When educators Matt Haynes and Tyler Eckhoff developed the new elective “Civics and Social Justice,” they were attracted to the content, but they did not realize what a catalyst it could be.
“At first, we were just excited about the content in general, but then when we sat down and started to plan it out, we realized what this course could be,” said Eckhoff, a social studies teacher at Tri-Valley High School and member of the Tri-Valley Teachers Association. “This course could be a way to get kids engaged in the community and empower them to make a difference.”
Haynes and Eckhoff's new class, launched in 2021 as part of the New York State Education Department’s Seal of Civic Readiness pilot, prompted juniors and seniors to identify a local issue, research its history, analyze past attempts to solve it, and then formulate an action plan for tackling it. All semester, students worked on issues they cared about, including the opioid epidemic, lack of public transit, immigration, and income inequality.
“The fact that students got pick the issue they wanted to work on contributed to their success, because they chose things that mattered to them personally,” said Haynes.
Giving students agency to explore topics that concern them is one way to fight ambivalence when it comes to civics education. Rooting civic engagement in activism and social justice is another, explains Haynes.
Across the state, educators like Eckhoff and Haynes are on a mission to encourage civic participation, and the stakes could not be higher.
In 2019, only 22.7 percent of New Yorkers cast their ballots in the November election, and New York ranked 47th in the nation for voter turnout.
“Students should be equipped with the skills and mindset necessary to be ready for actions so they can make a positive difference in our communities,” said NYSUT Executive Vice President Jolene DiBrango. “We want to elevate the discourse around government, democracy, history and civil rights.”
NYSUT is doing just that with its latest issue of Educator’s Voice, themed “Sustaining Democracy Through Civics Education,” available this month.
While civics education can motivate students to vote and engage in public life, social studies often falls to the wayside. To address that shortfall, NYSED in 2019 launched an ambitious project to redefine civics education. A task force of educators, civics advocates, and other stakeholders was convened. After more than a year of meetings, the group emerged with a new pathway to graduation, the Seal of Civic Readiness.
A pilot program was rolled out in the fall of 2021, and students began graduating with the seal in 2022.
Oceanside High School was one of 117 schools that participated in the pilot program during the 2021-2022 school year. Led by Jennifer Wolfe, a social studies teacher and member of the Oceanside Federation of Teachers, these Long Island students created a “brave space” in their classroom, where they could openly discuss their perspectives on current issues, without fear of ridicule or judgement. These respectful dialogues ultimately helped students choose a capstone project.
“One group focused on damage to automobiles caused by potholes and corresponded with State Senator Todd Kaminsky’s office. They discovered that drivers could receive compensation for pothole damage caused on highways. The group then contacted U.S. Representative Kathleen Rice to request this program be extended to local roads in the Town of Hempstead,” Wolfe writes. “Another group researched the impact of pollution on the Long Island Sound and organized a beach cleanup as their informed action.”
But high schoolers are not the only students learning to actively engage in their communities. As Karen Hadley, instructional coach for social studies for Onteora School District and member of the Onteora Teacher Association, demonstrated, children as young as 8 and 9 can bring about profound changes in their community. In 2021, third graders at Phoenicia and Woodstock Elementary schools started a plastic recycling movement in their community that successfully diverted two tons of polyethylene plastic from the landfill.
“Inquiry, argument and student-driven civics projects can be the roadmap by which educators empower students to carry out climate change reversal and carry on our democracy,” Hadley said.
Read about Wolfe and Hadley’s students and the different approaches other educators are taking to civics education in the latest Educator’s Voice. Visit nysut.org/EducatorsVoice.