Preparing Our Students to Be Civically Powerful


When was the last time you were civically active?

preparing-our-students-to-be-cThis was the first question we asked our partners at the kickoff of ASCD’s civic engagement design challenge, a ten-week project for which we partnered with IDEO’s Teacher’s Guild.  Throughout the challenge, we encouraged educators to ask themselves: How might we prepare our students to be civically powerful and use their unique voice to address issues that matter to them?

Asking these questions during the 2016 election season has the obvious intention of drawing both educators and students’ attention to the then-upcoming election in the United States. But the impetus behind the challenge goes much deeper than voting to one of advancing social justice through civic engagement. How are we ensuring that students are learning to make their voices heard on a daily basis, throughout their schools, communities and country?

In recent years, we’ve seen turmoil in the United States that could rival that in the civil rights era. Issues of social justice are ever present in today’s conversations, and classroom conversations are no exception. Just consider the widespread impacts of the #BlackLivesMatter movement,[1] LGBTQ rights legislation,[2] or the Syrian refugee crisis[3] on our students, to name a few. But despite the fact that 2015 saw a surge in protests throughout the United States,[4] voter turnout in 2016 was at an all time low in 20 years.[5] So what can be to blame for the discrepancy?

We have the opportunity to make sure that tomorrow’s voters are more engaged by connecting current issues of social justice to active voter and civic participation. Maybe we’re not meeting students with the definition of civics that is meaningful to them. The current state of social flux reminds us of the urgency of equipping students with the skills they need to create a world in which they will thrive, and to rethink what civics means for the future. A conversation about civics might imply a push to exercise one’s civic right to vote, but it should also be an opportunity to teach power dynamics and identity, to learn about individual rights and why empathy is an important life skill, and to discuss how both local politics and globalization may equally impact one’s community. As Eric Liu, founder of Citizen University, urges, “We have a responsibility to be co-authors and co-creators… [and to] reimagine civics as the teaching of power.”[6]


How students plan to change their communities in the next 5 years

ASCD is far from the first organization to talk about civics education, nor the first to think about how it applies to students’ lives broadly; in fact, many organizations specialize on this issue specifically. But as an education association representing 125,000 educators globally, we would be remiss to not engage in this conversation. Over the past several months throughout this challenge, we have embraced this work through conversations with both educators and students in several mid-Atlantic region schools to help ourselves gain some insight on the subject.

Much like our initial call for action for educators, opening questions with the word “civics” tends to fall flat. The students we spoke with are already thinking beyond a vote. When we replaced the word “civics” with “social justice,” the floodgates opened for complex conversations about systemic racism, violence and drug abuse, historical impacts of redlining, the school-to-prison pipeline, and the list goes on. Students are ready to be civically active if we can just give them the tools that will engage them and allow them to elevate their voices in ways that relate to their own situations.

 Students are ready to be civically active if we can just give them the tools that will engage them and allow them to elevate their voices in ways that relate to their own situations.Gone are the days where School House Rock provides sufficient support for students to become civically active. Furthermore, relying solely on conventional approaches to civic education reinforces a political system that is based on structural inequalities, which in itself was designed to exclude marginalized groups from participating and often still does.[7] To reach the level of engagement needed to see positive social change for the future generation, we must invite and embrace active civic engagement from all members of society, starting with our approach to engaging students on issues of social justice. The issues that are ever present in the news and in protests are likely to be top of minds for our students, too, so let’s engage them with what matters most to them. Our students are the power of our future to right the social wrongs of the past.

So as we think about civic education, let’s ask ourselves what our true intentions are. If a once-every-four-years vote is the extent of our civic knowledge, our efforts might fall flat. Maybe we truly do need to rethink what it means to be civically powerful, and empower our students accordingly.

If you’re interested in reading more about the Civic Engagement Design Challenge with IDEO, click here.

Kate Hufnagel is the whole child project manager at ASCD.