Podcast: Preparing Future Voters and the Influence of Educators

35 Min Read
WF1286709 STF Inline Graphic Update 3

Why is civic education important in schools? Today we attempt to answer that question in the second episode of our new series, Shaping the FutureTM! In this episode, our host, Dr. David Dockterman, is joined by Sylvia Acevedo, Chief Executive Officer of the Girl Scouts of the USA and author of Path to the Stars: My Journey from Girl Scout to Rocket Scientist, and Dr. Emma Humphries, Chief Education Officer at iCivics. Tune in to hear about why we study civic education, the objectives of civic education in schools, and how to encourage our students to be engaged in their communities and understand their role in our democracy.

HMH Podcast: Episode 2 of Shaping the Future

Shaping the Future is hosted by Dr. David Dockterman, better known as “Dock”—an education lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education—as he talks to both education experts and thought leaders from other industries. Together, Dock and the co-guests will examine leading issues from across the K–12 industry and offer insights for educators to best “shape the future of education.”

You can follow Shaping the Future wherever you listen to podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts.

A full transcript of the episode is below. This episode was recorded via phone.

The views expressed in this podcast are those of the guest and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.

Expert Insights: Civic Education in Schools

Onalee Smith: Welcome to HMH Learning Moments, a production of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I'm Onalee Smith. I work at HMH and this is our second installment of Shaping the Future. Here, we'll examine leading issues in K–12 education and hope to inspire new innovations based on what other industries are doing successfully. Our host is Dr. David Dockterman, also known as Dock, who is an education lecturer at Harvard University. In today's episode we're covering civics education and the role of schools. Dock is joined by Dr. Emma Humphries, chief education officer at iCivics, and Sylvia Acevedo, CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA and author of Path to the Stars: My Journey from Girl Scout to Rocket Scientist. Now, I'll turn it over to Dock.

Dr. David Dockterman (Dock): In the 1770s, at the birth of the United States’ democracy, Thomas Jefferson called for educating the public regardless of wealth or background. Jefferson recognized that a successful democracy requires educated citizens able to sort through information, weigh options, make responsible choices, and protect themselves from the tyranny the nation had just rejected. A lot has happened in the last two hundred forty years, from that early focus on civics. Dr. Humphries, Emma, can you catch us up and give us some current context for thinking about civic education today?

[Note from Dock: Read Jefferson’s Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge and check out pages 3-4 of this letter from Jefferson to George Wythe.

Dr. Emma Humphries: So, if the original purpose of schools in the founding era into the progressive era was all about preparing students for their roles as citizens, we really got away from that in the 1950s and that has slowly brought us to where we are today. So, 1957 the Russians launched Sputnik. The Americans lose their ever-loving mind and decide that the only reason to educate kids is to compete on the global scale. And so this huge focus on math and science and technology and engineering and mathematics, which are all wonderful and I think all those subjects are really important, but certainly not to the detriment of the original mission of our schools.

[Note from Dock: For some thoughts about US educational responses to Sputnik and other momentous events, check out this short summary. Global competitiveness is a recurring theme driving school curricula and goals.]

Emma (cont.): And so you know I'm not going to say that overnight after Sputnik we stopped teaching civics, but we really have seen a huge decline that we're just now starting to climb out of. It used to be that American students took at least three courses in civics and that their education for democracy started in elementary school and spiraled up through their grade levels, culminating in a 12th-grade senior-level American government course that really focused on the student’s roles as citizens. Now we’re somewhat satisfied if students at least get one semester of American government in 12th grade. And that's just not enough.

[Note from Dock: For a fairly recent survey of the state of civics education in the United States, see the 2018 Brown Center Report on American Education. We have work to do.]

Emma (cont.): A lot of kids, arguably the kids who need it the most, don't make it to 12th grade. And even if you do, being introduced to the subject of democracy for the first time when you're a senior in high school, when you're on the verge of full adulthood, that's ridiculous. We wouldn't tolerate that in any other subject area. But for some reason we tolerated this most important subject area in my opinion. So we're seeing the effects of this, that we're not fully preparing our students for their roles as citizens and so we're starting to see a bit of a comeback. In fact, folks refer to the 2016 presidential election as the civic Sputnik moment, where people realized oh my goodness we have a crisis here, and a crisis that could potentially be solved with more and better civic education. And so it seems today that these calls for civic education are growing louder and stronger and they're coming from all parts of the ideological spectrum. This is not a Left issue or a Right issue. Most people agree that we need more and better civic education. However, I'm sure we'll talk about this more later, what that civic education should look like–there's wide disagreement there.

Sylvia Acevedo: Hi, this is Sylvia. I'm very proud as the CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA that we have had civics in our mind and focus as an organization from the very beginning, and at Girl Scouts we take a nonpartisan approach. We like to say we are neither red nor blue, but we're Girl Scout green. And we very much focus on getting girls the skills that they need to create the positive change they want to see in the world. And so as an organization, we do not take stands on a variety of things, but rather we give girls the skills so that they are the ones that can create the change they want to see in the world. As an American institution, American icon, the Girl Scouts, we’ve had that focus in our over 100 years of existence. And as a result of that, you can really see that in our electoral body, more than half of all female elected officials in America were Girl Scouts. In Congress today, 60 percent of the women in Congress were Girl Scouts. In the Senate, almost 75 percent of the female senators were Girl Scouts. All three secretaries of state were Girl Scouts. When you think about the African-American women in Congress, over half—56 percent of them—were Girls Scouts.

[Note from Dock: See Girl Scout Alums by the Numbers]

Sylvia (cont.): So we have focus on civics from our very beginning. Now you've mentioned that there's been most recently taking civics out of schools, and we've noticed that as well. And so we have introduced even more civics and citizen badges. I'm been CEO for about three years now and in every year we've had at least three state laws changed by girls in high school. So we know that if they know what to do and have been trained, they really know how to create the positive change. And in the last election in November, the youngest person ever elected in the state legislature in New Hampshire—she was a Girl Scout. And she was elected because, as her Gold Award project, she got the law changed to end child marriage in New Hampshire. And from that she used that and became elected at 19 years old last November to the state legislature in New Hampshire. So we're very much about teaching girls how to be a good neighbor, and I’ll give you some of the badge names: Celebrating Community, Inside Government, Finding Common Ground, Behind the Ballot, How to Form Public Policy. And now we've announced additional badges for democracy because we're noticing that girls don't know about our three legislative systems. They're not as informed about the U.S. political system, the meaning of democracy, how the Constitution was formed and what it means to you. So Girl Scouts we're very active in many things, STEM (science, technology, engineering, math), but also we are the only youth nonprofit focused on making sure all of our members know about their role in civics and in America.

Dock: That's really impressive, Sylvia. I had no idea how the Girl Scouts are a feeder for our political system and for bringing women into legislature and into the legislative process. That's so fabulous. I was on the web site and looking at the initiative GIRL, G. I. R. L.: Go getter, Innovator, Risk-taker, Leader. And that those values are so wonderful and encourage the kind of positive action that you're describing, this move toward positive change.

Sylvia: Thank you.

Emma: I love what the Girl Scouts are doing and I think it's really important that we sort of come at this from multiple approaches. It's not enough for a kid to sit through a year-long middle school civics course and then a semester at 12th grade. If it's not spiraled up, if it's not integrated, if it doesn't go beyond the classroom, it doesn't really have meaning. And so, yes I want the kids to know the three branches, and sure it would be great if they could list some members of the Supreme Court. But I also want them to be able to identify problems in their communities and talk to folks and bring people together to identify a solution and then actually do something about it. And the Girl Scouts provide that kind of space, that extra-curricular space. The constraints of the classroom, the scope and sequence, there's so many demands on teachers, social studies and otherwise, there's not enough time. Extra-curricular opportunities provide the time and the space for students to really experiment with their civic skills, right? It’s sort of the laboratory of civics, these extra-curricular spaces. And so to have a kid taking a civics course and learning about local government and learning about the decision-making process and then teaming up with her troop members to actually do something towards earning a badge, but also just towards effecting positive change, that's hugely powerful. And when a young woman or a young man has an experience like that, it's going to stick. They’re so much more likely to engage as adults. It just has so much more meaning. Let me be clear I want more civics instruction. I want more time carved out of the instructional calendar for students to learn about their roles as citizens and to learn the ways in which they can engage. That's hugely important. But I think it's inadequate, if they're not also having these experiences outside of the classroom. And so I love that Girl Scouts is making this a priority. I think they always have. They're just sort of explicitly naming it. Sylvia please correct me if I'm mischaracterizing it.

Sylvia: You're absolutely right. And when we saw a lot of people who wanted to effect change, but what they did is they just marched in a parade or some other activities, but they didn't know the rules of how do you actually form public policy. How do you make that kind of lasting change that you want to see reflected. We realized that a lot of people didn't know that. And that's one of the reasons we doubled down, and as you said become much more explicit about civics education. Because again we want. . . we're not telling girls what to believe in. But whatever they value, we want them to be able to know how to express that. And what's really fun is one of the first badges that we what we called fast tracked was the Daisy Good Neighbor badge, because we had badges from civics from Brownies all the way to Ambassadors, which are 18 year old, but we didn't have any for our Daisies, which are our young girls. And we started the Good Neighbor badge. And what immediately happened was that you're supposed to meet your neighbors, right? Because in the day of Facebook and Instagram, your Facebook followers, your Instagram followers, they're not going to feed your dog or they're not going to water your plans when you're gone. But that Girl Scout next door will. And the other thing is to learn about civic institutions in your neighborhood, and what young girls did is they frequently went to fire stations. And the firefighters explained how they saved lives and with resuscitation masks and the girls—remember we're talking five- and six-year-old girls frequently said “Well what about the pets?” And the firefighter said, “Well, we don't have pet resuscitation masks.” The girls said, “Why not?” And they said, “Because we don't have a budget for it.” So across the nation, girls went and raised money and bought pet resuscitation masks. And what was so amazing was when they gave them to the firefighters, the firefighters then saw this was a great PR moment and they brought the mayor, a city councilor, the fire chief, and they got their pictures. And so later on those girls know as they get older, one of them saw a park that needed repair in her neighborhood and she remembered that guy that wanted a picture with her, wrote him a letter, and said my Brownie troop is interested in revitalizing that park. We're here to help. So of course the mayor is not going to turn down that offer and they revitalize the park, right? So now that girl at a very young age in that troop, they're learning these skills, they know how to create public policy, right? And to me that was a great example of a girl knowing and learning how to effect public policy. How change gets made. Implementing it. And then the community benefits as a result. That’s civics to me.

Dock: I love this focus on teaching the process and giving kids this early experience with it. That initial experience does set the stage for later action and part of that it seems like is real tangible face-to-face interactions in the community. So it's not an either online or offline, but putting an emphasis on the kind of personal connections in your neighborhood, in your community. So, Emma, how do you think about what does it mean to be a good citizen today? What should we be teaching our students in school? Great extracurriculars going on there. It sounds like the Girl Scouts are doing wonderful things in promoting positive change and teaching girls about that process of policy change and working through the system, working through a democratic system in order to get the change that you want. That kind of action, just talking about what to do, it seems like it's not enough. So what's the role of schools here in not just providing the information, but giving students that experience with acting on it?

Emma: I would say that it starts at the state level and so at iCivics, we’re an educational and tech nonprofit where we're known for our games, and we have over 200 free and effective and engaging learning resources that are used by 50 percent of middle school social studies teachers, 30 percent of high school social studies teachers. But we know it's not enough without more action at the state level and more prioritization of civic education. And so iCivics leads a coalition the CivXNow Coalition. It’s over 100 organizations. We're all committed to more and better and nonpartisan civic education and so we want to see, first at the state level, we want to see more robust civic learning standards. We want to see greater course and time requirements so that students are actually again in class learning about civics. We want to see assessment and accountability measures that address not just the knowledge of citizenship but also skills and behaviors and dispositions that make up this sort of comprehensive preparation for civic life. You need teachers who really know this stuff and are passionate about this stuff. So we need better pre-service requirements so that teacher preparation accounts for teachers being prepared to be civics teachers. We need professional development. So when a geography or history teacher is told, Hey you're teaching civics next year, she's excited and feels prepared, right? She feels that her school district and her school’s investing in her learning so that she can be an effective civics teacher. We also want to see stronger school climate, culture, and leadership that really promotes democratic values. It's sort of silly to teach kids about our democratic republic and their role in it in institutions that are not run democratically. And I don't want to be hyperbolic, but schools might even feel like prisons. The focus is so much on perhaps student safety and student learning that they forget to give students a voice. And so you need to have a school climate that actually promotes and models what it means to be democratic, and you need to give students a voice. And not just a voice over sort of silly things like what color we're going to paint the bathrooms, but voices over things that are meaningful to them. A great example of this is at Mastery Charter School in Philadelphia, their Shoemaker campus. Their principal is leaving and they needed a new principal and they asked the students—they asked the students—what is important to you in your next principal. And the kids were loud and clear. They said we want a principal of color, we want a principal who will listen to us. And they actually moved forward in hiring a principal of color. That's an example of a youth voice. That's an example of creating a democratic school culture so that kids aren't just learning about democracy in sort-of isolation from what it means to live in a democratic society. So those are the things we're pushing for. We've achieved this in Florida. We've achieved this in Massachusetts and Illinois and you know forty seven more states to go. And I think it's important that states decide for themselves what this sort of policy should look like. But the CivXNow movement is certainly giving a lot of guidance there in the form of a policy menu and saying here's what we recommend. Here's what research shows will work if you're serious about preparing your students for their roles as citizens in our democratic republic. Here's what we think you should think about implementing in your state.

Dock: That's great. I like this democratic school culture. Certainly student agency. . . the research suggests that student agency* is a great motivator. There's also some wonderful research about self transcendence** and adolescence that adolescents in particular want to feel like they're a part of something bigger than themselves that they are doing something important and giving them a genuine opportunity to do that can help them feel much more engaged and attached to school. Are these opportunities equally available to all students?

[Notes from Dock:

Emma: There's a few parts to this that I can think of and I'm sure there's many more. One is just sort of equitable access to the opportunity to learn about our democracy and learn about citizenship. You know if students are being pulled out for literacy instruction and remediation and they're getting pulled out of their civic courses or social studies course, there's a problem there. And there is data to suggest that that happens more to students of color and students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, and that's problematic. Something we hear a lot is this term the “civic achievement gap”, that students of color and Latinx students score lower on measures of civic knowledge and learning than their peers from white middle-class and upper-class communities, and so there's this focus on sort of closing that gap. I certainly would welcome it, although I do find the language to be a little off-putting, the scaffolding. Part of the problem is that we're not giving enough recognition to the civic learning and expressions of citizenship that come from communities of color. They might just look different from that same learning and those expressions that happen in white communities and so I'm careful when I use the term “gap”, particularly in the context of civics, because if we were trying to measure white middle-class kids by the same markers of citizenship as their peers from communities of color and Latinx communities, well then those white kids would probably fall into that gap. And so I think we just need to be a little bit more intentional there when we use those terms and be clear about what we mean. So I think equity again it means sort of having equitable access to civic learning experiences. It also means providing civic learning experiences that are culturally relevant for students and that take into account their lived experiences and acknowledge and value those experiences even if they look different from the experiences of students or communities that are white middle-class, higher-class, et cetera.

[Note from Dock: Read more on the "civic achievement gap" here and here.]

Sylvia: What we’re really focused on is so we want to make sure that girls understand the system, the rules, and then how they can affect change. So that means understanding what is a democracy, you know, and you alluded to that at the very beginning of the introduction when Jefferson said it's a representative form of government. People have to be informed, so that's very important. But then also how to understand how to disseminate whether information is hyperbolic or is fact based. And because these decisions will be made and they will affect your life, your family's life, your community's life. So that is a really powerful concept that if you can understand the system and then you can understand what changes you can make to that, then your voice, your community's voice, can be heard. And so for us at Girl Scouts, we are very diverse. A third of our population is low socioeconomic. And when we look at the different heritage groups, for example African-American, from five to eighteen that age group that's 14 percent of the U.S. population and the Girl Scouts is 12 percent. And then for Latina we are 14 percent of our population. But we have a bigger gap there because that should be 1 in 4. So that's one area that we're addressing. But if they know the rules, then they're able to bring in who they are to affect the kind of change they want to see in their community. So to me that's the basics of civics and whenever you look at any group, that's what they do. They know the system. They make sure people are informed about how to effect that change so that they can create the rules that reflect their communities and trust.

Dock: Now both iCivics and the Girl Scouts are nonpartisan organizations. How do you balance civic engagement, giving all students an opportunity to experience the rules? Here are how the rules work, and wanting people to have some exposure to those rules and working with them to not just know them but also really appreciate and understand them and have the confidence to be able to engage with them. Can you have nonpartisan engagement? Activities? How do you balance that because it seems like anything anybody does somebody's going to say wait a minute.

Sylvia: One of the things we notice in Girl Scouts, for example, they're very concerned with what's happening in the ocean. What's happening to the turtles who eat plastic bags because they think it's food and then they end up dying. So what are we doing around plastic bags? So whether they're in a landlocked state or on the coast, we see so many girls who are mobilized around the effects of plastic on sea life and what has happened from that is girls who've taken action projects. One project was the No Straw November, first started in California. That affected so much change that Alaska Airlines took out straws. Then Starbucks followed suit taking out plastic straws. Some of them have realized, what do you mean there is no law for this. And then when they tried to get a law, they realized as you mentioned that they're going to have pushback. Well, that girl who did the No Straw November, she has recently been accepted to college and what she's going to do is study Environmental Science and then she's going to become a lawyer, and she's going to then draft those laws to prevent that type of plastic being thrown out into the ocean, which is affecting the very food we eat in terms of fish and other seafood. So to me, you can't shy away and pretend that everyone agrees. But what you prepare our youth for is how do you move things forward? How do you work to find common ground in a way that we can agree with as much as possible and not to be dissuaded. It's so important to be persistent, resilient, and then that comes I think from our great Girl Scout cookie program where girls learn about the need to have good public presence, speak and convince people. Also to be persistent and determinate. And so then later on they find that those skills that they learned in that program are really beneficial to create the positive change they want to see in the world.

Emma: In iCivics, we're very careful, we're very thoughtful. I had my entire curriculum team review just three paragraphs of a student reading on judicial review because those three paragraphs use the Second Amendment as its example. Now the easier thing to do there would be to not use the Second Amendment as the example for teaching students about judicial review. But I think that would be a mistake, because we know that providing students opportunities to learn about and discuss controversial issues is a best practice in civic learning, and so we don't want to shy away from the controversy. We don't want to shy away from the political. And we also don't want to send the message that politics is a bad word—it's not. That said, we have to be very careful in how we present topics, present content to students. We have to make sure that multiple perspectives are shared. We also have to be prepared for when things go wrong. And so I typically say let the students guide you. Follow the students. This isn't about you the teacher and what you want to talk about. It's what's relevant and authentic and important to them. Well, what happens when your students for a civic action project want to have the city council pass a resolution against gay marriage. Now I know what you're thinking. That's really extreme. Well, it happened in Miami where students participate in a civic learning project called Project Citizen. So what do you as a teacher do in that situation when you've got a very controversial issue. One that the Supreme Court has already settled, but that there still is sort of reasonable disagreement on the other side. This is really tricky and it's really easy for us to want to shy away and to want to be afraid and to say, you know, something I often say is that I believe it is educational malpractice to not provide students opportunities to discuss current and controversial issues. It's that important to their civic development. It is that important to their critical thinking. It is that important to the future of our democratic republic if we expect people to know how to talk to those with whom they disagree.

Sylvia: Yeah. That is all very important. And so often helping them realize that they can affect change locally. And once you start there, you realize I can make the park better. I can bring in a stop sign. I can then effect greater change in my community. And especially for girls who, you know women are not as highly represented in our body politic and they've got to learn at a very young age how they can affect the positive change. And I think that's one of the reasons we have a large number of our alumni that are elected officials. I mean if you think about it, our organization we have 7 percent of the girl population, but over half of all female elected officials are Girl Scouts. And that's because they have learned at a very young age how to effect positive change in their community.

Emma: Yeah, I think that's right. I think that the local issues, the community space, provides a somewhat safer sort of laboratory to practice those civic skills and to flex those civic muscles. In fact iCivics is creating a new version of their popular game called Cast Your Vote. It's all about preparing students for an election and we very deliberately chose a local election. City council members, a mayor, and a couple of local ballot initiatives instead of a national election. It makes it easier to be evergreen, but it also just makes it easier to sort of feel safe and to give students the opportunity to research candidates and ideas without just looking for that Dem or Rep, you know Democrat or Republican on the side and to really do the work. If a civics teacher is unsure of how to engage her students, just say think local, think local, act local, act local. Yes, we want our students to think globally, but it's also important that they think local and act local. It's a safer space and it's a space where they have a better chance of success, right? Where they can actually affect change and see that streetlight put up, see that sidewalk laid out. They're going to have a harder time pushing for prison reform in any successful way, but they could do something locally and feel the power of success that will stick with them forever.

Sylvia: Yeah, and I really like the games that you've put in with iCivics because the first thing you have to do is get kids interested and if you don't have them interested, then they're not going to move to the next step which is getting confident in it. And then once they become more confident by taking action, then they become very competent. And then as you mentioned, then you can start effecting change at even a greater level. I love Dolores Huerta. She isn't as well known as Cesar Chavez for creating big change in the agricultural fields, but she is the one that actually organized everything, and she said that was because of her Girl Scout training. There were a lot of people that were upset and they were protesting, but they didn't know what to do. And she organized and mobilized them to take action at the state level. So, you know, for me first you've got to be interested in it and understand why it's of interest to you. Then it's that competence, and that's what makes our communities thrive. When you have people who are interested, engaged, and want to make them thriving communities.

Dock: There is a progression emerging here. Knowledge and engagement start early. Neighborhood. Broader community. State. Out to global. How do we track progress here? How do we see students’ improvement in civic knowledge and engagement. We know that what gets measured gets valued. How do we think about it?

Sylvia: At Girl Scouts we ask girls to take action projects. So there are things like the girls learning cybersecurity, but then they want to improve their community and they go to a senior center and they teach seniors how to better protect themselves on the internet or on their mobile devices. To me that is a civics action. Then there is obviously other measures, like how many have taken take action projects to make their community better, whether that's getting pet supplies for the animal shelters, whether that's helping out the homeless, whether that's doing a variety of things in the food pantry. Whatever it is that is of interest to you, what are those community projects? And then we also have an award process for girls who do those at a very significant level, and that's our Bronze, Silver, and Gold award. And those are about 56,000 a year at least that we are able to track. And then there is the other aspect, which is the number of women in leadership roles, in elected leadership roles, and Girl Scouts are very well represented there.

Emma: So I'm going to use Florida as an example. I'm a native Floridian and a proud Floridan. But Florida, you know we're an easy target for late-night jokes and the Florida man headlines, but Florida does one thing really really well and that is civic education. We have a middle school civics yearlong mandate and it's tied to an assessment that is also tied to accountability measures. But it's also a great example of why this is so tricky. So Florida has forty civic standards, but only about thirty-five of them are tested, and that's because the other five are things like engage in an action civic project or put on a mock election. And how do you assess that? How do you show growth and learning around skills and dispositions and behaviors and not just knowledge? It's really, really tricky. And it's not helped by the fact that most universities don't have civics departments, right? We have political science departments and history and sociology, but very few institutions have an actual civics college. So there's not a lot of shared knowledge around effective measures. I think there are a lot of measures out there. And part of the work of this CivXNow Coalition is to create a bank of these measures so that we are able to say that we know these students are learning what we've set out to teach them. That they don't just know how the system works, they know how to engage in that system and they have a disposition to want to engage in that system. But we have some work to do in this area to be sure.

Dock: Well maybe we can learn from what the Girl Scouts are doing as a way to begin to capture the participation in civic projects and working in the community.

Dock: So the last topic I want to touch on is just what kind of guidance do you have for people? And we're in election season already. We have a big election coming up next year. What kinds of things should people be doing, educators be doing, in preparation for that and beyond that?

Sylvia: What we really believe is helping to get out the vote. Again, not swing it one way or the other, but making sure that girls understand that there is an election. And how do you get more people registered to vote. And that can in some states can be an incredibly tricky process. But making sure that they're informed. Making sure that they've got people registered in their family, in their community, and then they actually go and get out the vote. That's a very important element that needs to happen in this election season. You know it's interesting when Juliette Gordon Low started the Girl Scouts a hundred years ago, she got a lot of heat because she did not have the organization take a stand on the suffrage amendment. And she said you know our role is to get girls the skills and the tools so that they can create the change and I'm not going to tell them one way or the other. But what happened is many of the women who actually got that vote passed and that amendment passed were Girl Scouts. And then when women first went to vote, many women were not allowed to go vote because they brought in their child, and they said children weren't allowed. So Girl Scouts across the nation mobilized and provided babysitting services so that women could go and get out the vote. And to me that's a really great example of a very nonpartisan approach that strengthens our democracy.

Emma: As a lifelong social studies educator, presidential election years are like our Super Bowl. I mean it is a nationwide teachable moment. Everyone is talking about the things that we want to talk about. You know this doesn't happen for English teachers, right? This doesn't happen for science teachers the way it happens for us every four years. And then this time around it's even bigger because we have the hundredth anniversary of women's suffrage. It's a census year. This year is huge. And so, what I would tell educators is make space for this in the classroom. Make space for it every day. Have a headline on your board every day when kids come in. There's a political headline that they can talk about. Provide them this opportunity to practice having civil and political discussions. Those two words can absolutely go hand in hand. And if you haven't already please please go to www.icivics.org. Register for your free teacher account. We have a new version of our popular Win the White House game. Our newly redesigned Cast Your Vote game is coming out and we're just going to have tons of new materials to help you talk to your students about politics. Talk to your students about elections and engage them in learning around it. You can't be on the sidelines as an educator, and whether you're social studies teacher or not, I really hope you'll pay attention and you'll encourage your kids to pay attention and you'll provide space in the classroom for them to have these important discussions. There's this beautiful poem called We Were Made For These Times and it's something I think that is helpful to share with students especially if students are feeling sort of disheartened, disillusioned by the chaos or the uncertainty or the vitriol they see around them again. It's called We Were Made For These Times by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. And here's my favorite line and I think it really gets at what the Girl Scouts are trying to do and it certainly gets out what I personally believe which is that, "Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach." I think if we can help our students understand that yes, we have big, big sticky problems, but that's no reason to stay on the sidelines. That's no reason to disengage. You have to pay attention and you have to ask yourself, ‘What can I do within my sphere of influence, within my small community, to effect positive change?’

Sylvia: I love that Emma. That's a beautiful quote.

Emma: I mean I teared up the first time I read the whole poem. It's really powerful and it's really heartening to read.

Dock: Thank you Sylvia and Emma. What a fabulous and inspiring conversation. Clearly civics mattered historically and it continues to matter today. Civic knowledge and engagement are essential for our democracy to survive and thrive. We've discussed a healthy balance between knowledge building in school, embedded in the curriculum, and starting early on with opportunities to exercise civic action outside of the classroom, so that children can develop the dispositions and skills at engaging in the community and being part of a vibrant and thriving democracy. We need it. And we hope you can take and apply some of these lessons.

Onalee: Thanks for listening and learning with us. Stay tuned for future episodes including the next episode of Shaping the Future, which will cover media literacy in the era of “fake news.” Be the first to hear new episodes of HMH Learning Moments by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. We hope you enjoyed today's show and will please consider rating and reviewing or sharing with your network. You can join our community and read more on our Shaped blog by visiting hmhco.com/shaped. You can also find the link in the show notes. HMH Learning Moments is produced by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, The Learning Company. Thank you again for listening.


Follow Shaping the Future wherever you listen to podcasts. Subscribe on:

Please consider rating, reviewing, and sharing Shaping the Future with your network. We value our listeners' support and feedback. Email us at Shaped@hmhco.com.


Inspire your students to become active and informed citizens with HMH Election Connection 2020.

Learn more about Sylvia Acevedo's book, Path to the Stars.

  • Grade(s): 5-7
  • Reading Level: Guided Reading Level X
  • Downloadable discussion guide and classroom activities (English PDF; Spanish PDF)

SHAPING THE FUTURE is a trademark of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

Related Reading