Fifteen — Count ‘em! — Organizations Helping Teachers Enact Student Civic Action Projects

Some months ago we listed several organizations that support teachers to help students grow as responsible citizens through civic action projects. But we didn’t do justice to the growing community of educators who care about this work. Many more groups are active across the country, and we can describe some for readers to find what is right for them and their students. Of course there are more, and we can add to our list as we learn about them. We’ll list in alpha order, to avoid playing favorites. So here goes.

Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools aims to expand and improve civic learning in schools, K-12 and in Higher Education. The Campaign works with 60+ coalition partners to bring about changes in state, local, and national policy that promote civic learning. The organization can provide speakers, and encourages citizens to advocate for stronger civic learning.

Center for Education in Law and Democracy located in Denver, CO, is one of a number of local organizations promoting student civic engagement. It promotes and supports the development of young people as responsible citizens committed to democratic principles and active participation in representative government. It provides professional development for teachers and collaborates with other like-minded organizations in Denver.

Community Works Institute conducts summer five-day institutes (on the east and west coast), videos, a blog, an on-line journal, books, and site-based professional development on student community action. Educators, schools and programs using the CWI framework focus on creating learning experiences that enable students to apply skills and content knowledge to real needs in their local community. Schools employing the CWI model are dedicated to providing opportunities for meaningful student voice — learning opportunities that resonate with purpose.

Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago strengthens American democracy by providing elementary and secondary students with hands-on learning about the Constitution to prepare them for informed civic engagement. This non-partisan, non-profit agency offers materials on a range of aspects of American government and the constitution, with professional development mainly in the Chicago area. More specific to our interests, its Civic Action Project (CAP) provides a series of lessons to guide students through study of, and action on, local problems and issues.

Earth Force develops young people with the knowledge, skills, and motivation to solve tough environmental problems in 61 communities throughout the U.S. and Canada, including major cities like Baltimore and Kansas City, and smaller communities such as Bay City MI and Albuquerque NM. They focus on three areas: water, health, and sustainability. Their website includes videos that guide a teacher through a six-step process for facilitating a student-led project.

Facing History and Ourselves mission is to engage students of diverse backgrounds in an examination of racism, prejudice, and antisemitism in order to promote the development of a more humane and informed citizenry. Sets of materials address such issues as race in U.S. history, antisemitism and religious intolerance, and global immigration. While not all of the topics include student civic action, a special set focuses specifically on democracy and civic engagement. A set of teaching strategies helps teachers to make study of these materials engaging and interactive. Along with webinars, professional development workshops and seminars on a variety of topics are scheduled in cities across the country and available online. There’s even a collection of books and DVDs that can be borrowed or purchased.

Generation Citizen works with teachers and administrators to support them in leading action civics in their classrooms. Students choose an issue they care about, develop a focused, strategic plan to address the issue, take real action, and reflect on successes, challenges, and future plans. Each semester culminates in a Civics Day, in which student representatives from classes present their plans to other students, community members, and public officials. The organization can also pair a university-based coach with a high school teacher. There are also post-high-school internships and visiting workshops. Generation Citizen currently works in the Bay Area, Oklahoma, Central Texas, New York, and Rhode Island.

Illinois Democracy Schools works to recognize and support Illinois high schools that are dedicated to expanding and improving civic learning experiences across the curriculum. This involves not only high quality civics curriculum but also involving the community in the school and the school in the community. Schools must develop plans and structures and are reviewed by the organization. Recognized schools join a community of faculty and administrators that supports peer-to-peer learning and collaboration between schools. Member schools receive financial support from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation to pursue civic learning improvement plans.

Mikva Challenge provides a downloadable in-depth curriculum that takes students through a full process of identifying an issue important to them, researching it, planning, and taking action to address it, with an extensive set of activities to guide the process. Their shorter curriculum on soapbox speeches is available at no charge. In Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C., Mikva provides coaching for teachers to develop in-class projects and after-school clubs focused on student civic action. A note for those not acquainted with Chicago politics, Mikva Challenge is named after a revered former Federal judge and U.S. Representative who passed away recently.

Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College in Minneapolis facilitates learning experiences across and beyond the campus through multiple pathways to civic engagement, service-learning, connecting students to issues they’re passionate about and helping them develop capacities to be agents of democratic renewal and change. While much of Sabo’s work involves Augsburg College students, the center also works with the Minnesota Department of Education to develop college students as youth workers supporting student initiatives.

Teaching Tolerance — a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center — publishes its widely read magazine three times yearly, along with a weekly newsletter. It offers an extensive collection of classroom lessons along with reports and articles on a wide range of issues that teachers and students can choose from, depending on the issues they tackle. A separate collection of self-guided professional development activities and on-demand webinars can help teachers to create a supportive and culturally responsive classroom. The “Perspectives for a Diverse America” program includes steps for students to take action to address issues that they study. While these offerings do not all directly involve student civic action, they provide excellent supports for it.

What Kids Can Do brings to the broadest audience possible a dual message: the power of what young people can accomplish when given the opportunities and supports they need and what they can contribute when we take their voices and ideas seriously. Based in Providence, RI, WKCD offers wonderful stories of outstanding student civic projects across the country. It publishes pamphlets, books, and photo essays by young people, about their civic and social justice efforts. It also provides grants for student projects.

Youth Leadership Institute is based in San Francisco, CA, and leads youth programs in schools in a number of California communities, but also provides capacity building training and tools to young people, youth programs, practitioners, policymakers, foundations, public institutions, researchers, and other stakeholders nationally and internationally.

Youth On Board works primarily in the Boston area. Its Boston Student Advisory Council is the city’s student organizing union, made up of BPS student leaders representing most city high schools. The Councils works to identify and address pertinent student issues, thereby putting students at the center of the decisions that affect them. Youth On Board provides training and technical assistance to schools and organizations to help them involve young people in decision-making. This includes development of youth organizing and activism when this is requested. While this is a locally focused organization, it offers a model for student civic engagement in other communities.

YPAR Hub — YPAR (Youth-led Participatory Action Research) is an innovative approach to positive youth and community development based in social justice principles, training young people to conduct research to improve their lives, their communities, and the institutions intended to serve them. It operates in the Bay Area, but it provides strategies to take students in any school or classroom (or young people in other organizations) through the process of identifying and researching issues and working together to address them. Their website also includes a handy set of team-building activities, and links to student projects in a number of other cities (including Boulder and Denver Colorado and even sites in other countries).

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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