It’s time to act upon all the knowledge we have gained.
Let’s do something! Write a letter to editor, start a petition, create a teach-in, start a facebook page, submit a letter to the editor, make posters to put up around campus, write an essay, post a video, start a tumblr, make visual art, write a manifesto, chalk the campus, write your congressperson or the president, write an article for your school newspaper, join or start an interest group, spread the word, hold a rally or protest, lobby the legislature.
Our students’ compassion will drive our actions, so let’s start by finding out what our kids care about.
Here’s how finding the engine of our action looked in my class:
Me: Students, what do you care about?
(Awkward silence.) One kid raises hand.
Me: I care about my hair too, but that’s not really what I had in mind.
Me: Let’s try again. (Clears throat.)
What do you care about? That affects you and others?
(Awkward silence.) One kid raises hand.
Me: I care about the weather too, but that’s not really what I had in mind.
Let’s try again. (Clears throat.)
What do you care about? That affects you and others? And -wait for it- that
you can do something about?
Me: Very good. Now we’re talking.
By thinking about others, we can move beyond the realm of the personal, into the political. Keep in mind that students may not feel comfortable saying what they care about in front of their peers (would you?), but rest assured that every single student has something they care about (don’t you?) To encourage maximum participation I have students write down a list of three things they care about on a scrap sheet of paper that they will turn in anonymously.
Write on the board:
Students’ CARE ABOUT lists will vary, but probably look something like this:
College Application fees
Gender pay gap
Freedom of religion
Cost of college tuition
President Trump’s cabinet picks
Black Lives Matter
Write on the board:
On the back of our scrappy little piece of paper we’re going to take a moment to generate a list of actions people can take about anything they give a damn about. Again, your students’ DO ABOUT lists will vary but may look something like this:
Sign a Petition
Start a petition
Write the president
Meet with a representative
Record a charity album with all your celebrity friends
Join an interest group
Start an interest group
Hold a sit-in/teach-in
Share my opinion with others in person or on social media
Be a wise voter/consumer
Stop eating pancakes
Educate the entire school about a topic
Make a rap, post it on YouTube, include a cat, people love cats, and make it go viral
Move to Canada
Write a letter to the editor
Organize a rally/march/protest/vigil
Raise money and place an ad/rent a billboard
This list is just a start. Your students may come up with some other really great ideas. You could hand out, write on board, or project this master list of 40 Forms Of Civic Actions:
Now have your students turn in their answers, anonymously. From your students’ submissions, remove any answers that are off topic, irrelevant, offensive, silly, or solely personal.
You’re going to need to find two reasonably mature students to help you generate your class WHAT List.
A scribe to help you write the WHAT list on the board.
An IT tech to input the WHAT List to a public Google doc to be shared with everyone in class.
Be sure this information is written on the board and in the Google doc before moving on.
Now that we have a good list of things we care about and can do, it’s time for students use the PRIORITIES template to rank the things they personally care about the most.
I always advise my students to start with something easy, effective, and repeatable. For instance, I start every week by writing a letter to a government official. Last week, it was my state house representative, this week it was my US Senator, and next week it will be my mayor (notice the federalism at work). This may seem small, but I make a habit of it and I believe, that over time, the letters add up, and it makes a difference (to me and to others). And honestly, I’ve seen results. Thanks to these letters, I’ve had a US senator come to speak to my students, a crosswalk put up in my neighborhood, and added my voice to countless efforts to free political prisoners, alter policy, and make positive change. And remember, there’s little downside (it only takes a minute), and if you don’t speak up, someone else you don’t agree with will. You might want to model or share ways you are an active citizen.
Now that we have a class-generated WHAT list on the board, and your students have completed a PRIORITIES template, our next step is to figure out exactly who is working with whom.
If you don’t already have one, you need
A scribe to help you write on the board.
An IT tech to input the list from the board into a public Google doc to be shared with everyone in class.
Hand out the WHO sheet.
Your students are now going to take about five minutes to complete the WHO sheet, laying out the basic: who, what, and how of their civic action.
The most durable social change is created together, and the most successful civic projects my students have ever completed were done with others. Your class may choose to work all together towards one common goal together as a class, or in separate teams each with their own distinct goals, or even as individual actors. Every class is different, and you may want to guide yours towards the option that is most appropriate for your students.
Also, empower your students by giving them enough freedom and space to own their project. Perfect or not, this is your students’ plan, and they are the ones who will do it, so while we nudge students towards actions that are more efficacious and practicable, it’s important to give them lots of autonomy. Allowing students to dream, while still being realistic is essential to success. This may be hard at first, but you will get better at it over time. The more students own this project, the more they will accomplish, and I’ve found that the more I am a conductor, instead of a composer, the more we succeed.
So help your students work towards actions that are important but manageable, and harness their intelligence, drive, and energy for a transformative enterprise. Not only will your students make a difference, you will be doing the noblest job of a politics teacher, allowing your students to practice the art of citizenship, a skill that lasts a lifetime.
When they are empowered, your students can do great things. In our inaugural civic action, one team worked on an after-school human rights teach-in, another team organized a peaceful protest of the war, another team created an informational campaign and letter writing campaign about the death penalty, other groups volunteered to work on various presidential campaign, and yet another group invited the head of the state ACLU to come speak to our class about the First Amendment rights for students. One year, my entire class decided to hold an Oxfam hunger banquet and spent a whole month working towards our goal. Another year all of my classes sponsored and brought students from the war-torn Balkans to our school for a month long exchange program. One year my entire school decided to become involved with a Haitian orphanage where we have traveled and volunteered for five years. Throughout all these actions, many students have discovered their own civic leadership, and all of us have learned the skills of active citizenship they continue to exercise, making the world better, every day.
It’s about to get a little noisy and I hope you are prepared for a little controlled chaos, because your students are going to need to get up, walk around the room, and talk to each other before they can complete their WHO sheets. This will probably take at least five minutes. Make sure your students understand the directions and then have them complete the WHO sheet.
Once everyone has completed and turned in a portion of a WHO sheet, have your scribe and IT Tech enter the data onto the board for all to see, and into the Google doc for posterity. Once you have compiled all of this, go over the information and discuss.
So now you are on your way. You have a basic idea of what you are doing, who is doing it, and when it is going to happen. All you have to do now is do it!
The pathway to hell is paved with good intentions. Your students will bring a lot of energy to their civic actions, will have all kinds of big ideas (as they should), but will become easily distracted. Your goal is to herd the cats, and move them forward by taking small action steps towards their larger goals, with a weekly public check-in on their progress.
Every week we will publicly check in on our progress towards our small goals, keeping records of this in our Google doc for all to see. Every week we will set a small action goal for the next week. I believe that public accountability is the best motivator, but if you need an evaluative tool for their work here’s a template:
It’s time to begin the civic action! Every week your students will check in, share successes and failures, and plan their next steps towards their goal. Make sure everyone completes the WHEN sheet each week, step in to help individuals who are having trouble making progress towards their goals, and share’s everyone’s progress in class and online.
Congratulations, you’ve given your students the tools they need to become informed and active citizens, and now it’s time to watch them practice political efficacy. You are going to see amazing leaders and citizens grow, and 10 years from now, you and your students will remember these actions. Good luck and let us know if we can ever be of help!