by Jeff Fleming, KIPP Newark Collegiate Academy High School History department chair and teacher
Students who participate in a civic engagement curriculum build critical skills needed to attend and complete college successfully.
Presidential elections often create a renewed interest in civics, especially in the classroom where teachers utilize the opportunity to have in-depth lessons and discussions about U.S. history and government, economics, sociology and much more. Although students in K-12 grades are young, they too have the ability to voice opinions, concerns and advocate for the things they believe in.
A civic engagement curriculum offers students opportunities to acquire research and critical thinking skills at an early age that can help them become informed, engaged, and concerned global citizens as they move through their academic experience. It also helps them connect with their immediate communities and become active participants in their well-being. More importantly, students who participate in a civic engagement curriculum build written and verbal communication and leadership skills. These are all important in ensuring that students attend and complete college successfully.
There are many ways in which a school or classroom can build a more civically engaged student body and it all begins the moment students enter the school campus. For example, teachers and school administrators can help foster civic engagement by creating opportunities for students to be involved in school governance, and raising awareness about civically-minded events in their local communities such as: neighborhood cleanups, donor campaigns, and other volunteer opportunities. A school can also highlight the importance of student civic engagement by making it a part of the school mission and values, and including it in important documents, such as the Student Bill of Rights or school plan.
The timing for the application of a civic engagement curriculum couldn’t be better. Never before has there been a more important time for our students to be civically engaged because of the opportunity for impact on a number of issues our country is facing – equal access to selective schools for those who have been traditionally underrepresented, financial aid and student debt, DACA, uplifting communities impacted by unemployment, etc. Building the idea of the global citizen starts at school, and here are tips for building civic engagement into each class:
- Offer daily space for innovation and building
Build time into the class where students can talk about current events and how these connect to history. During the last Presidential Election, there was daily space in my classes to discuss issues related to the election such as the impact recent events and grassroots organizations, like Black Lives Matter, had on the election and where our country is heading.
- Encourage students to participate, take action and get involved in their communities
In order for students to become involved in local politics, they first need to understand and see firsthand how government works. By participating at a local level, whether through volunteer opportunities (for elementary, middle and high school students) or internships (for high schools students), they are more likely to see the direct impact in their communities.
- Provide outside resources
Offer opportunities for students to learn from external institutions and organizations within their communities. This will give students first-hand knowledge about how certain key issues affecting their neighborhoods are being addressed and championed.
- Build school spirit and community
Schools can build school spirit and community by incorporating a school-wide service project that students and educators can rally behind, monitor progress, experience impact, and see outcomes. For example, each year students at KIPP Newark Collegiate Academy take part in a day of fasting to raise awareness about hunger issues, complete service projects, and raise money for local charities. The Student Government Association organizes and executes the event and last year we had over 150 students participate. This experience allows students to see the impact they can have first-hand and encourages them to be change agents within the community.
A civic engagement curriculum can contribute enormously to a well-rounded education, and more importantly, to an engaged, informed and concerned citizenry. By encouraging and strengthening the students’ voice, educators can play a critical role in developing the next generation of community and business leaders, politicians, and voters.
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