As an educator who has experience teaching a range of subjects, I have found that civic instruction is unique in that it enables teachers to see students as citizens who can make a difference. When teaching classes such as AP American History and AP American Government, there is a sense of responsibility to engage students in more than just the content. We, as civic teachers, want students to tap into the real-world events going on around them.
While bringing a fresh perspective to civic teaching is a priority with each school year, the election buzz adds additional opportunities to rethink how we engage students in democratic action. Heading into this school year, I planned to use current events and the election cycle to support student understanding of political events, both past and present. Here are a few routes civic instructors can take to connect real-life politics to classroom practices, all while engaging students:
Build a digital toolbox
Education technology tools and online resources can help students understand the intricacies of American government, like the Electoral College, by giving them hands-on, interactive experiences with the content. In my class, we have used platforms such as Voters Ed and 270 to Win to visualize election maps and predict voting outcomes. Such resources can often be used for gamification to create another avenue for student engagement.
When choosing tech tools to support civic instruction, it’s important to be sure that they don’t incorporate any spin or bias. Even when I ask students to go online to read editorial content written by experts, I make sure they are exposed to a variety of sources. One of my favorites is The Week. Whether we are giving students tech platforms or online assignments to work on, they should be exposed to more than one perspective.
Get parents involved
Because civic education is tied to personal beliefs and opinions, there is an opportunity to bridge home life to school life in order to bolster learning. The evening of the first presidential debate, I asked my students to watch it with a parent. Pushing for parent involvement keeps the discussion of civic responsibilities going outside of the classroom.
I find that even taking the opportunity to ask parents to engage with your lesson content at open-house night can facilitate a connection between in-class lectures and at-home conversations.
Encourage participation in current events
Only a handful of my students are able to vote in this year’s election, but I’ve found other ways to motivate them to participate in current political and social events. For example, we will have a mock election for students to vote in during Election Day. We are learning to conduct polls and were recently approved for a field trip to attend the 45th Presidential Inauguration in January. Activities like these immerse students in the process of civic action, even if they legally cannot vote. These experiences also enrich classroom discussion.
Although planning lessons to coincide with election events such as the first presidential debate is convenient, civic teachers should still take care to motivate civic participation from students at all times of the school year. Students might be able to participate in local voting or attend speeches on an issue they care about.
All of these tactics can help engage students in learning about our history and political structure, but I have found that many students come into the classroom more interested in current affairs than we might expect. Through classroom discussions and activities, I have found that when students are invested in the content, teachers can learn from their insights as well. In that respect, I am encouraged about the enthusiasm of our youth and the future of America.
Allan DeCarlo teaches AP American History and AP American Government at Pittsford Mendon High School in Rochester, N.Y. DeCarlo is a graduate from Oswego State University with a master’s degree in Secondary Education and a CAS in Educational Administration. He has spent more than 30 years working in education and has enjoyed coaching basketball, lacrosse and his two Penn State children.