unintended consequence of a nearby clean-needle program. Working with the city, they helped install needle-safe barrels at the edges of the school grounds.
When civics education is focused on concrete change in their community, it has the power to transform students into engaged citizens.
I have seen the impact in my own public school classroom. Last spring my students, upset by gun violence in their community, launched a collaboration with the police department, health department, sheriff’s office, and more than 30 houses of faith, nonprofits, and local businesses to run a gun-buyback program, which collected 39 unwanted guns in exchange for grocery gift cards.
In taking action, my students changed themselves — growing into confident young men and women who believed that they had ideas worth sharing. At the semester’s end, they insisted to me that they must run the gun buyback again next year.
Helping students practice civics is vital for ensuring a healthy democracy. Only 20 percent of eligible young people voted in the 2014 midterms. Yet a 2012 National Youth Survey found that students who participated in action-based civics were more likely to become politically engaged adults.
Across the Commonwealth, there are a number of organizations devoted to engaging students in real-world civic issues.
• Discovering Justice, a Boston-based nonprofit, uses courtrooms as classrooms, introducing students to the justice system by having them participate in mini mock trials presided over by real judges in courtrooms across the state.
• Generation Citizen, a national nonprofit, partners locally with 32 schools in eight cities, providing an action-civics curriculum and support to help students practice advocacy — learning to write op-eds, hold stakeholder meetings, and build coalitions. (As a teacher, I’ve consulted for Generation Citizen.)
• The Edward M. Kennedy Institute in Boston runs Senate simulations, where students take on the role of senators and representatives, participate in floor debates on proposed legislation, and practice negotiation skills.
The proposed legislation includes many creative steps to promote civic engagement. The law doesn’t require stand-alone civic classes, but rather allows civics to be embedded as an integral part of science, English, history, math or art curriculums. The bill would also establish a statewide competition to recognize students who create exceptional civics projects and create high school voter-outreach coordinators to register eligible 12th-graders to vote.
While Massachusetts would not be the first state to require that students learn civics, it would be the first to doing so by focusing on hands-on projects.
Civic engagement has deep roots in our Commonwealth, going back to local efforts by young people that sparked the American Revolution. It is fitting we should lead again, ensuring that our students have the practical skills to create positive change in their communities.
Jessica Lander is a teacher and writer living in the Boston area.