Part of the ongoing education about American government are voter registration drives at Gwinnett County Public Schools. Picture here are students at Duluth High School. PHOTO COURTESY OF GWINNETT COUNTY PUBLIC SCHOOLS

Teaching students to be civic-minded, and civil about it

There was a time in this country when you had to be a white, male landowner to vote. While that’s changed, many people who could use American democracy’s fundamental tool still don’t.

More women voted in the 2018 midterm elections than men, but voter turnout for whites was much higher than all other ethnic groups — although the percentage of increase for those of Asian and Hispanic origin is growing more rapidly. The same goes for young people.

But with school systems focused on federal mandates that measure math and reading, who’s teaching students about democracy? The National Assessment of Educational Progress regularly gauges academic achievement. Commonly referred to as the “Nation’s Report Card,” it has shown lags in the performance in civics of eighth-grade students in 1998, 2006, 2010, and 2014, as well as fourth-grade students in 1998, 2006, and 2010.

“Knowledge of the Constitution isn’t passed in the gene pool,” said Kathy Sanchez, Gwinnett County Public Schools director of social studies for grades 6-12. “Kids have to learn it, and we have to want to do it.”

That’s the goal of a program launched in October 2016. The three-year mission of the Georgia 3Rs Project (Rights, Responsibility and Respect) is to help schools and communities come together across differences and engender civic participation in a diverse democracy.

Affiliated with the Religious Freedom Center in Washington, D.C., the Georgia 3Rs project aims to teach educators how to teach the fundamentals of American government without political bias and how to to facilitate the role of public schools as “guardians of democracy.” The project teaches the basics of the Constitution and the First Amendment and reminds students that being American has nothing to do with skin color, gender, sexual orientation or religious affiliation. At the same time it stresses that religious freedom matters, on the premise that a certain level of religious literacy can help understand and get along with one another.

It also sets a groundwork for further expansion of understanding government by establishing student councils, voter registration drives and mock votes based on real elections.

Officers of Jones Middle School’s Student Council wrote the script and produced a public service announcement explaining the rights and responsibilities of citizenship to the student body that ran on Veterans Day. While it stressed voting, the short video gave other examples of civic engagement.

“Civic engagement is the duty to our country as citizens of the United States,” said Vice President Jason Parker.

“Regardless of whether you care about politics or not, it’s important to at least vote so that something happens,” said President Kennedy Jackson. “And don’t say your vote doesn’t matter. … Many elections are decided by as few as hundreds of votes.”

Even though they are five years away from being able to vote themselves, the students pointed out that volunteering in your community at a local animal shelter or picking up litter in your neighborhood are easy ways to exercise civic engagement at any age.

“Teaching students to be civically engaged isn’t an easy job,” said Jonathan Patterson, associate superintendent for curriculum and instructional support. “The Georgia 3Rs Project helps build leadership with principle. … It helps sift through all the information and helps create a more manageable framework of government.”

This approach to American civics allows students at the elementary, middle and high school levels to find ways to be more personally involved. They still learn how a bill becomes a law, why checks and balances create stability in the government structure and discuss current events, but the lessons are more personal.

In a political climate where differences have sometimes turned into justification for violence, one tenet of the program is that bridging gaps in political discourse can start in the classroom.

“When we were doing research for our script, we realized that there’s a lot of biased information out there,” said Jones Middle Student Council Secretary Georgia Zimmer. “We looked for sites that didn’t have stuff that wasn’t true.”

Treasurer Esther Jung agreed.

“This has improved our skills in weeding through research to find facts and not just opinions,” she said.

The council members said the broadcast piqued interest in other students who wanted to know more about voting and civic engagement in general. And even the discussions where there were differences of opinion remained well-mannered.

Growing engaged citizens isn’t a new concept, pointed out Kat Calvin, executive director of Spread the Vote, a national nonprofit focused on increasing voter participation. In the 60s, students protested the war in Vietnam. Apartheid divestment was a cry from youth in the 70s and 80s. Rock the Vote encouraged 90s youngsters to use the power of the polls. And more recent movements such as March for Our Lives and Black Lives Matter seek solutions to violence in schools and on city streets.

“We’re seeing a new generation aware and taking action,” said Calvin. “Kids all over the world who aren’t even old enough to vote are leading movements for change. They’re not waiting for adults to find solutions. They’re using their unalienable rights in their own pursuit of happiness.”

And the sponsors of this new program want to show kids how discourse can be effective without bloodshed.

“There can sometimes be a fine line between what is considered educational and what is considered offensive,” said David Callaway, project manager for the Georgia 3Rs Project. “We are all different and we all come from different backgrounds. Studying others helps us understand how we can communicate with each other.”

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