Civic Engagement Starts in the Classroom

Students who participate in discussions of important local, national or global issues report that they are more engaged in school, more interested in politics, better communicators and critical thinkers, and have a greater likelihood of engaging in civic life as adults. 

In recent years, there has been a profound change in the way young people engage with civic issues. This change, like so many others in our 21st century lives, is happening online and right before our eyes. Whether on the topic of violence in our schools and communities, climate change, immigration, gender identity, racial equality or any number of other issues, young people everywhere are discovering and refining their civic voices. Often rising out of the ashes of tragedy, or in direct response to the real and perceived shortcomings of our collective adult leadership, they are contributing to and sometimes even driving important national conversations. These voices, buoyed by the access granted to civic life by digital and media technologies, represent a dramatic change in the way young people are recognized, heard and responded to. 

Four years ago, The National Writing Project and KQED hosted an online challenge called Letters to the Next President in the leadup to the 2016 presidential election. Teenagers across the country wrote about the issues that mattered most to them, creating almost 13,000 submissions. Students from myriad cultures, in rural and urban schools, on the left and right of the aisle showed that they care deeply about the world around them and want to be part of the civic life of our communities and nation. These letters proved wrong the popular narrative of apathetic, lazy and complacent young people distracted by the bells and whistles of the modern world.

Building on the success of this effort, KQED, The National Writing Project and PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs are co-hosting the KQED Media Challenge: Let’s Talk About Election 2020. This challenge will reignite the call for young people to investigate and share about the issues that matter most to them. Through the submission of audio and video commentaries, students will use media to persuade America how to ensure the best future for us all. The Election 2020 media challenge will open in January.

In taking on this work, we understand that young peoples’ understandings of the world around them are a work in progress. They are actively struggling with the world — attempting to make meaning from complex inputs while simultaneously seeking out where they might fit. We must do a better job of both encouraging the development of their voice and supporting them in growing their capacity for and interest in engaging in civic life. Their voices provide insight into the lives our young people are leading, what they care about, what they worry about and, importantly, their vision for a better future. Furthermore, students supported in engaging in discussions of important local, national or global issues report that they are more engaged in school, more interested in politics, better communicators and critical thinkers and have a greater likelihood of engaging in civic life as adults. 

Because of these profound benefits, and especially in light of the differences in civic engagement opportunities experienced in classrooms between white students and students of color, we need to provide many opportunities for students to practice civic engagement. At minimum, this includes supporting all students to: 1) identify and understand the problems around them and how those problems impact themselves, their families and their communities, 2) build communication and technical skills necessary to share their position and reasoning effectively with others in face-to-face and online spaces and 3) engage with and respond to others in ways that support dialog and understanding rather than conflict and division. Additionally, because the competencies needed to develop and nurture these skills cannot be assumed, it is important to support educators on this journey towards civic media literacy, too.

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Young people, who have with few exceptions been either absent or cast in minor roles within civic life, want to participate in the national conversation. The enduring idea that children should be seen and not heard presents a losing proposition on a number of fronts, but is most notably problematic when considering the simple equation: The more young people we can empower by engaging them in envisioning better communities, a better nation and a better world, the closer we are to a better today and tomorrow — for all of us. 

Educators, join us and Let’s Talk About Election 2020.