On teaching civics: “I want to make them thinkers, to be able to argue in a respectful manner”

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The Union Leader featured a piece on the rise of civics in our schools. Here’s an excerpt:

Martha Madsen, president of the New Hampshire Institute for Civics Education, said that over the past year she’s seen a surge of interest in civics. A recent workshop for middle-school educators drew 60 participants, with a waiting list.

Madsen thinks the new focus on civics is in part driven by the divisiveness of political discourse in the country. “Really, people of every stripe are concerned about this,” she said. “That’s what makes it a hot topic.”

…New Hampshire schools are required to teach civics as part of U.S. history and government, and legislators last year passed a law mandating civics testing in high school, including “the nature, purpose, structure, function, and history of the United States government, the rights and responsibilities of citizens, and noteworthy government and civic leaders.”

But the state’s social studies standards haven’t been updated in more than a decade, so civics education is driven at the local level, by individual teachers and schools.

Here’s what some schools are doing to get their students interested in civics:

Andrea Cameron teaches at Canterbury Elementary School, where students in third, fourth and fifth grade put on a play called “Shhh, We’re Writing the Constitution,” each September in honor of Constitution Day. They’ve even taken their show on the road, performing at schools in Belmont and Laconia.

Older students play the parts of the Founding Fathers and representatives of the 13 Colonies; younger students are in the chorus. “Because we’ve done it several years, they look forward to their chance to shine,” Cameron said.

And when they’re done with the play, students can talk knowledgeably about the debates that went on when the country was founded.

But Cameron said civics education goes beyond special projects, or memorizing facts about government or history. “I want to make them thinkers, to be able to argue in a respectful manner,” she said.

You won’t find more passionate defenders of civics education than the Milford High students.

Milford High School Teacher David Alcox said more than 500 Milford students have taken [his] “We the People” class since 1998; the curriculum was developed by the Center for Civic Education in California and is administered here by the New Hampshire Bar Association’s law-related education program.

He wants to inspire a lifelong passion for civic involvement. “I always tell my kids, ‘You’re going to retire some day, but you never retire from being a citizen.'”

Last week, Alcox’s students were presenting the arguments in landmark Supreme Court cases. The issues were weighty – and relevant.

Can schools mandate drug testing for students in extra-curricular activities? Can a principal bar a school newspaper from publishing articles about teen pregnancy and divorce? If a school offers a nondenominational prayer at the start of the day, does that violate the “establishment of religion” clause in the First Amendment?

Source: NH students tackle tough questions as civics lessons sharpen their minds | Union Leader