Framing the Importance of Democratic Participation and Civic Education
As a lover of the Constitution, I get giddy during election time. I read obsessively about national and down-ballot contests, and I love volunteering on Election Day and talking to voters.
As a former civic educator, I also loved getting into debates on the issues with students. I believe in teaching the skills of civil political discourse—even when we disagree—and that teaching students their vote and their voice matter is a critical lesson in democracy.
My favorite classroom activity was the “fishbowl” debate: The class was divided into two groups and representatives from each group would debate an issue while the others watched. Anyone in the hot seat could be swapped out by a teammate with a light tap on the shoulder, and that teammate would continue the debate. Each time I did this, I would take some of our most outspoken and opinionated students and have them debate their alternative viewpoint. Despite their grumbling when assigned to argue a viewpoint they didn’t hold—on topics like gun control, education, and state vs. federal roles and responsibilities—the students almost always walked away from the experience with a better appreciation for the opposing views, even if they disagreed.
In today’s distance-learning world, I can envision the same fishbowl debate taking place on Zoom. The student groups would prepare to debate a topic in breakout rooms, and then the teacher would bring everyone back for a Zoom fishbowl face-off. Two students would debate, everyone else would remain on mute and off camera, and teammates could tag in and out by raising their virtual hand and then coming off mute and back on camera.
In today’s political climate, there is an awful lot we disagree on, and the political rhetoric and divisiveness seem to make even the mention of the election, a candidate or an issue a challenge for educators.
But where I hope we can agree is that our democracy, and an education in democracy, is critical to the values we share as a whole, such as voting, having every vote count, the rule of law and freedom.
Inspiring Democratic Participation Among Students
As we enter the homestretch of this election cycle, we have updated our election and civic education resources to make it easier for you to teach the principles of democracy and cover the issues we’re facing in this election.
Our Foundation of Democracy collection provides resources that answer questions like:
What is the rule of law, and how does it play out in a democracy?
What is federalism, and how does it work in the United States?
What systems attempt to limit government power?
What are the core principles and ideals of democracy?
How can we help students be informed citizens?
What do democracies look like in other parts of the world?
Our Civic Education and Election collection covers core principles of democracy and elections, such as voting rights, gerrymandering, the Electoral College, media literacy and civil discourse. And we have many free, for-credit webinars on election 2020, covering topics such as voter suppression, civil discourse and how to teach civics in the virtual world.
Finally, if you want to declare and share your belief in democracy and the value of civic education, join me in signing the Democracy Declaration. This nonpartisan declaration joins educators in preK-12 schools, colleges and universities, and representatives of schools across the United States, in endorsing that “democracy is a means of giving voice to each one of us, of expressing the dignity of each individual, of representing the values of our society, and of ensuring the lawful transition of authority. Every freedom depends upon the freedom to vote. Each vote counts; count each vote.”
Republished with permission from Share My Lesson.