It was an eye-opening moment for PS 81’s educators. Their first response was to strengthen the school’s student government. They decided that every class, from 5th grade down through kindergarten, would hold elections and send representatives to weekly student government meetings.
To give the school a sense of community — and to make sure even its youngest learners had a say — student government representatives started by nominating a school mascot, which was then selected in a schoolwide vote.
It may not have been as high-stakes as the 2016 presidential election. But the vote at PS 81 ushered in a new era of student engagement and a growing appreciation at the school for civics and civics education.
“Civics education, in which students learn democratic citizenship by practicing it, is essential not just for good education, but for democracy itself,” writes American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, whose union is funding grants to boost civics education.
Educators at PS 81 gave the burgeoning student government the right to select one real-world issue every year that the school would focus on. Last year, it was bullying. This year, the students selected the right to clean drinking water.
“A third of our students live in temporary housing, and there are times when their buildings have no water,” says Michele Mavrovouniotis, the director of the school’s UFT Teacher Center. “So the issue of access to clean drinking water globally struck a chord with the children.”
To tackle the water issue, PS 81 partnered with WE Schools, a nonprofit organization that provides free resources to schools to help students participate in service learning projects around real-world issues.
In May, the student government led a rally of PS 81 students to raise community and public awareness. After marching through the neighborhood with signs and passing out fliers, they collected enough donations to sponsor clean drinking water for 14 families.
“A lot of what happens in schools tends to be top-down,” says Mavrovouniotis. “It’s nice to provide these opportunities for kids to let us know what they care about and voice their concerns.”
Now, Mavrovouniotis is one of about 35 participants in the UFT’s teacher working group on civics education, led by UFT Vice President for Education Evelyn DeJesus and staff from the UFT Teacher Center. Teachers in the group, which is supported by one of the AFT’s grants, meet monthly to discuss their vision for civics education in New York City public schools and will write a recommendation brief to present to the New York State Board of Regents this fall.
For many people, civics is synonymous with high school social studies. But the working group’s teachers — who represent all grade levels and subjects — feel strongly that civics lesson are applicable in every classroom.
The state’s K–12 framework for civic participation goes beyond what we might think of as our political and democratic responsibilities. It also identifies standards for how we should behave and interact with others in school and in society. Kindergartners should “identify and follow rules in the classroom and school;” 6th-graders should “demonstrate respect for the rights of others in discussion and classroom debates regardless of whether one agrees with the other viewpoint.”
In Tom Brady’s 7th-grade social studies class at IS 75 on Staten Island, when students role-play as members of Congress, their debates have a dual purpose: to learn about American democracy while also getting a lesson in respectful discourse.
“How to talk to someone else in a professional manner, how to make your point effectively to someone you disagree with — all of that deals with civics and how we have conversations in a civil manner in our society,” says Brady, another member of the working group.
After teachers at IS 75 found themselves reprimanding students for the way they were behaving outside of school by telling them, “This is not how we should act in society,” Brady and his students brainstormed ideas about what being a good citizen looks like in public.
Their list included some traditional civic duties and responsibilities, such as exercising your right to vote, showing up to jury duty and refraining from littering. But students also named traits like being honest and trustworthy.
In a sense, then, we’re all civics teachers. Our responsibility as educators is to make the characteristics of good citizenship explicit for our students.
“It’s about helping our children understand that they have a voice,” says Mavrovouniotis, “and that they can make change by using that voice in a positive way.”