Civics Classes Make Engaged Students into Responsible Citizens

1685

(Courtesy Photo)

By Alexis Taylor
Special to the AFRO

Ask the average high school graduate to explain the inner workings of the electoral college and you might get a range of answers- to include the blank stare.

Ask the average adult to explain the inner workings of the electoral college and the result might not be much different. 

As Election Day approaches, misinformation abounds- causing advocates to spotlight the civics and government programming they believe is key to upholding the nation’s democracy. 

“Young people aren’t clear on the dynamics of government,” said Kim Glover-Spencer, president of the Greater Baltimore Urban League Guild. “We elected Donald Trump and I don’t think people understood that this affects the Supreme Court judges.” 

Glover-Spencer says making sure students understand that casting a vote for president is “more than voting for a personality” is of the utmost importance. She also said stakeholders should highlight that midterm election participation is a key way to make change on a local level.

“They need to understand who the senators and representatives are for their district,” said Glover-Spencer. “African Americans are more focused on the federal government because that is who has bailed them out every time as far back as the Civil War and voting rights.” 

“We can’t keep looking to the federal government as our source when we need to make the local government more accountable to us.”

Sarah Shames, a student campus organizer for the non-profit Maryland Public Interest Research Group (Maryland PIRG), agrees that students are missing a lot of crucial information about government when they arrive on college campuses.

Shames attended high school in California and said she “took a little bit of civics and government in high school but there wasn’t an emphasis on it at all.”

“No one came in and said this is why you vote and this is how you do it,” Shames told the AFRO. “Students think it’s hard to register or that it takes a lot of time. They don’t know where to go or what the deadlines are.  It’s not challenging- it takes two minutes of your life.” 

Shames said that when students arrive fresh on college campuses there are many misconceptions about the voting process and how to take part in civic duties. 

“As students move onto campuses for college, many of them do need to re-register with their college address. That catches them off guard because they think that if they register to vote once they are registered forever. That’s simply not true.” 

In a census year, Shames said she is also noticing that many freshman college students arrive confused by the civic processes that help the nation operate.

“They don’t understand the purpose of the census and why it’s important to take,” said Shames. “I also don’t know too many students who fully understand jury duty.  In the past, I’ve helped students who don’t want to register to vote because they think they’ll be stuck doing jury duty forever. They don’t know what it is at all.” 

According to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, on federal cases “before potential jurors are summoned for service, their names are randomly drawn from voters lists and sometimes drivers lists.” 

This process has raised concern among advocates because if a person never registers to vote, and doesn’t own a driver’s license, their peers are often left at a disadvantage in the courtroom. 

“They don’t make the connection that when you vote your name also goes into a pot for jury duty,” said Dr. Alice Jackson, professor in Morgan State University’s department of political science. “Students need experiential learning. They need to go out into the field and volunteer with a campaign. They should go to a courthouse and see whether or not they are represented by a jury of peers.”

Jackson said that students in her government and political science courses are first asked to take the citizenship test that every immigrant must pass in order to gain access to the American dream. 

“Ninety percent of the time the students fail the test,” she reported. “They have not a clue.”

“I think the high schools teach it to them and they don’t retain it.” 

Jackson told the AFRO that in order to create fully engaged citizens out of the college students who enter her classroom she encourages them to become election judges and poll workers. Her students also become certified to register voters and in election years, she rearranges the order of the textbook chapters so election and voting content are explored well before Election Day.

Chief John Davis, of Baltimore City Public Schools, said curriculum changes have already bolstered civics and government classes to “ensure that students understand the history and the system, but also how they can lean in and become active members of society.”

“When it’s done well, it engages the students. It’s not just knowledge building,” said Davis.

“In all of our social studies courses we are really working with students to take informed action through the inquiry design model. In the end, we want students to engage their school, their neighborhood, and their city.”

Davis said students currently receive a “decent amount about voter registration and how it can impact elections and policies,” but they also are learning how to make their own impact through the inquiry design model.

“Students identify and research an issue in the city that matters to them. They do their own research and draw up a plan. Part of this model is called ‘taking informed action.’ We push students to take action based on what they need in their communities and their lives.”

In response to critics who say the classes don’t do enough to inform students, Chief Davis said he “will always be searching to do more.”

“I won’t claim victory, but I will claim progress.”

In addition to courses on civic engagement and government, Chief Davis said financial literacy activities through EVERFI have been added to the curriculum.

“There is knowledge that students have to have- but there’s a balance between knowledge, students being able to take action, and engaging them so they can do that productively.”

According to survey data released in August 2020 by CIRCLE, the nonpartisan Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, “students who had not received encouragement to vote from teachers in high school were more than twice as likely to agree with the statement ‘Voting is a waste of time’ as those who had been encouraged: 26 percent vs. 12 percent. 

On the contrary, results from the survey found that “Youth who reported having been either encouraged to vote or taught how to register to vote in high school are more likely to vote and participate in other civic activities.”

The survey of more than 2,200 participants also found that these same youths were “more knowledgeable about voting processes, and more invested in and attentive to the 2020 election than other youth.”