By Natalie C. Jacobs, J.D., coauthor of Every Vote Matters: The Power of Your Voice, from Student Elections to the Supreme Court
The year 2020 will go down in history for more than one reason. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic turned our daily lives and routines upside down. The death of George Floyd resulted in millions of people taking to the streets to protest police brutality and systemic racism. Meanwhile, the climate crisis takes a backseat as a public health emergency, the economic downturn, and racial justice activism are prioritized by the media and government action.
In addition, American voters will cast ballots in November for a presidential candidate, US Senate and House seats in Congress, state races, and many local officials throughout the country. For all these reasons, this is a pivotal year to model to our children and teens the importance of being an engaged member of our communities and country.
Engaged Citizens: The Foundation of a Healthy Democracy
In all the communities we belong to, each person’s voice (and vote) is critical to a healthy, thriving democracy. Talking about the issues impacting any community, whether small or large, and educating young people on the matters in age-appropriate ways is a first step toward teaching them to participate in our democracy and be an informed citizen.
For younger children, the conversation can remain fairly simple and can focus on what everyone can agree on: for example, being pro-schools/education (every child should have the right to a good education), pro-environment (every person should take care of the earth), and pro-equity and inclusion.
The social issues impacting our country and world today may offer valuable civics lessons for students of all ages and encourage engagement. The Black Lives Matter movement, the March for Our Lives campaign (for gun safety legislation), and the recent DACA ruling concerning Dreamers and undocumented students’ rights give teachers and parents an opportunity to discuss these important matters. By focusing on the history of a movement or issue, the science behind an issue, and/or the meaning behind a court ruling, you can encourage students to formulate their own opinions on important issues and matters.
Engaging with the School Community
For parents and teachers this school year, being an active, engaged member of the school community may look different from previous years, but it remains a great way to model civic engagement. Being engaged on the micro level, meaning within a very small group or organization that focuses on one aspect of society, is a great way to model how one can make a difference while being part of a group. Many schools and school districts will be solely offering online or remote learning this fall due to COVID-19. This could mean that parent-teacher associations and organizations (PTAs/PTOs) will continue to meet through video conferencing or even in backyard meetings with proper social distancing measures in place.
One idea for parents and teachers is to build a network of professionals and experts from the community who are willing to volunteer some time to be a guest speaker for students, either online or in-person. Whether it’s art, music, gardening, cooking, science, engineering, or another field, every community has myriad experts who could inspire and offer valuable lessons to students while demonstrating engagement within their particular community.
Lessons from the Pandemic: How Masking Up Shows Civic Responsibility
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) informs us that social distancing and wearing masks in public and around others are key elements to helping prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Talking about the pandemic and explaining how we are keeping the elderly and more vulnerable populations safe, why we need to socially distance, why we wear masks, and why we isolate is important for helping students understand this public health emergency.
Children as young as preschool are familiar with the new normal in a COVID world. Discussions around COVID-19 and helping out in our communities can include talking about ways to donate food, personal protective equipment (PPE), blood, and more; volunteer with various organizations offering food delivery for the elderly; creatively raise money for highly affected areas; and play music for those in quarantine.
Ideas for Teaching and Modeling Civic Engagement
An awareness and understanding of the issues currently making headlines and impacting communities is the start to being an engaged citizen. When parents, teachers, and other adults in children’s lives are passionate about voting, participating in organizations, and volunteering in the community, they are actively modeling civic engagement for young people.
The following ideas, tools, and resources offer teachers and parents different opportunities for teaching and modeling civic engagement:
- Discuss this year’s election; the candidates for local, state, and national elections; and the various propositions on your city’s ballot. Tune in to a virtual town hall. Most importantly, get to the polls, or better yet, stay safe this year and sign up for early voting by mail. Talking about the issues and demonstrating the importance of voting will go a long way toward promoting civic engagement in the next generation of voters.
- Invite speakers from various nonpartisan groups (e.g., groups focused on advancing issues like climate action, racial equality and justice, or immigration policies). Students can learn more about the issues and ways to get involved if interested.
- Start a classroom newsletter or blog so students can practice finding and using their voices concerning matters important to them.
- Review letters to the editor of a local newspaper and then start a letter-writing campaign. If and when a student gets published, the class may be empowered to continue using their voices through writing.
- Discuss the young leaders of various movements who may inspire students and show that it’s possible to make a difference for a cause no matter your age. For example, John Lewis (civil rights leader who recently passed), Greta Thunberg (17-year-old climate activist who has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for two consecutive years already), and the Parkland shooting survivors and the gun control movement.
- Check out the resources page at the Civic Engagement Research Group for videos and toolkits concerning civics education.
- Use iCivics, a great website focused on engaging students in meaningful civic learning. Former US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is the founder of this useful resource.
Most importantly, the key word in civic engagement is engagement. If teachers and parents are engaged and passionate about certain issues impacting their communities and the world, their students and children will benefit greatly from observing this commitment and dedication.
A former criminal defense attorney, Natalie C. Jacobs works with her father, Judge Tom, on the teen rights website AsktheJudge.info, helping teens and their parents become better informed about youth rights and the laws affecting minors. She has volunteered with the Arizona Innocence Project, which investigates claims of innocence and works to exonerate those wrongfully convicted. Natalie lives in Arizona.
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