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12 Ways to Activate and Inspire Civic Engagement in the Classroom and Beyond

12 Ways to Activate and Inspire Civic Engagement in the Classroom and Beyond

Written by Liana Test
September 01, 2017

How do you teach to, teach for, embody, inspire, or facilitate discussions about civic engagement in your context, subject area, space?

That’s the question I posed to a group of 10 Writing Project teachers and site leaders seated around the table from me at an interpretive circle in Denver, Colorado at a multi-program research design retreat. If that sounds like a mouthful, the long and short of it is that Writing Project folk from across the network recently came together for a week to create and collaborate with the aim of leaving Denver with a set of resources that would serve educators into the future.

At the retreat, I worked on curating a collection of civic engagement resources, but I quickly realized I didn’t know much about how, in these especially fraught times, educators were talking to their learners about civic engagement.

In an hour-long discussion, I got the following advice from educators working in classrooms, Writing Project sites, and libraries. These 12 tips are dynamic but easy to implement strategies for bringing civic engagement into your teaching today.  

1. Don’t just assign work on civic engagement, teach it.
Many say that teaching is itself a political act. To this end, a deepened understanding of civic engagement and your own practice of it benefits students. If you’re feeling a little rusty, join a local group or community of practice to engage in civic dialogue with others (in person or online). Practice makes perfect!

2. Develop your own habits and routines of civic engagement.
Embody civic engagement in your own life and work. Work with community members, organize, participate. What do your own civic moves look like?

3. Build opportunities for learners to speak back to power by focusing on evidence and argument.
To start, ask students to analyze a debate or speech, for instance, rather than focusing on their personal opinions. Students are able to understand and critique politicians and those in power by focusing on evidence and principles of argument.

4. Learn from history.
Have students watch and analyze a historical presidential debate. Explore historical archives. Ask them to make connections between historical events and current day topics. The past is fertile with lessons that can be carried over to the present.

5. Encourage learners to express their opinions using different media and genres.
Support students in meaningful inquiry processes and in developing informed opinions. Then encourage them to express those opinions in creative ways; invite students to create political art, film PSAs, or make their own infographics.

6. Be mindful of when and why difficult discussions make you feel personally uncomfortable.
Having political discussions in the classroom (or across the dinner table for that matter) can be difficult. Don’t be afraid to tackle these tough–but often so important–conversations, but practice self care, too.

7. Think about how to support civic engagement beyond the classroom–in your district, Writing Project site, and community.
How will you continue the discussion and action outside the classroom? Maybe you’ll start a reading group at your local Writing Project site or at your local library. Maybe you’ll volunteer to work the polls. The possibilities are endless!

8. Let your peers guide you.
Learn what your fellow educators are doing to foster civic engagement and to broach political topics in your context. What works for your population of students or in your region?

9. Let your students guide you.
Students are often involved in civic or community projects or organizations; tap into their expertise in the classroom, or think about how to engage the creativity that all your students possess. What issues, large scale or personal,  interest and empower them? Which ones might inspire them to take a meaningful, active stance?

10. Work up to polarized topics.
You don’t have to start with the most controversial topics. Start with a focus on teaching the skills and dispositions that allow for thoughtful engagement and discussion. Move from the personal to the political.

11. Keep the conversation local.
All politics are local, so the old adage says. Ask students to consider issues that are particularly pressing for the local community. You can focus on topics that span party lines, too.  

12. Raise the stakes of civic discussions by supporting students to share their opinions with wider audiences that represent diverse points of view.
Ask students to take their opinions public by writing letters to the editor of your local newspaper, sharing their opinions on twitter via an established hashtag, or by connecting to local politicians or members of your community.

I hope you’ll find this advice as useful as I did and be inspired to support students’ civic engagement in your own context. The health of our democracy depends on it!