Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Teach Students about Civics through Schoolwide Governance: An Organization That Promotes Civics Education Used a Student Government Model to Teach Students Concepts of Democracy and Also Showed the Adults That Students Could Be Useful Partners in School Governance

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Teach Students about Civics through Schoolwide Governance: An Organization That Promotes Civics Education Used a Student Government Model to Teach Students Concepts of Democracy and Also Showed the Adults That Students Could Be Useful Partners in School Governance

Article excerpt

The Rendell Center for Civics and Civic Engagement is engaged in a bold experiment to create democracies in elementary schools to increase youth's civic literacy and civic engagement. Our goal is to cultivate the next generation of active citizens. Our approach is to do so by helping K-8 schools build civic curriculum and youth-adult governance structures so students learn and practice the knowledge and skills of effective citizenship. What follows is the story of and lessons from the center's yearlong involvement to build a youth-adult school governance system and schoolwide civic literacy curriculum at the K-8 Edwin Stanton School in Philadelphia, Pa.

The premise of the Rendell Center's approach is that civic learning needs to be schoolwide and experimental: Students learn civic knowledge and skills in classroom settings and apply their learning in a youth-adult, decision-making structure. This approach calls for challenging educators' assumptions about young people's leadership abilities and for redesigning decision-making structures and processes. One important hurdle is that the current era of accountability sidelines civics and history instruction in many elementary schools in favor of numeracy and literacy lessons in order to prepare students for high-stakes testing (Rentner et al., 2006). Thus, establishing a schoolwide civic curriculum requires educator buy-in and integration of established pedagogical practices and instructional coaching.

Building civic learning into organizations not focused on civics instruction requires multiple levels of school change that are deep and wide. A new governance system would need to be designed and implemented --one that values youth-adult leadership practices as a form of civic learning. Civic curriculum and instructional practices would need to be modeled and thoughtfully integrated into already established pedagogical practices. Our approach was informed by research on sustaining education change. Cynthia Coburn (2003) argues that sustainability requires scaling up specific changes within a school by spreading underlying beliefs, norms, and principles of the reform and shifting the ownership of reform from a few actors to many. In other words, more than the authors would need to believe civic instruction and youth-adult leadership are central school practices and have the knowledge and skills to engage students in civic learning.

Curricular spread

Using common language and instructional practices across grades was essential for scaling up civic learning at Stanton. K-4 students participated in literacy lessons and then connected their discussions to concepts unpacked in the Rendell Center's We the Civics Kids materials. Then, students in grades 1 through 7 participated in a literature-inspired mock trial, bringing classroom learning of civic concepts to a broader context and facilitating a wider spread of the principles, beliefs, and norms of democracy throughout the school.

The main conduit for civic literacy instruction in the K-4 classrooms was using age-appropriate non-fiction, historic fiction, and fiction books and connecting classroom discussions to civic themes and concepts in the We the Civics Kids materials. Those materials emphasize eight lessons:

* Community building;

* Rules;

* Choices and voices;

* American identity;

* Leadership;

* Rights and responsibilities;

* Conflict and compromise; and

* Youth activism.

For example, during a read-aloud and class discussion of Carl the Complainer by Michelle Knudsen, students learned about the importance of becoming active, involved change agents in their classrooms, schools, homes, and communities. Carl did not get the change he wanted until he realized that he needed to use his responsible voice to address the change, as opposed to complaining about it. Working on a literature-based mock trial based on the James Marshall version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, a 3rd-grade class identified the roles and responsibilities of the people in a courtroom. …

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