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Teaching Civics To Eighth Graders

Students To 'Do Civics' At A School Near You

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The state advises that schools scrap eighth grade world history class and instead focus on civics.
Photos by Getty Images. Illustration by Emily Judem/WGBH News.
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Teaching Civics To Eighth Graders

“What does it mean to be a citizen? We’re talking about that since day one,” Revere teacher Tina Petty says to her colleagues.

The other women look up from their laptops.

“So, that’s almost your overarching course question for the year,” says Brittany McGrail, an eighth grade social studies teacher.

McGrail and Petty are feverishly building a class from scratch that they plan to debut in September. Along with teachers from more than 90 Massachusetts districts, the Revere teachers took a crash course last month in how to teach civics to eighth graders following a recent change in state standards.

A couple of years ago, state education officials redefined what it means to be prepared for college and a career. Now they say kids should leave high school ready for civic life. To make that happen, the state advises that schools scrap eighth grade world history class and instead focus on civics. Along with the usual lessons about how state, federal and local governments work, students are expected to learn everything from how to evaluate the media, to how to distinguish opinion from fact, to how to take action in their communities.

Some educators have worried that teachers wouldn’t adopt the changes, since there isn’t an MCAS social studies test to motivate them. But if the people here are any indication, teachers are hungry for ways to make their subject relevant to students.

“Anything we can do to make school real for kids is a good thing,” Petty says.

Initially, McGrail was reluctant to stop teaching world history, because she says it’s the foundation for understanding the country. But then she thought about how her students question the importance of learning history.

She says they ask questions like, 'What’s the big deal about the Magna Carta?'

“We asked the same thing. 'When am I going to use this in real life?' This is them using it in real life,” says McGrail.

The new state framework for teaching civics calls for students to show they can “use the political process to communicate with elected officials” and “plan strategically for change.” They should also demonstrate “civic dispositions” such as “respect for others, commitment to equality, capacity for listening and capacity for communicating in ways accessible to others.”

To teach students civics, McGrail and Petty plan to assign students an end-of-year-project to improve their community.

“Even if it’s small, like a food pantry at school, or looking at discipline in school,” Petty says. The point is, she says, “to make it tangible for kids” who aren’t yet voting age or may not be citizens.

The Revere teachers’ project-based plan may become more widespread. The State House last month passed legislation requiring students to do civics projects in eighth grade and during high school, and eventually create a science fair-style competition for the projects. The bill is waiting for Governor Charlie Baker’s signature.

While some educators have called the focus on democratic citizenship “groundbreaking,” others see it as “hollow.”

In a report published in June, The Pioneer Institute, a think tank that advocates for access to good schools, frugal government and a market approach to education, called the civics standards and revision of history standards “an exercise in progressive educational propaganda and vocational training for how to be a political activist.”

As teachers like Petty and McGrail get excited about a new way to reach kids, experts have warned them it won’t be all high fives and smiles.

“We should not pretend that this is going to be easy, because there are real dangers attached to this,” Meira Levinson, professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, said. She told eighth grade social studies teachers of the potential landmines that come with teaching civics.

“Civic education necessarily is about civics,” Levinson says. “It’s about political issues, it’s about power, and who has it and how it’s used. It’s about the stuff that we disagree about.”

In other words, teachers will likely bring some of our most controversial topics into the classroom and should think about how their own biases might affect that. These choices might upset parents and school districts. Levinson recommended anyone teaching civics write a letter to parents and school officials before class starts, letting them know they’ll likely get upset and disagree with some of the teachers’ choices in the classroom, but it’s all part of learning civics.

Our coverage of K through 12 education is made possible with support from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

WGBH News coverage is a resource provided by member-supported public radio. We can’t do it without you.
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