The world has been through a chaotic and uncertain time; more than 5 million people have lost their lives to COVID-19, and intense political divisions have fractured our country. Everyone—including students—would like to see change. However, many students don’t know how to bring about that change. Many believe their voices don’t matter. That’s why it’s important for schools to prioritize civics education. To share insights and best practices, we contacted Beth Lehr, assistant principal at Sahuarita High School in Sahuarita, AZ; Crystal Thorpe, principal of Fishers Junior High School in Fishers, IN; and Derrick Lawson, principal of Indio High School in Indio, CA. Principal Leadership senior editor Christine Savicky moderated the discussion.

What does teaching civics mean to you? What does your school do to create civic-minded individuals?

Lehr: In a nutshell, teaching civics is teaching how the government works. What is this person’s role? What is that person’s role? But at Sahuarita High School (SHS), we supplement it with our Arizona state standards—basically the national standards. When students are presenting an argument or when they’re talking about something in class, we ask them to analyze and provide their sources of information. By helping students learn to analyze sources, they have an opportunity to truly be civic-minded versus “Well, I read it on Facebook, so it must be true,” or “My friend’s uncle said this.” Asking our students, “What is your source? Who was the creator of that source? What was the purpose? Who is the audience?” not just in social studies but across the curriculum, is incredibly helpful. 

A number of our courses also encourage debates—formal and informal—within their classes so students can take a position and support it. Sometimes they’re discussing things like global warming and massive world events. Sometimes it’s the dress code. Giving students the ability to have a voice in what we’re teaching them is helpful. As far as teaching civics, it teaches them to be mindful. We also provide leadership opportunities, whether it be through groups like NHS or student council, but we also have less traditional types of clubs, like world history club or gaming club. Also, they get leadership opportunities through athletics. We encourage our students to get involved in the school. Then we teach them how to take those leadership skills out into the community and, by extension, their world.

Thorpe: Civics is teaching our students how our government works and also teaching them what processes are needed to make our democracy better. For our eighth graders, our curriculum is focused on U.S. history. We talk about government, but I believe that the civics part is left out, and that’s a gap. However, we do have one We the People class that competes. [We the People is a curricular program in which teams of students can compete against other schools based on their knowledge of the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the institutions of government.] We have won five national championships, so that tells me that our students know civics education is important. My students just presented what they’ve learned in the program to the Indiana Bar Association, and our state is looking at mandating civics education. Thanks to We the People, my students know the history of the law. 

One time, a student said to me, “You know what? I can sit down and have a conversation with my friends and we can agree to disagree, but we do it civilly. There’s no arguing.” When I heard that, I thought, “They have figured this out because, right now, that’s just not what’s happening in our world.” My hope is to scale up that program. Not every class has to compete, but we need to equip our students with that knowledge. They need to be able to have conversations where there’s no winner or loser; it’s just sharing of ideas and information and then walking away where everybody feels comfortable.

Lawson: Teaching civics for us has been about understanding the balance between exercising your rights and your responsibilities with everyone else’s rights at the same time. We really stress the need to look for the greater good. Sometimes when you hear the two sides of an issue, you can say, “Well, that may not fit for me, but it does fit for the greater good.” We really need to help our students understand civility in our discourse, which has been missing the last few years in our society. We can have differences of opinion, but we can do it civilly. 

At Indio High School, we have done a couple things. We have a student board member for the school board and our city. While I’ve been here, we’ve worked with a program called the Youth Advisory Council. Our city council put together a group of student leaders from our schools to serve as a “mini city council.” They meet with the city council, and bring forward their concerns, issues, and ideas. They elect a “mayor” of their Youth Advisory Council, and they help put together civic participation for students in our city. I’m excited about that because it helps our kids to see that bigger picture.

Another program that we started at our school is using philosophical chairs from the AVID Program—Advancement Via Individual Determination—to teach kids how to take in differing viewpoints, how to discuss them, and then perhaps change someone’s mind by hearing the civil disagreement. That’s been a challenge, but we’ve been doing that across the disciplines. The last thing we started was—on our school site council for our federal funds and our site plan—we rewrote our bylaws, and we now have student and parent members. Having the students’ voice is great, but they also learn that sometimes what you want as a student isn’t the best in the big picture. 

Do you agree with civics education experts who argue that civic learning is on the margins of young people’s school experience?

Thorpe: Absolutely. Kids model what they see. Like Derrick said, the problem is that our kids don’t know how to agree or disagree and be OK with that. They don’t understand what “for the greater good” means. Schools are putting little things in place to help the students get there, but I wish that we had a greater platform. 

For example, we had an uprising against our dress code; our girls were angry. They were attaching Post-It notes in the bathroom stalls that said, “Does my stomach make you feel bad?” I learned the name of one of the people who participated, so I called her in and we talked. We talked about how policies are made and how to effectively make changes to those policies. Vandalizing wasn’t going to make it happen and would just get somebody suspended or expelled. We then gathered the girls and I told them, “I will help you. We can create some suggestions to take to our school board.” But at the onset, our kids had no idea what it would take to change the dress code. They thought that if they rebelled, things would change. We need to help our kids understand how things work and how change is made.

Lawson: I also think that what’s happened in the last two generations of students is that we’ve seen civics education kind of relegated to the U.S. history class in fifth grade, eighth grade U.S. history, and the senior year government class. Instead of it being a mindset across everything we do, it has been relegated to specific teaching standards in a couple of courses. That has probably unintentionally marginalized it. But nationally, we’ve gone through paradigms of leadership, or in education, where we have phases of, “We’re going to concentrate on reading and math,” and everything else takes a back seat, or we go through momentary phases where we’ve compartmentalized some of the civics pieces to certain years in school rather than having an overarching reason for having school to begin with.

Lehr: I would add that it depends on the state that you’re in. There’s a number of states that have zero requirements for civics education at all. Then you have states like Arizona, where there’s technically a requirement, and there’s a civics test that you have to pass, but it’s not really the “concept” of civics—it’s just facts with the civics test, like, “Who’s your senator?” But it’s not, “Why is this important?” There’s no higher-​level thinking. It’s just spitting out facts. I agree with Derrick that it has gotten relegated into pockets, and we don’t necessarily see the connection. That’s a struggle across the board. How do things connect and tie in that education piece? So, depending on where you live, are educators encouraging younger people to become involved through grassroots organizations, through the schools? Or are they patting their students on the head and saying, “It’s fine; you’re young, you don’t understand. You’ll learn this later as an adult.”?

Some people say that civics education is the key to healing our democracy and the social and political unrest that we’re experiencing. Do you believe this is true, and how can we begin these discussions with our students? 

Lawson: Civics education is one of the best ways we can start the healing process because I think too many people feel disenfranchised or that their voice is not heard. If we can begin to help people understand the process of how things work, how a bill becomes a law—like “I’m Just a Bill” on Schoolhouse Rock! on a Saturday morning; I remember learning that. As people learn how their voice matters, not just in voting, they can share their position, hear someone else’s, and remain civil. You can then communicate those desires to those who represent you in the formal process. Civics education should teach our students how to express themselves for the greater good. We had the same problem that Crystal did with the dress code. We allowed our students to express their opinions and give their reasoning. That went a long way in allowing our students to think, “OK. I fit in. I belong. I may not agree, but I have a place here.”

Lehr: It’s incredibly important to have students understand that they are a part of the greater good. They are the ones who will continue to build our world. They need to understand that if their voice isn’t heard now, it could be 10, 15, 20 years before their voices are going to actually dictate the way that the world is run. So, the more we allow them to feel empowered and be involved at a younger age, the more they understand that they don’t have to be 18 to have a voice and take action. They can be involved by doing voting drives, by working at a polling place, by talking to their parents, by attending school board meetings and doing calls to the public, or by having their school do a My School Votes campaign. As Derrick said, there are so many times that our students feel they are too young, and their voice doesn’t matter—that they don’t hold any power. When in reality, they are not too young. Showing them how important their voices truly are and the processes for how their voices can be heard is imperative if they’re going to understand that they are the ones who will be changing our world.

Thorpe: I am in a very conservative suburban district, and our political climate right now is so polarized. I get sick to my stomach when it seems like being a Democrat or being a Republican is also viewed as being in a gang. I see some of those same issues bubble up with my kids. We like to do panoramic surveys and collect data. When we asked our kids what they are interested in, we had a lot of kids interested in learning more about Black Lives Matter. Many students felt like they weren’t able to express themselves to their families, so we were going to have groups to just talk about it, but the idea became a political issue. I’ve battled families about wearing masks, and it’s become a political issue. I wish that we could just present the facts to our kids without it being considered indoctrination and allow our kids to make some of their own judgments, their own decisions, and have conversations with their parents because that’s important. 

A group of 20 educators, researchers, and civics education practitioners released a paper that outlines the challenges that civics education has faced in reaching youth of color. How can we equitably teach civics and create civic-minded students?

Lehr: The most important thing that we can do as schools and educators is to provide our students with opportunities to feel empowered. We are a border community. We have a very large population of families in which some [family members] are documented and some are not. We have students who cross the border on a daily basis because of who they’re living with, but they come to school here. So, border politics is huge for our kids, and their reality is not necessarily what they see on the national media, but they don’t have a way to present that. We have to find ways to get them involved without them feeling like they’re going to be targeted. 

Therein lies another problem when working with undocumented families—they don’t want to draw attention to themselves. These kids, who have so many amazing, wonderful, fabulous talents that they could contribute, don’t because they don’t want any blowback on their family. Youth of color also have some of the same barriers. They’re feeling very disenfranchised because for years their voices have not been heard. It has become political to have a Latino student union or a Black student union or an LGBTQ student union. Nobody says that you have to be Latino to be in our Latino or Latinx student union. Nobody says you have to be LGBTQ to be in that group. But yet the second a parent hears this—in a very conservative rural society—then you immediately get “You’re indoctrinating,” and, “You’re trying to make my kid hate white people.” Unfortunately, it is a struggle to get them involved, but we need to look for creative ways to do so and get their voices to be a part of the greater voice as well. 

Thorpe: Legislators don’t understand that when they make those laws about not teaching critical race theory, like Beth said, we don’t teach. I will call it like I believe it to be: It’s about teaching history. They don’t understand the impact that has on all of our kids, especially our kids of color. I had a young lady, a Hispanic young lady, approach me. She was upset because she wanted to know why her people were not part of history in her U.S. history class. She said, “Dr. Thorpe, I know my people were in the Civil War. Why can’t I learn about that? Why can’t I be seen?” It’s so important that all of our voices are heard and that our voices matter, so she and I worked together. I found some information and called her back in class. And I said, “You know what? Ten thousand Hispanic Americans fought in the Civil War, some for the Confederacy, and some for the Union. And did you know some of them owned slaves, too?” She was so overjoyed that she was being seen. 

So, I shared that information with my staff. I shared it with my central office. This young lady wants to be an activist. We have to teach history. It’s not critical race theory. It’s not about making anybody feel mad or bad or upset about anything. It’s just part of who we are as a country, and how we can move forward and get better, and that ties directly into civics. That ties into having those good conversations about our past and making our future better for everybody.

Lawson: I hear one message coming through: Our kids want to say, “Am I reflected here? Do I see myself in the people who represent me?” I had a student last year who said, “So, it’s Black History Month. So that means I only matter this month?” No, it pains me for kids to think that they only matter when there’s a designated week or month that something is on the airwaves or made a national presence. That is a travesty because all kids want to know is if they have a voice and if they matter. Most importantly, they look at their leadership. We strive to make sure our staff is a reflection of our student population because we want them to see themselves and say, “Yes, this is an important place for me,” and I think see themselves in their leaders at the federal, state, and local levels. 

Kids want to see themselves reflected, their values, the things that are important to them, and they want to know that their voice matters. That becomes critically, critically important. To equitably do this, we need to start at a national level. There’s an old saying, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” Well, how do you eat this big issue? One bite at a time. The best place to start is when we have things like what we’ve been talking about: A student issue at our school in which we can get them involved, show them they have a voice, and let them be part of that decision making, whether it’s on a club level or a schoolwide ASB (Associated Student Body) level, or taking an issue to the school board or to the local city. My kids right now are ready to do that. 

We have seven surrounding communities. Of them, our community is the only one without a skate park. My students are raring to go, but they want to get their skate park the right way. They asked us to help them write letters to the city council and help them prepare their case to present to the council. That’s the way to do it. Start with something that matters to them that they can share and communicate, and they can see the success of speaking up. Whether or not they get the skate park, it’s the fact that their voice is going to be heard, that it’s on the agenda, that their representatives are going to listen to them and make a decision one way or the other. But the decision will be based on hearing from them. If we can do that at our local level and give them a sense that their voice matters and that they are heard and seen, then we can grow. If this generation has small successes now, they will be the ones running for political offices in the future. 

What is one of the best ways you have found to address civic engagement with students? 

Lawson: What shifted things for us, aside from just having a voter registration week during lunchtime activities, was we really partnered with our city, with that Youth Advisory Council, and the kids then had a voice in helping to shape some things. So, we go to city council meetings. They had to give their report and talk about things they wanted to be involved with. For us, the way this whole conversation started is they began to partner with the city for some community engagement participation activities, some civic pride opportunities, things that we could partner with, whether it was tree planting for Arbor Day, or having our cadets go and post colors for a board meeting or city events. 

We started looking for all these different things that our kids could be involved in with the city and with the local school board. Then we had a school board member from each of our high schools take a one-month turn, serving at two meetings and being at the school board. Those actions helped our kids to say, “Wow. I do get to be a part and my voice does matter.” 

For us, the second piece was changing our school site council to have three elected students and three elected parents. When they got to have a voice in shaping how we use our categorical funding and develop our site plan, boy, did it change the dynamic of why we have tutoring or why we spend our money the way we do. Now students and parents say, “You’re spending money, and I voted for that, so I guess I better support it.” It changed the dynamic of the dialogue because now they have responsibilities. It wasn’t just, “I have the right to say …” All of a sudden, they were responsible for making that decision. The small things that we did locally are going to help our kids to see the next circle, and then the next, and the next. 

Lehr: Again, it goes back to teaching our students how to use their voice. What is the best way? I loved that Crystal spoke to that student about the dress code. We see that here, too. (They learned to rebel with Post-It notes on TikTok.) But putting your sarcastic remarks on paper in the bathroom doesn’t help. We need to validate them by saying, “I appreciate your frustration, but here’s how we do this.” We have to use these real-life opportunities. Implementing things like My School Votes allows students to see that civics starts in high school. It actually can start earlier and carry on into college. We have to continue this activism role, and hold up examples of students who, because of horrible, horrible experiences, have to shout with their voice versus our students having the opportunity just by being in school.

Thorpe: In our district, we talk a lot about having real-life applications for our students. Teachers sprinkle that throughout their curriculum. I have one teacher who has his students do a “make a difference” project, and we’ve had students who have gone on to lobby our legislators. I have a math teacher who did a lesson on circadian rhythms and how that impacts sleep patterns. They did research and invited our school board to review the results to see if we should change our school start times. It was nice because we had writing, we had the civic engagement, and we had math. 

I have seen other teachers scale up ideas like this just because other teachers are doing it. But I think the greatest thing that we’ve done was just incorporate that We the People curriculum into that one class. Currently another junior high school in our district just introduced the program, too. They already had a club, but we found that more and more people are getting interested in it. I just hope that when our state rolls it out as a standard, that Fishers Junior High School can be a model school and we can use that curriculum so that it reaches all students, not just one group.