Making Civics Relevant, Making Citizens Effective: Action Civics in the Classroom

Making Civics Relevant, Making Citizens Effective: Action Civics in the Classroom

Making Civics Relevant, Making Citizens Effective: Action Civics in the Classroom

Making Civics Relevant, Making Citizens Effective: Action Civics in the Classroom


Making Civics Relevant, Making Citizens Effective is designed to help secondary social studies and civics teachers bring an innovative, student-centered approach to the classroom that provides students with a framework for effective civic participation. The lesson plans in this book guide students through the process of selecting a community issue of concern and creating and implementing a plan of action. The Common Core-aligned curriculum enables student to develop and practice 21st century skills such as oral and written persuasion, group collaboration, and critical analysis.


In 2007, New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman wrote a column titled “Generation Q” about Millennials and civic engagement. The “Q” stood for “quiet,” because Friedman felt that the Millennials’ admirable commitment to community and national service did not extend to the type of political activism necessary to addressing larger economic, social, and environmental problems in the United States and around the world. Too often, he argued, the “clicktivism” of Facebook “likes” and online petitions become not complements, but substitutes for the in-person activism and democratic participation ultimately necessary to effect real change. The mere 50 percent of young voters, aged 18–29, who voted in the 2012 presidential election would seem to underline the point: though this percentage was higher than in the 1990s, it was one of the lowest youth voting rates of any country in the world.

Whether or not you agree with Friedman’s analysis (we think it a bit glib), it was not actually about “Millennials.” Rather, it was about the narrow slice of Millennials who attend and graduate from (in this case, elite) universities—students who, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University, are four to five times more likely to participate in civic affairs than someone without a high school diploma. And 42 percent of American youth do not continue their educations past high school. They, too, are citizens who need and deserve the ability to participate in our democracy, in their own self-government.

Too often, the media and even many educators confuse youth civic disengagement, especially low voter turnout rates, with disengagement from American politics or society. Yet, studies from CIRCLE, the Harvard Institute of Politics, and our own experience working with thousands of middle and high school students show that young people do care about their communities and our democracy. But apart from voting (a fairly minimal form of civic engagement), many young people do not know how to use democracy to make change on issues they care about, nor do they believe that their voices matter.

Scott Warren was a junior in college when he read Friedman’s “Generation Q” article. It rankled him. As a leader in the movement to stop genocide in Sudan’s Darfur region, he knew firsthand how effective young people could be in gaining media attention, shaping public opinion, and passing legislation.

In response to “Generation Quiet,” in 2008 he created Generation Citizen (GC), a nonprofit organization devoted to empowering young people to become engaged and effective citizens. GC partners college student volunteers with classroom teachers to teach an action civics course in which teens solve problems they are facing in their own communities. Students lobby elected officials, write opinion pieces for newspapers, and make documentaries to advance solutions to important community issues. Through direct engagement in real-world advocacy, students gain the civic knowledge, skills, and motivation necessary to effect change in their communities. The organization . . .

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