ASCD Whole Child Bloggers

Engaging Students in Politics

Post written by Jill Bass, director of curriculum and teacher development for Mikva Challenge's Center for Action Civics. Connect with Bass by e-mail at jill@mikvachallenge.org. This post was originally featured in ASCD Express.

Every teacher has at least a handful of moments with students that make him or her think, "This is why I became a teacher." One such moment for me was on a campaign trip with about 60 students in Des Moines, Iowa, in 2007.

Mikva Challenge, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that helps develop youth leadership and engages young people in politics, had brought students from all around Chicago to spend five days working on the campaigns of the myriad candidates running for the Republican and Democratic presidential nominations.

I was chaperoning six students from the high school where I was teaching at the time, a school in a neighborhood with one of the highest unemployment rates and lowest education attainment rates in the city. A school of minority students, more than 90 percent of whom qualified for free and reduced lunch. A school where I was struggling to teach AP U.S. Government to students who were disengaged from politics and had few positive things to say about their government but much to say about what could be improved in their community.

It was in a campaign office in Des Moines where one student, a quiet and thoughtful young woman, turned to me and said with pure earnestness, "Ms. Bass, it's just like we've been learning about in class!"

I remember this moment so clearly not only because it affirmed for me the power of experiential learning, but also because I was as excited as she to see the political folly unfold just as we had discussed in class. Truth be told, this was my first time on the campaign trail as well, and I was equally thrilled to be a part of the action, to make my voice heard, and to see it all come to life.

Too often in today's society, we dismiss young people as apathetic and unengaged, lacking the ability and will to participate in the decision-making world of adults. Many people couldn't understand why my 16-year-old students would knock on doors in below freezing temperatures for an election they couldn't vote in.

But the truth is that when asked, young people have much to say and are eager to make their voices heard, particularly about issues that directly affect their lives, schools, and communities. When provided the opportunity to take action, students can make their voices heard by persuading others to vote for the candidate they support.

Additionally, young people have valuable expertise to contribute to public policy conversations. With teacher facilitation, students can marshal this expertise to examine their communities, identify key challenges, conduct research, set goals, analyze power, develop strategies, and take action. Thoughtful reflection at each step of the process ensures that students continuously engage in critical thinking and take stock of what is working, what they can improve, and what their next steps should be.

Over the years, my students used this activism process to combat high rates of teen pregnancy and AIDS by lobbying for improved sex education courses at the school, district, and state levels. They created student-led initiatives to address fighting in the school and violence in the neighborhood. These initiatives included peer juries, student-to-student mentoring sessions at freshman orientation, cooperation with the school administration to document and reward consecutive "days of peace," and a peace march in the community.

The four basic elements involved in these projects—youth expertise, youth voice, learning by doing, and reflection—comprise the core of action civics, a new kind of civics practiced not only by Mikva Challenge, but also by groups around the country like Earth Force, University Community Collaborative of Philadelphia at Temple University, Youth on Board, and Generation Citizen. These groups, collectively known as the National Association for Action Civics, all work to create and lead dynamic programs both in classrooms and outside of the traditional school day to leverage the energy, enthusiasm, and ambition of young people to tackle problems in their schools, their communities, and across the nation.

Having implemented action civics in my own class, and now supporting teachers doing the same through my work with Mikva Challenge, I can personally attest that when young people are provided with such rich and varied opportunities to participate in the political process, the effects are remarkable and far-reaching.

Students who campaign for candidates who represent their views and take action on issues that matter to them learn that politics is not just something that other people do. The realm of politics morphs in their eyes from an irrelevant assortment of dry facts and theoretical concepts into a collection of strategies and tools they can use to directly influence their own communities.

Perhaps most important, they walk away transformed and inspired: empowered with the skills, knowledge, and disposition to participate—to create change. To become, in short, exactly the kind of active and engaged citizen that our democratic tradition both deserves and desperately needs.

Meghan Goldenstein also contributed to this article.

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