When asked why civic engagement matters in schools, History teacher Jesse Shapiro gave the following response, “I found that students really step their game up. Their writing is much better when they know that other people’s eyes, other than me, [are] going to be on it. They become better speakers, when they know that they are going to have to go out in public and be prepared to speak and they are going to be accountable for what they say.” As a member of Educating for Democracy in the Digital Age, Jesse was speaking as part of a teacher panel on a weekly webcast called Teachers Teaching Teachers (watch the full webcast here).
His point addresses the need that our students feel for authenticity. They know when they are being asked to participate in a simple exercise, and they know when something real is on the line – their image, their beliefs, their feelings, for example. While practicing skills has a place, and a very important one, students experience a dramatic shift when they exchange their practice jerseys for game uniforms and have to perform in front of a real audience. This is not just true in the realm of sports, but as Jesse points out, for academic efforts like writing and speaking that we hope students will develop. It is important to bring civic engagement to classrooms, by which I really mean bring our students outside the classroom, because it gives them a reason to care about their writing and speaking. It adds an element of authenticity to what can feel like a never-ending series of exercises. It motivates them to hone their skills and rise to the occasion.
These academic benefits cannot be overstressed, but there is still another compelling reason for schools to care about civic engagement. Civic engagement promotes social and political development. One of the great criticisms of the United States is that we, as a country, prize individualism above the needs of the larger society. The push for students to strive for their own individual success and achievement begs for the countervailing balance of a healthy sense of connection and community. Students must also learn that they are an integral part of a larger society and that they have both rights and responsibilities within that society.
They cannot develop a sense that they belong to a larger society or live within a political system through theory alone; they must experience society and they must experience that political system. For example, learning about the three branches of government must be coupled with opportunities to effect change through action taken at the local, state, and/or national level. In her government class, Maryann Wolfe has asked her students to do just that. During the 2012 election year, her seniors volunteered for local, state and national candidates and worked on propositions that they cared about. Similarly, being told that they should be compassionate takes on new meaning when students experience what it feels like to care for others through a service learning project. Michelle Espino’s students are acting with care and developing their sense of responsibility to the ecosystem through their recycling project. Finally, instead of banning smartphones and other devices that connect students with the world, schools can provide students with guidance on how to use these powerful tools to take actions that benefits others. Jo Paraiso’s students see themselves as part of an online community, engaging in respectful dialogue with students and adults via their social issue research blogs.
Jesse made a powerful case for how civic engagement can inspire students to “step their game up.” It gives students a reason to care about the quality of their written and spoken word. They feel that it matters. At the same time that students are honing these academic skills, their experience with civic engagement helps them see that their active participation is vital to the health of the larger society.