Ideas for Student Civic Action in a Time of Social Uncertainty

June 29, 2017
By Educator Innovator

I’m very pleased to share my New York Times Learning Network blog post with the Educator Innovator blog. One thing I’d like readers to keep in mind if this is your first introduction to teaching with student civic action: if a full-blown project seems overwhelming, time-gobbling, and hard to control, it’s fine to start small. A good strategy is the “soap box” curriculum from the Mikva Challenge organization in Chicago, readily available on the Web. It comprises just four lessons plus a speech presentation session. If you want to do the full monte but with more explicit lessons, you can obtain a full Mikva Challenge project curriculum for a fee. (Note: I don’t work for that organization, but am a fan.) I’ve tried to provide ideas and supports in my book, From Inquiry to Action, and on my blog at While the Learning Network post originally emphasized the role of politics in the recent focus on student civic engagement, most issues students will want to tackle are very local, immediate, and not really controversial—like supporting students in the school who deal with disabilities, strengthening young people’s health, or improving school culture. Just know that when you involve your students in this kind of active learning, you are doing the work that public school in America was originally established to do: guiding them to become the responsible and active citizens our society needs.

Overview: Five Steps for Getting Started

Many outstanding teachers guide student civic action in their classrooms, and some have been at it for a long time. In fact, this kind of learning was repeatedly promoted over the past century, as this 1928 article from The New York Times shows. At times, as in this New York City public school project in 1992, foundations have even funded it.

What can these projects look like? Chicago high school teacher Elizabeth Robbins explains one approach in the TEDx talk above.

While individual efforts are valuable, students can learn the skills of collaborating on civic issues by working together as a whole class. Here are the five broad steps they should follow:

  1. Identify issues important in their lives and community, and decide on one to address.
  2. Research the chosen issue and decide how to change or improve the situation.
  3. Plan an action, including determining a goal for change; identifying who or what body in the community has power to make the change; and deciding how to approach that person or those people.
  4. Carry out the action through letters, talks, meetings with officials, policy proposals, and activities, depending on the specific goals of the project.
  5. Reflect on the effort when it is over in order to understand their successes, challenges, and ways to continue learning in the future.

Two features are especially crucial to making the experience authentic and empowering. First, students must own the key choices and decisions and figure out solutions to problems themselves, so they discover that they can do this. The teacher facilitates the work, of course, but leaves as much of the decision-making as possible to the students.

Second, the work should culminate in some action focused on change in the school or community. It’s not enough to just talk about change, practice mock legislatures, or serve in a soup kitchen (as valuable as these activities may be). Only when students see adults listening to them with respect, do they realize they have a voice and can make a difference in their world. Their efforts may not always succeed, but in being heard they come to value the studying, reading, writing and planning that they have done.

A good preparatory step is to start students thinking about democracy and whether it’s important in our lives. (One way to begin? This series of Learning Network writing and discussion prompts on the question How Strong Is Your Faith in American Democracy?)

After a quick-write and some sharing of responses, invite students to discuss how they can promote democracy in their own classroom, not just by voting on matters but by become active citizens themselves.

Step 1—Identifying an Issue That Matters to Students

Here are several strategies to get students started:

Ask them! Young people often have a lot to say about problems and concerns in their school or community, and sometimes these are issues we teachers would never think of. It’s a good idea to encourage focus on issues in their own school or community, since it’s more likely that the students can have some influence on them. (For example, as I described in my book, one group of students at Roosevelt Middle School in River Forest, Ill., focused on solutions to the problem of repeated flooding in their neighborhood.)

Offer a list of social issues to help get brainstorming started. The Learning Network recently provided suggestions for possible charitable actions for individual students, and these can also be tackled by a whole class together. While many of the examples are about giving time or money, any of them can be expanded into larger efforts for substantive change. For example, providing warm clothing for the homeless can grow into advocacy for more essential programs to end homelessness.

Guide the class to survey fellow students in the school, or adults in the neighborhood, to identify issues of concern. Have students work in small groups to create draft surveys. They can try them out on one another, or on a sample of people outside the classroom to see which questions provide them with the most useful information. This Learning Network set of activities on surveys can help guide students in this work.

Another resource? This lesson plan, from Suzie Boss, a writer who specializes in Project-Based Learning: For Authentic Learning, Start With Real Problems.

Step 2—Researching the Issue

In Step 2, students become well-informed on their chosen issue. While local news items introduce students to conditions in their own community, national news on the issue can provide more information and perspective.

For example, the issue of lead in drinking water, which has been a major crisis in Flint, Michigan, is also proving to be a problem in places all over the country.

Students or teachers might then scroll through the Times Topics page on water, and find pieces like these that take the topic on from different perspectives:

2017 Article | America’s Tap Water: Too Much Contamination, Not Enough Reporting, Study Finds

2016 Article | Flint Weighs Scope of Harm to Children Caused by Lead in Water

2016 Op-Ed | Poisoned Water in Newark Schools

2013 Article | The Arsenic in Our Drinking Water

This is just an example of one topic, but whatever topic your students take on, the more they can be charged with finding their own information, the more ownership they will have over the product. (Of course, a few quick lessons on how to find and evaluate information may help.)

Next, have students brainstorm other resources they might use to augment what a web or library search offers. For example, a class at Polaris Charter Academy in Chicago, concerned with gun violence in their neighborhood, talked to a local police official, leaders of neighborhood organizations, and their city alderman. It led to a project so rich it was described in The Times, as part of a piece on the question, Can Teenage Defiance Be Manipulated for Good?:

At Polaris Charter Academy on Chicago’s West Side, seventh graders learning about the Second Amendment decided to start a campaign against gun violence in their neighborhood. They created four public-service announcements, which aired on television; published a book about peacemakers in their community; and presented their work to the mayor.

Ameerah Rollins, now 16 and a junior at Richard T. Crane Medical Prep High School, was one of the seventh graders. At first, she said, “none of us really thought we would make much impact.” But as the students began to interview local officials and organize community events, “I noticed that people were starting to look at us, to acknowledge what we were doing.” Nine out of 10 of her classmates knew someone who had been shot or killed. Taking action felt like a way to begin to avenge those deaths. “It triggered something very personal. And when it became personal, we actually started to put in the work.”

From her experience, Ms. Rollins concluded that teenagers may have a distinct capacity to change society.

Step 3—Identifying Solutions and Planning Actions

At this stage, students can be helped to examine and compare solutions thoughtfully. A great tool is the “root cause tree” graphic organizer. Unlike some graphics that do most of the work in advance, this one invites real thinking and often further research, because it encourages students to consider the many factors that may influence a problem, rather than cavalierly jumping to a conclusion.

Considering a range of causes can lead students to search for creative solutions to problems. Here, for example, is a student-created debate and lesson plan from The Learning Network the topic of how to fix the criminal justice system.

Another example: If students are focused on homelessness (an issue many young people find they want to work on), they can start with a search of The New York Times, and find, via the Times Topics page on homelessness, a whole collection of proposals by experts on the issue.

As they read, they may realize that the need for jobs is one salient factor. A bit of searching could then uncover job strategies that already exist, such as this one developed by the city of Albuquerque.

This positive approach is often called “appreciative inquiry” – that is, instead of just defining the goal as an absence of the problem, look for solutions that already exist.

Once students have a proposal in mind, whom do they approach to advocate it? This calls for what organizers term a “power analysis” — but it’s really a civics lesson students teach themselves.

If the concern is about the safety of drinking water in their community, students will need to inquire into exactly who is responsible for it, and who might have the authority to make changes in how it is assured. News articles often reveal the responsible agency or official. Another approach is for students to contact a local government official who can give them guidance, even if he or she is not the responsible party.

Now it’s time to start preparing communications to advocate their solution. Depending on the target audience, this may involve:

  • letter writing
  • fliers
  • presentations to local governing boards, commissions, local businesses, or civic groups
  • podcasts
  • public service announcements by video or audio

The support a teacher provides now depends very much on the students’ decisions about how they plan to proceed.

In the Polaris seventh grade class mentioned earlier, students decided to make public service videos, like the one you see above, and persuaded their local alderman to run them on his YouTube channel. To help these young people create their videos, the teachers contacted a nearby high school video instructor to obtain expert high school students’ help training their younger protégés.

In a high school algebra classroom at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, students who had analyzed statistics on minority standardized test performance created a website and distributed fliers to inform students in disadvantaged neighborhoods about free SAT prep programs. In a setting like that, a quick lesson from an art teacher could be especially helpful for promoting quality design of the fliers.

More ideas? A recent Times article, “A Low-Tech Guide to Becoming More Politically Active,” gives ideas to help people educate themselves on an issue, engage with lawmakers, and find groups doing similar work who might help.

Step 4—Carrying Out an Action

Just as with planning, as students move to carry out their planned advocacy or civic improvement project, the support a teacher provides depends entirely on the specifics of the action. At this stage, the primary role is to cheer the students on, and make sure their efforts are positive and acceptable in the community.

Teachers concerned with involving students in highly charged issues needn’t worry, however. Most of the issues students identify tend to be quite local and noncontroversial — and, with teacher guidance, can be done in a way that gives all stakeholders a voice.

For example, the “Salad Girls,” fifth graders at Park Forest School in State College, Pa., simply wanted to have non-meat salads in the school lunches because of their dietary needs. When they planned to make complaints about the quality of the cafeteria food, the teacher encouraged them to meet with the cafeteria manager first. When they did, they quickly learned that nutritional rules were made at the state level, and out of the hands of local administrators. You can read here about the months-long process they then undertook that resulted in more salad offerings in the cafeteria.

Step 5—Reflection

Finally it’s essential to guide students to reflect on their work after it’s finished. One teacher expert in this work, Heather Van Benthuysen, explains that her assessment is primarily based on this reflection, since this is when she learns what the student has or has not learned.

Additional Resources

By Steven Zemelman
Originally posted at The New York Times Learning Network
Photo/ Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action