Wait a minute!  Did you just yawn and shift in your seat at the very sight of the word civics?  Memories of boring classes and dry material come back to us.  I remember a fear of flunking the Constitution Test and having to go to summer school in order to graduate from high school.  All of this surrounds Civics.  But putting that aside, we really are in the midst of a crisis when it comes to understanding our system of government and acting like responsible citizens.

A Critical Response; Our Approach on Life Supports

The Founders envisioned public education as the cornerstone and essential tool for securing our freedom.  They believed this was the way to prepare young people to be active participants in our system of self-government.  They concurred that there was much more to being a good citizen than simply casting a vote.  Protecting the common good would require the development of students’ critical thinking and debate skills along with learning basic civic values. In other words, being an American was something to be learned and to be acted upon. Blind faith and devotion were never to be the goal.

Educators and schools have a unique opportunity and responsibility to ensure that young people become engaged and knowledgeable citizens. But as it stands, only nine states and the District of Columbia require one year of U.S. government or civics. Thirty-one states only require a half-year of civics or U.S. government education, and 10 states have no civics requirement. The focus of national education policy has been on math and reading while drastically decreasing attention to the understanding of the basic functions of government.  There are two states that have detailed year-long curricula for civics education.  Colorado and Idaho require completion of civics and government courses in order to graduate from high school.

Colorado teachers are required by The Colorado Department of Education to cover the origins of democracy, the structure of American government, methods of public participation, a comparison to foreign governments, and the responsibilities of citizenship. In addition, Colorado teachers help civics come alive in the classroom through the Judicially Speaking program, which teaches students how judges think through civics as they make decisions. The program uses interactive exercises and firsthand experience to teach students about the judiciary. The result is a higher rate of youth volunteerism and voter participation than the national average in Colorado.

“The practice of democracy is not passed down through the gene pool.  It must be taught and learned anew by each generation of citizens.” ~ Sandra Day O’Connor

iCivics; The Innovative Tool for Schools and Students

The organization known as iCivics was founded by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in 2009 ‘to reimagine civic education’. This multi-faceted, comprehensive program has been embraced by judges, lawyers, teachers, parents and kids. It now reaches and is used by nearly 200,000 teachers to provide meaningful civic education to more than 5 million students in all 50 states. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor says that it will literally ‘change America’.

The only way I know how to describe iCivics is by saying (in the vernacular of my generation) that it is really cool.  Students become part of the action in online role-playing games and digital instruction which are exciting and fun.  Curricula which might be otherwise tedious become compelling. This is evidenced by the fact that over half the young people that play iCivics games in school play them again at home on their own time. Government comes alive for these middle and high school students. It equips them with the knowledge, skills, and disposition necessary to become informed and engaged citizens. Teachers are fast adopting iCivics because the free digital resources are high quality, easily adaptable for their classroom needs, standards-aligned and effective. In fact, it is reported that 95% of teachers said this program is a trusted and non-partisan resource which fosters civil conversations about current events in their classrooms.

“Our games are the centerpiece of a comprehensive digital platform. iCivics offers a range of practical, dynamic, and standards-aligned resources tailored to the needs of classroom teachers. They are free and accessible to all.” ~ iCivics Mission Solution

An example of an online game is called NewsFeed Defenders.  Follow this hyperlink to play.  iCivics describes it as engaging players with the standards of journalism, showing how to spot a variety of methods behind the viral deception we all face today. Players join a fictional social media site focused on news and information, and meet the challenge to level up from guest user to site administrator. This can only be achieved by spotting dubious posts that try to sneak in through hidden ads, viral deception, and false reporting. In addition to maintaining a high-quality site, you are charged with growing traffic while keeping the posts on-topic.

iCivics is more than just games.  It provides wrap-around curricula, lesson plans, mini-lessons, guided research activities, debate formats, and argumentative writing platforms.  All-in-all, this program is a must if we are to rescue and improve civic literacy and public engagement in our American democracy.  There is a YouTube video which explains how and why individuals can bring iCivics to their schools and classrooms.

Civics Literacy Starts With You

Thriving communities and a healthy democracy depend on active citizen participation. And that means you.  We have a gift from our founders which is the opportunity to influence governmental action and the policies that affect our lives. By joining groups, volunteering, donating, and helping neighbors, we all have the chance to directly impact our communities and enrich the lives of others.

Do you think you have a good rounded knowledge of our government and civics?  Could you pass the U.S. citizenship test? Check out your knowledge of U.S. history and government here.

Were you surprised at how much or how little you remember from your own civics education? This is a call to action either way.  We are all teachers. Let us work together in honoring and promoting this vital public trust.  Everyone will benefit if we revive our good civic health.

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