How to Teach Civics in Action to K–12 Students

Dr. Brooke Blevins has seen for herself what can happen when students are taught to take civic action. She’s thrilled with the results.

“Without civic engagement, civic knowledge only does so much good,” said Blevins, co-director of Baylor’s iEngage Summer Civics Institute.

Whether it’s a donation drive to collect supplies for abused children, a young woman playing in her school’s male-dominated tackle football league, or just the number of students who return to her program year after year, Blevins is surrounded by the lasting effects of action-based civic learning.

K–12 educators have an opportunity to do the same: guide and teach students how to be active members of democracy far beyond election season.

While voting is one of the most obvious forms of civic participation, most K–12 students are too young to participate. However, age-appropriate civics education doesn’t seem to be hitting the mark, either.

Fewer than a quarter of eighth-graders tested proficient or higher on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) civics exam in 2016. Even students with advanced curriculum are coming up short: The average score on the AP Government and Politics exam (PDF, 105 KB) is among the lowest of all 47 AP exams, and barely more than half of students pass.

Line graph displaying change in percentages of eighth, tenth and twelfth grade students who volunteered between 1991 and 2016

The percentage of 12th-grade students who volunteer saw a 12-point increase between 1991 and 2016. More than 36 percent of 12th-graders volunteered at least once a month in 2016, compared to 33 percent of 10th-graders and 28 percent of 8th-graders.

Go to a tabular version of data at the bottom of the page describing how the percentage of students who volunteer has changed over time.

What Is Action Civics?

Action civics addresses root causes of community issues and encourages students to examine why an issue exists in the first place.

Blevins uses animals as an example: If the issue is the number of animals in shelters, then adopting every cat and dog might seem like a solution. But it doesn’t really address the root cause: Why are so many animals in shelters? Why aren’t people adopting them?

The final step of the action civics process addresses next steps: What are we going to do to address this issue?

“Our goal is to move students from just thinking about citizenship as being personally responsible to being something that's more robust,” Blevins said. “We want to encourage students to get other people involved in helping solve root causes and deal with systemic or policy related issues.”

Megan Brandon, regional program manager at Generation Citizen, said her organization believes in focusing students in on an issue and its root cause before funneling them back out into action through their advocacy hourglass.

“By the end of the semester [teachers] say, ‘That was really powerful. That was a good chance for our students to take a concept they had learned and actually be able to apply it,’” Brandon said.

What Are Some Challenges Educators Face When Teaching Civics?

Incorporating new lessons and action-driven takeaways can seem daunting, or even impossible, for educators who are already short for time in the classroom — especially when so many students aren’t getting these lessons anywhere else.

Only Maryland and the District of Columbia require service learning in order for students to graduate high school — and there are 10 states that do not include a year of U.S. government or civics as part of the mandatory curriculum.

Bar charts showing the number of states that require civics courses and community service

While 40 states and the District of Columbia have civics course requirements for high school students, only Maryland and the District of Columbia have community service requirements. 

Go to the data at the bottom of the page to learn about civic education requirements in U.S. high schools.

“The biggest worry that we find across the board ... it’s really time,” Brandon said. “[Teachers’] time with students‚ their time to cover content, it’s so limited.”

But Brandon said that often these lessons can fit into existing curriculum more easily than teachers expect, as long as they stay flexible and have an open mind. She recommends incorporating civics into existing curriculum where it fits best for each teacher and each class.

Another common worry among educators is that teaching civics will inherently bring up politics. Blevins said any attempt to keep things apolitical is impossible because nothing is apolitical, but framing issues as a conversation is important. She encouraged educators to remind students that there are more than two sides to every issue, that everyone is influenced by their own beliefs, and that it’s important to take these things into consideration when addressing root causes.

Introductory Toolkit for Action Civics Education

Below, Baylor University’s online doctorate of education program has collected tips, resources, and ideas for teachers looking to incorporate action civics lessons into their curriculum.

Teach

Incorporate lessons on the basic tenets of citizenship and democracy. There’s a lot to learn about how government works and the history of U.S. government, but start with concepts that are foundational to the idea of active citizenship.

Frame every lesson with a follow-up action. For example:

What is consensus building and how can we accomplish it?

What is a political platform and how should we read it?

Who represents us in local government and how can I contact them?

More resources:

  • iCivics: Founded by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, iCivics includes free games and lesson plans to teach students of all ages about all areas of citizenship and government. Topics include the federal budget, our nation’s courts, elections, and more.
  • National Archives Educator Resources: From the official federal records administration, this site includes an online tool for teaching with primary documents.
  • Street Law Inc.: This free resource library has a collection of case summaries, mock trials, and lesson plans focused on our nation’s court system.
  • Newseum Ed: Provided by the Newseum as a free resource to educators, this site is a collection of artifacts, debates and lesson plans mostly centered around the First Amendment and freedom of the press.

Partner

Invite local leaders into your classroom to speak with students about issues that matter to them. Politicians, public servants, community leaders and other experts can contribute to the conversation.

“One of your greatest resources is your community,” Blevins said. “The biggest change happens in communities when people join together to create coalitions and to work together to solve issues. 

Learn how organizations can provide resources and training materials for your classroom. Some examples include:


Act

Provide opportunities for students to practice action civics in a classroom setting. With experiential learning, students can put their new skills to use to try and solve real-world problems.

  • Practice electoral engagement with a student-led mock election. For many students, this can be their first introduction to voting, political platforms and group-stakes decision-making.
  • Advocacy projects allow students to identify, research and problem-solve an issue from beginning to end. Let them choose a problem that resonates with them and develop an action plan to respond.
  • Blevins utilizes the “Shark Tank” model: She invites local experts and community leaders to hear advocacy pitches from students and provide feedback.

Blevins said that framing citizenship as a group effort is important and can have a lasting positive effect on students’ motivations to act.

“Young people see that they don’t have to do it alone,” she said. “There are already people working on issues they may care about that they could partner with in order to create change or learn how they can create their own organizations and make that change.”


The following section includes tabular data from the graphics in this post.

Percentage of 8th-, 10th-, and 12th-Graders Who Volunteered at Least Once a Month (1991-2016)

 
Year 8th-Graders 10th-Graders 12th-Graders
1991 25.8 26.8 23.7
1992 26.6 25.3 27.3
1993 26.4 25.7 26.6
1994 26 26.2 27.4
1995 27.1 27.6 28.9
1996 27.5 27.4 29.6
1997 28 28.9 30.8
1998 28.2 29.2 31.8
1999 27.9 29.2 31.4
2000 28.6 30.1 32.3
2001 28.2 29.3 34.6
2002 27.4 28.3 33
2003 25.7 27.5 31.6
2004 25.5 29 32.3
2005 26.1 28.5 34.1
2006 26.6 30.1 33.2
2007 26.4 28.6 34.2
2008 27 29.3 34
2009 27.2 30.6 34.8
2010 26.5 30.6 33.3
2011 28.7 31.2 34.9
2012 29.4 34.2 37.1
2013 28.4 34.1 35.5
2014 27.1 34.4 38.8
2015 28.6 34 36.3
2016 27.5 33.4 36.4

Source: Child Trends. (2018). Volunteering.

Number of States with Civic Education Requirements for High School Students

 
Civics Course Requirements Number of States
Require full-year civics course 10
Require half-year civics course 31
No civics course requirement 10
Community Service Requirements Number of States
Required Community Services 2
Provide credit for community service 23
No community service requirement or credit 26

*Includes District of Columbia

Source: “The State of Civics Education (PDF, 213 KB),” Center for American Progress. February 21, 2018.

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Citation for this content: Baylor University’s online doctorate in education program.