Teaching Civic Engagement in High Schools: An Interdisciplinary Approach

Like just about everywhere, at Elk Grove High School in Illinois, we spend large amounts of time and energy—not to mention financial capital—in meeting the needs of students who have found success in school to be increasingly difficult. 

Faced with this reality, a veteran social science teacher, Jim Arey, approached the administration at our school. He volunteered to lead a pilot course for sophomores that would use a civics focus to connect students needing an alternative to the traditional tenth-grade world history requirement. Teachers and counselors identified students to participate, and the results, after one year, have been overwhelmingly positive.

An Innovative Approach to Teaching Civic Engagement

Arey has spent much of his teaching career focusing on connecting students to the world around them using education as a direct link to civic engagement. For years, he led a service-focused program that provided students with opportunities to make improvements to their communities by directly linking up with local citizens, organizations, and programs to address the needs of community members. That program eventually ended. 

However, drawing on past experience, in 2018 Arey suggested and implemented a new approach called the Sophomore Leadership Cohort, which would be open to about 80 sophomores (in a class of about 475). He used his proven ideas and community contacts to initiate a yearlong opportunity where students research community issues, evolving into direct action by students to help solve those problems. A major difference between the two programs was the focus this time around on struggling sophomores, as opposed to being open to any student interested.

Arey teamed up with two of his colleagues—English teacher Kristen Guth Lesniak and physical education teacher Samir Chaudry—believing that an interdisciplinary approach would allow for students to spend a greater amount of time on their chosen community issues and also to ensure that students understood how civic engagement can play a role throughout the school day. By creating a three-period block for the program, our teachers developed a unique daily structure allowing for field trips, guest speakers, and in-depth research time. Students learned the details about what had caused the issue in the first place and really dove into realistic ways to solve the problem at hand.

A Student Project Example

One specific example related to student access to local public libraries. Many of us take for granted that we live in communities with accessible libraries, allowing for the free checkout of materials, internet access, and opportunities for community learning. At Elk Grove High School, a high percentage of our students live in mobile home parks, which in effect are unincorporated communities. As such, these students only gain access to libraries by paying hefty fees.

One pair of students decided to tackle this issue and fix the problem for community members. Armed with data that showed the educational disadvantage that these residents faced and a strong intent on fixing this inequity, they contacted officials from surrounding areas and requested that they be able to present this information at board meetings and public hearings. Arey also contacted the Citizen Advocacy Center in nearby Elmhurst, Illinois, to strategize ways to work through governmental channels to influence decision makers.

Ultimately, the students met with school district officials and suggested that students’ school identification cards be accepted at local libraries to allow for greater student access. Their logic was simple but powerful: If students are able to enter their local schools using their IDs, why doesn’t this extend to local libraries, which serve as tools for further self-improvement? Even as the school year ended, these students continued to work with the district superintendent’s office and other local officials to discuss ways to remedy the issue. Their quest for change extended beyond the school year.

An Opportunity for Reflection and Growth

The Sophomore Leadership Cohort had started the year with team-building activities and constantly required students to self-reflect and self-assess to, ideally, help them realize their true goals, motivations, and behaviors. There was also a personalized literacy focus. Lesniak chose texts that reflected the life experiences of students in the program and writing assignments that gave students a chance to share their own voice. The thinking of Arey, Lesniak, and Chaudry is that these students need a curriculum that matters to them and hands-on projects that motivate them. In this way, civic engagement as an educational approach became the conduit to academic engagement and levels of success that this particular group of students were not approaching just a year earlier.

Arey, Lesniak, and Chaudry used an exit survey to gain student feedback at the end of the year. Students identified the relationships they established with their teachers and fellow students as the most important factor in connecting them to the program and ultimately helping them succeed. Civic engagement, then, was the tool to personalizing their learning and reconnecting them to their own education.

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Want to further immerse your students in history? Learn more about the HMH Social Studies program for students in Grades 6–12.

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