By Becky Sipos, President & CEO
Character.org’s vision is young people everywhere who are educated, inspired and empowered to be ethical and engaged citizens. As Presidents’ Day approaches, I’ve been thinking about the “ethical and engaged citizens” aspect. It’s a part of our mission statement as well. How are we doing?
When I was a kid, we were always told that the great thing about being an American is that anyone can grow up to be president, and in fact, it was an aspiration of many of my friends. I remember my friend Susan said she was going to be the first female president. But a Penguin Young Readers poll last year showed that only 27% of participants between the ages 10 and 16 had presidential aspirations. Among 15 and 16-year-old students, the figure dropped to only 13%.
Okay, you might say, that makes sense. It’s a really hard job; who’d want it? But if we’re not inspiring our young people to want to become President, what does the future hold? Somewhere out there a future President is in one of our classrooms.
Inspiring young people to become President starts with them feeling connected to our government. It requires a strong emphasis on civics education. Developing ethical and engaged citizens requires an intentional and systemic approach. Effective character education requires the head, the heart and the hand, or as Tom Lickona has said, “the moral awareness and strength to know the good, love the good and do the good.”
Head–Knowing the Good–Educating Young People
Data shows that we’re not doing such a good job of teaching civics education. According to the 2010* NAEP (National Assessment of Education Progress, also known as the Nation’s report card) civics assessment, only 27 percent of fourth graders, 22 percent of eighth graders, and 24 percent of 12th graders performed at or above the “proficient” level. Plus, fewer than half of fourth grade teachers reported emphasizing key topics of civic education to a moderate or large extent.
Civics teachers themselves have reported that they received very different—and often very little—training in teaching the subject. So teachers may need to seek out good resources. Character.org’s library of lesson plans from our Schools of Character includes several under the topic of civic responsibility, including this one from Chesterfield Elementary School: “Who Wants To Be President? A Voice and Choice Lesson of Democracy in Action”
One excellent resource is iCivics, founded by retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. It is a web-based education project designed to teach students civics and inspire them to be active participants in U.S. democracy. It includes online games (included one where students can run for president) as well as lesson plans and resources for teachers.
Another resource is Dream of a Nation, subtitled Inspiring Ideas for a Better America. I particularly liked the chapter entitled “The Power of Young People to Change the World.” The book offers some open-source curriculum materials that are aligned with the Common Core and state standards.
Heart–Loving the Good—Inspiring Young People
Aspects of citizenship can be taught in civics class so that students can “know the good,” but how do you teach students to love the good? It’s difficult to inspire when we are bombarded with contentious politics, negative news stories, and even movies and TV that portray cynicism and lack of respect.
You can counter with inspiring stories. For example, Character.org’s Board of Directors Vice President, has written two books on presidents: George and Theodore, focusing on George Washington and Teddy Roosevelt. I just read David McCullough’s Truman. I was so inspired by Truman’s commitment to character that I kept sharing details from the book with my family and friends.
You can share your own stories, too. Share with your students something you love about your favorite president past or present. Maybe your enthusiasm will be the spark to give us a future commander-in-chief.
Another way to inspire is through field trips and guest speakers. Judge Marjorie Rendell discusses how critical civic knowledge and engagement is in this video. She suggests taking students on a visit to a courtroom or inviting judges and lawyers into the classroom. When students have the opportunity to share their ideas with judges and lawyers, they become a part of the conversation and begin to recognize the power of their own voices.
Hand–Doing the Good—Empowering Young People
Educated and inspired are both important, but how do we effectively empower students? Getting students actively engaged is essential to any learning, including civics.
In his book Character Compass, Scott Seider describes Pacific Rim Academy, a school that focuses on students’ civic character development. Character education at Pacific Rim emphasizes students’ roles and responsibilities as members of a community. Seider writes: “Rather than focusing on the three branches of government or how a bill becomes a law, civics at Pacific Rim is designed to strengthen students’ sense of civic responsibility for the roles that await them outside the walls of the Academy.”
We all know the power of hands-on learning, and service learning projects can be a great way for students to get engaged in learning about civics. In a Character.org podcast on service learning, middle school teacher Thomas Panter tells the powerful story of how his students got the Georgia legislature to create a month dedicated to history and character. This idea came about when one student expressed her frustration with the daily barrage of negative news.
Are there any issues that get your students excited? What problems do they want to solve? As they develop solutions, they may find they need government support. And getting them engaged in the process, even at the local, leads to them to feel a part of our government, And who knows? Maybe one day they’ll want to be president.
This President’s Day, as we celebrate a day off from work, let’s think about why we celebrate our history of Presidential heroes, and how we can educate, inspire and empower our young people to become ethical and engaged citizens.
*Results from the most recent NAEP in 2014 will be released in spring 2015.