When most people think of civic education, they imagine a classroom with rows of desks, textbooks, and maybe the American flag on the wall.
At the Center for Advanced Research and Technology, we have always done things a little differently. We have grouped tables and office-style chairs. The American flag is still on the wall, but instead of just lecture and books, we focus on problem-solving as a style of education. What better way is there to teach about civics than through civic involvement?
This year the Law and Policy Lab at CART partnered with the California Civics Learning Task Force and over 40 local attorneys to allow our students to search for policy solutions to local issues. They heard from a panel of local leaders – the movers and shakers of our region – about the unique problems that our Valley deals with on a daily basis.
They formed groups around topics, and through the lens of an online blog, they researched their subjects by examining different aspects of the issue. They spoke to local lawmakers and the people at the heart of these topics. Along the way, each group was guided by two local attorneys who could show them the ins and outs of existing law, and help them make the connections they needed.
A central part of the law and civics education is learning to advocate for those in need. That is exactly what these students were able to do. They tackled such topics as teen drug use, kindergarten readiness, prison recidivism and gang membership.
Then they took what they had learned and proposed written policy to their principals, school boards and local nonprofit groups. Attorney Michael Wilhelm had challenged them to think about what they could change in their “sphere of influence” and they did. They held assemblies on cyberbullying and teen domestic violence, challenged school districts to improve their zero-tolerance policies, and even invited their schools to use programs like the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ “Ending the Silence.”
One group, for example, proposed a new app to Bitwise Industries that would help keep juveniles from reoffending. Senior Marissa Bane’s group focused on kindergarten readiness. “We came to realize it’s actually one of the biggest issues, and that if a kid doesn’t go to kindergarten or if they aren’t prepared, then they are more likely to be held back or fall behind,” she said. Her group’s solution was to add an early childhood education book to First 5 California’s new-parent kit given out in maternity wards in local hospitals.
Sixteen groups presented policies to a panel of judges made up of the president of the local bar association, a 5th District Court of Appeal judge and a Fresno Superior Court judge. Of these 16 groups, six made formal presentations at a public event at the Veterans Memorial Building in Old Town Clovis. Local business leaders, members of the newly minted Fresno Youth Commission, and Fresno and Clovis mayors Ashley Swearengin and Nathan Magsig, respectively, were just a few of the people in attendance.
The students felt proud and like they had actually made an impact. Said senior Samantha Vasques: “I didn’t think I could make much of a difference as a high school student, but through CART and this project, I’ve realized I can.”
For me, it is a teacher’s dream come true. Seeing those connections made from the classroom to the real world is what education, especially civics education, is all about. It’s what makes me have hope for tomorrow.
Moira Harada teaches in the Law and Policy Lab at CART. This article was written in collaboration with the Fresno County Civic Learning Partnership, which aims to support and highlight outstanding civic education projects in Fresno County schools. For more information or to get involved, go to www.fresnociviclearning.com.