Got Civics?

Recently, while sitting in a jury pool at the local courthouse three days into jury selection, I realized that there was no possible way that I’d be chosen. Each side had already used up several options for peremptory cause dismissal, and jury selection was winding down. Since jurors going into “the box” are chosen at random and since there were more than 50 of us in the room, it was unlikely that I’d be called. There were only 2 seats that needed to be filled. I was, of course, planning my exit (as well as the next 3 weeks) just as they called my number. My seat in “the box” awaited.

Jury duty, along with voting, are the two most prominent actions cited when talking about our civic duties. Both are examples of the wonderful way in which U.S. citizens have power across the board. We can elect those we think should lead and judge those who are brought forth to have their cases examined. But there are so many other ways that we can support our communities. From the smallest town to the global stage, we have the right–and the responsibility–to pay attention to what is going on and act accordingly. Civics includes voting and jury duty, of course, but it also includes keeping our city (and nation) on track to providing a healthy environment for all, from safe drinking water to safe roads to engaged neighbors who look out for one another.

Civics instruction has come to the forefront not only because of our currently contentious culture, but because it is a large part of the C3 History Framework. Civics, Economics, Geography, and History are intertwined across all grades; and the best part is that they all come with inquiry at their base. Librarians have many opportunities to incorporate civics in their programming with guest speakers, makerspaces (see Mica Johnson’s excellent MakerCare program), and more. But there are many resources we can provide to teachers and students as we partner with them in instruction. Here is one of my favorites:

iCivics. Founded by former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, iCivics is designed to teach civics through engaging and compelling inquiry – fits right into our C3 Standards! In fact, learning about how the government works, while at the core of civics education, is really just about laying the foundation. Once we know how the government works, we can work together to make it work better. From cleaning up our rivers to lobbying the city council for accountability to hosting fundraisers to support local services, civics instruction creates active, involved citizens of all ages. The site allows you to create assignments and assess work from within. Here are a few highlights to discover in iCivics – be sure to share this information with all teachers, not just social studies. Do. Not. Limit. This. To. Gov Teachers!

Language arts teachers will love Drafting Board (, an interactive tool for learning how to craft a killer argument backed up with evidence and supported with analysis. This tool would make for a great entree to that argumentative essay unit.

Check out the variety of games to teach informally – or to reinforce a lesson – that cover topics such as the Constitution, the branches of the government, civic participation, and more. But don’t be fooled, these games are not just games – and they’re not just for the little folks. Play one yourself and join in the fun!

Pair up the Constitution Day lesson plan with the folks at Constitution, who sponsor the Constitution Day poster contest for an engaging way to introduce the Constitution to students of all ages.

And finally, iCivics has also jumped into the information literacy pool. Look for a new game for teaching information literacy this fall. By partnering with the Annenberg Public Policy Center (makers of Factcheck) they are building a way for students to develop media literacy skills through play. Because of their commitment to creating engaging yet substantial content and because they’ve partnered with the Annenberg folks, I would keep an eye out for this newcomer to the info lit world.

Researching for my book on government information opened my eyes to the incredibly cool things that we can get from government agencies – things that help us teach the many permutations of what caring for our government, our land, and our people can mean for us as a nation. While most of us might think “history” when looking at government agencies for study, think again. There is such a richness of information that crosses every content, provides information for all grade levels, and includes a lot of proprietary information that isn’t found elsewhere.

Here are just a couple of agencies I never really thought would have such interesting stuff to help me teach better–and whoa! was I ever surprised. The three I’ve listed here all have civics and local action possibilities that teachers and librarians can mine to create projects investigating local history, culture, and politics and then comparing them with other states and communities.

1. National Park Service. Learning about history by exploring the idea of “place” is a unique lens from which to view events and personalities. Using their Teaching History with Historic Places (TwHP) offers many ways for students to take a look around their own city and evaluate history from a unique point of view. One example is looking at Federal Courthouses and Post Offices. Starting with the examples given, students then look locally at their own federal buildings and learn about what kinds of governmental business are conducted there – and what that business means for them as citizens.

2. Presidential libraries. This is something that surprised me the most: what a wealth of information is found in a presidential library. Definitely take the time to visit one if you can! While most of the libraries house information pertinent to the time period in which the president served, there are vast swaths of information on a wide variety of subjects. The Herbert Hoover Library houses the collections of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter Rose. The Truman Library offers a lesson called “The Spy’s Dilemma”; while over at the Kennedy library students can rummage around on “The President’s Desk” to link to many events during the 1960s.

3. The Federal Reserve Educators portal offers an interesting look at economics, civics, and other social studies concepts thought the interactive lesson called “GDP and Pizza: Economics for Life” from their “EconLowdown” lesson set.

There are far too many to list here – this is only a quick peek into three areas of fun using government information. Give a look/see to the many government agencies and their work by using a browser to type in <your topic> What is interesting is the number of state government sites that pop up, thus providing information from around the country. Scroll down and auger into a couple of pages and you’ll sometimes find government sites from less well-known agencies.

By the way, I did get on that jury, but they settled. Thank goodness. I could regain my 3 weeks. I will say, however, that serving on a jury – I’ve been on two – is interesting, compelling, informative, and rewarding. Next time I get that summons to appear, I vow to take a deep breath, clear my mental (and physical) calendar, and enjoy the opportunity I have to make a difference.

Have a fabulous – and reinvigorating! – summer.

Author: Connie Williams

NBCTeacher Librarian and author of “Understanding Government Information: a Teaching Strategy Toolkit for grades 7-12”. Member of the CA State Library Services Board, and History Room Librarian at the Petaluma Regional Library [Sonoma County Library]. She welcomes all conversation.. give a holler!

Categories: Blog Topics, Community/Teacher Collaboration, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.