Civic Action Projects — Overcoming the Overloaded Curriculum

OK, here we are in the new year, facing many challenges in the education world (and looking for ways to overcome them). Here’s one:

More and more school districts try to insure students’ learning by prescribing almost every minute of the curriculum and the day. The intent may be understandable, but good teachers know that students learn and grow best when making many of their own choices and slowing down to go deeper into topics and issues that excite them. And many of those teachers want to use civic and social action projects to help young people to become engaged citizens in their communities — as public schools were intended to do.

So the challenge: how to incorporate meaningful, in-depth projects into the days and weeks of the school year and still meet all the curricular demands loaded on us. Here’s how some schools and teachers do it.

  • Use scheduled social studies periods. Middle school teachers at William at Brown School in Chicago are making social issue projects the core of their second semester social studies curriculum. Of course, they must fit the projects around required curriculum, such as U.S. history in 7th grade. And they must track how activities for the projects cover various Common Core standards (which are still in place in Illinois). This is not difficult, since projects readily involve plenty of informational reading, argument writing, research, and public speaking.
  • Link projects directly to elements of the curriculum. At Polaris Academy, students pose essential questions of their own as part of their learning. When studying the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, they decided to ask, “Whose responsibility is it to ‘insure domestic tranquility’?” This ultimately led to a project to help reduce gun violence in their neighborhood, through public service announcement videos and neighborhood events. And they came to feel that they themselves could step up to help. Various steps in the project were simply built into the writing, speaking, research, social studies, and math curriculum.
  • Start small. If you are new to civic action, it can help to start with a short project that can be easier to fit into your schedule. The Mikva Challenge soap box curriculum guides students to create and present speeches on issues of their choice, and it can be completed in class periods over a week or less.
  • Establish after-school clubs and programs. While after-school programs are not integrated into the classroom curriculum, they can influence the climate and activity in the entire school. At Alcott College Prep High School (not a charter or private school, in spite of the name), the club that named itself the Social Justice League has worked to promote democracy and supportive student culture across the school. Over several years they held assemblies, welcoming events for incoming freshmen and their families, and events for exchanging ideas on school and community issues. They lobbied to get to interview principal candidates, gained representation on a faculty committee and developed a set of “civic goals and agreements” for the school. As a result Alcott was recognized as a “Democracy School” by the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition.

Even if you worry that the effort can be challenging, just keep in mind that students will remember these projects long after they’ve forgotten the boring chapters in the social studies textbook — and learn more about civics, government, writing, and more in the process.

Civic Action in Schools

Written by

By Steve Zemelman, Director, IL Writing Project; author, “From Inquiry to Action;” co-author, “Subjects Matter” & “Best Practice;” Restorative Justice advisor

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