iCivics.org – Teaching Citizenship

Curriculum Category: History/Citizenship/Civics

Audience: 6th grade and up

Good morning, campers! Want to share a resource with you that I just found called iCivics.org, a great online resource. I’m sure quite a lot of you are teaching history, and dishing out a healthy dose of US and state/local history in particular. But are you teaching civics?  

What is “civics”, and why should I be teaching it?

Civics is about citizenship, notably the theoretical and practical aspects of being a citizen, along with the rights and responsibilities of a citizen. Everyone knows George Washington was the first president, right? Great. But what about where the president’s job description came from in the first place? What does it mean to be governed?

Some Slightly Disturbing Things to Consider

The Annenburg Foundation conducted a poll last year and the results were, um, troubling:

  • about 1 in 3 respondents could name all three branches of government, nearly the same number coudn’t name *any* branches
  • one in five Americans thinks a 5-4 Supreme Court decision is sent back to Congress for consideration
  • more than half of respondents could not correctly identify what party controlled the House or the Senate

There’s a question that goes around every election cycle that bears consideration: should you vote if you don’t know what you’re voting on, or for whom you are voting? People think this is a sticky question but it isn’t, not really. It comes down to one fundamental fact: to be governed in our country is a two way street. If you aren’t informed about who or what you’re voting for, then you can hardly say, “That isn’t fair, I didn’t vote for that!” Because it’s entirely likely that you did.

Getting back to iCivics

We’ll skip the libertarian dialogue for now because otherwise we’d be here until next Tuesday (well, I would; you would probably get bored and go out for ice cream long before I finished.)

I realized that in our classroom, we were getting a healthy dose of history (ancient world, European, early North America) but felt that something was missing. How do you teach someone to be a good citizen? You start by asking some questions about what government is, and what it means to be governed. Enter  www.iCivics.org, a nifty site I found online. The “Teach” section is divided into 18 units, each of which is divided into a series of lesson plans. Each lesson plan is a complete teaching packet with reading sheets, discussion questions, some worksheets, and a checklist detailing exactly how to teach each unit. There’s enough flexibility in this curriculum that you can use it with a classroom, or with an individual student.

Right now, we’re going through Foundations of Government. Beginning with Why Government?, we discussed the principle differences behind Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, natural rights, and the idea of a social contract. From there, we moved on to The Sovereign State, and discussed what is a “state” (as opposed to a member of the United States), and sovereignity. Each unit shows you exactly what comes next in the sequence so you easily   move along through the subject matter. A drop-down menu will show you how the lesson plans align with your state standards, if that’s important to you. So far, I find the lessons to be engaging and informative, and include key topics or concepts that would certainly form the basic foundation of a more detailed government or civics program. My kid knows who said that man’s nature is “nasty, brutish and short”, what it means, and what That Guy thought about whether people should have a say in government or not.

Box, Soap, standing back up briefly

Since I have a foot in both ponds (homeschool/public school), it’s impossible to escape making comparisons. I have a kid who aced the AP US Goverment exam, but said their class never once talked about Hobbes, Locke, or any of those guys – not even Jefferson. The middle school curriculum was definitely not about civics or citizenship – it was a bizarre clishmaclaver of ancient and medieval european history, which suddenly jumped (from 7th to 8th grades) into US History, colonies to Reconstruction. The elementary school curriculum was even more disjointed:

  • 3rd grade was Random Native Americans (and not local groups, or a general overview of all North American peoples – just a completely random selection of Native Americans)
  • 4th grade was some colonial history, followed by a full quarter devoted to a singularly painful Pick A Famous American project
  • 5th grade was … well, there was so much bullying going on that year I have to admit I may have blocked some of the less important details from my consciousness. But they didn’t study citizenship, I promise you.

So, to sum up: our kids don’t learn what it is to be a citizen of this country in elementary school. Or middle school. Or high school. And at the end of high school, they generally reach the age of majority, which includes -and this is key, here – the right to vote. Where, exactly did their publicly funded education include the part about fundamental information necessary to being an informed member of the electorate?

head cephalopod

Just sorting out the flotsam of the universe.

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