How to Turn Civics Students Into Engaged Citizens

This is the final post in our four-part Teaching the Constitution series of blogs about civics and U.S. Supreme Court cases.

I taught civics for a number of years, and in truth, much of what was in the official curriculum was not inspiring to students. Yes, there were Articles of Confederation before the Constitution, but students didn’t find that exciting. Students can easily live a full, productive life without ever having learned about those Articles.

My goal became to motivate students to participate in our democracy, not to fill their heads with trivia. But how do we inspire civic engagement? I have a few suggestions that you can share with your students.

Clarify the complexity of politics.

My class was issue-based. We learned about how government works by looking at current problems—debt, immigration, income inequality, race relations, and gun violence, to name a few. Students (and adults!) tend to have knee-jerk responses: “Obviously what we should do is…” or “All we have to do to fix this is…” It seems that we are wired for simplicity, but I made clear to my students that there are no issues with an easy solution.

There isn’t necessarily a “my side, your side” but rather, many, many sides. I insisted that we should always look for complexity. If we balance the budget by cutting Social Security, that helps solve one problem, how many others does it cause? Everything is way trickier than we think, which makes government more interesting. Students need to understand that.

Encourage students to show up.

For the record, the current composition of the U.S. Congress: 85 percent white, 80 percent male, an average age of 60. The president is 73 years old, and his cabinet is 85 percent white and male with an average age of 62. When I told my students this during class, I said I wasn’t making a judgment about whether this was good or bad—and they realized that I would fit right in! I asked, “How did it happen that my cohort seems to be running the show?”

For one thing, we show up. Almost three-quarters of those considered to be baby boomers and older vote in every election while less than half of 18- to 24 -year-olds do. Then I asked them to consider a couple of questions. Is it possible that we might not be the best at representing minorities, women, and young people? Is it possible that others know things we don’t? Is it possible that we may be wrong sometimes? The national debt was an issue that came up repeatedly during the school year, which led to my next question: What if running the national debt from $3 trillion to $20 trillion in the last 30 years was a bad idea? The class got outraged when they realized that my cohort won’t be around to pay the bill. They realized that maybe the folks who will suffer the consequences ought to step up and be heard.

Teach students about long-term issues. The national debt and the environment provide an opportunity to make clear that political decisions now will affect them later. Point out that the No. 1 way to influence those decisions is to vote. True; they can’t vote yet, but they can start getting into a “must-vote” mindset, and students can encourage folks who can vote but don’t to change their behavior.

Tell them to accept that in politics, nothing is perfect.

I told students a story about my 4-year-old grandson who got upset when we were playing Chutes and Ladders. Most students knew the game, but if you don’t, there are 100 squares, and you roll the dice to move from 1 to 100. There are shortcuts. Land on Square 9 and you get a ladder that takes you up to Square 31! Land on Square 87 and you get a chute that takes you back to Square 24. There he was, almost done, with only 15 more spaces to go, and he rolled a two. Square 87. He was outraged. He wanted to quit playing. He didn’t like the rules. 

We see the same type of behavior in politics. In the last presidential election, many young people had an ideal candidate who didn’t win the primary. They didn’t like the rules, quit playing, and didn’t vote. Of course, the game continued without them. I told my students that choices in politics are never pure. They have to sometimes accept “as good as it gets” and “this is less bad than that” options. The idealism of youth has advantages, but it also has costs. Waiting for your perfect soulmate candidate to sweep you off of your feet will lead to a lifetime of waiting while others make all the decisions.  

Teach them how to make a difference in their community.

Look at the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It gave 18-year-olds the right to vote. How did that come to pass? No 18-year-olds were in Congress or in any state legislature that ratified the amendment. They couldn’t even vote for candidates friendly to their cause, right? Instead, they made their voices heard and influenced the people who could vote—the people in power. Yes, the No. 1 way to have influence is by voting, but it is not the only way to have influence. Teach your students about petitioning, letter-writing, organizing, and joining organizations that support their ideals.

Encourage your students to look locally. What have young people done in their neighborhood? There are also opportunities for teachers to get their students involved in different initiatives. For example, some developers wanted to bulldoze a wetland near a school in our district. A teacher at the school gathered his students who studied the wetland, came up with a presentation, and attended a city council meeting where the developer was asking for a variance. The students not only stopped the development but also got the city to turn the wetland into a protected, city-maintained public area.

When citizens get involved, they make differences every day. If students aren’t successful in finding ways to make a difference, it may be up to you to highlight opportunities in their communities just as the teacher concerned about the wetlands did. 

Bottom line: We should teach students how the government works. But we haven’t done our job if we don’t also encourage them to get involved.

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Learn more about HMH Social Studies, including the Judicial Inquiries program for middle and high school students to study 25 landmark Supreme Court cases that continue to impact their lives.