I worry that the current politically divisive environment will cause some of our students to to take such a negative view of government that they will try to avoid as many aspects of civic participation as possible. Democracy requires an engaged citizenry. We need our students to embrace their civic responsibilities, but how do we do that in such a negative political atmosphere?
There are no easy answers. However, my co-librarian, Greg, and I are trying something new this year. We’re adding a civic literacy component to our monthly programs focusing on the basics of civics. Our goal is to show students that civic participation isn’t always contentious. While these monthly programs are simple and don’t engage every student in our building, we believe they send a message that civic knowledge and participation are important, a message students need to hear often. Here’s what we’ve done so far this year.
Constitution Day Trivia
In September, we reached out to our social studies teachers and offered to facilitate a Constitution Day Trivia Contest with their classes. The trivia-night style contest consisted of twenty questions, divided into four rounds. Students worked in teams of four or five to answer the questions, and the group with the highest score in each class won. The students enjoyed both the collaborative nature of working in a small group and the competitive nature of the contest.
Because nine different classes did this activity, my co-librarian and I shared the responsibility for facilitating these competitions. The set up was easy. The activity took place in the teacher’s classroom with the questions projected on the smartboard. The librarian served as emcee while the teacher scored the answer sheets. It was an entertaining way to send the message that all Americans should be familiar with the contents of the Constitution.
Designing “I Voted” Stickers
Our local board of elections commissioners recently partnered with our local public library system to sponsor an “I Voted” sticker design contest. The contest was open to students in grades six through twelve as well as to citizens ages eighteen and older.
Greg and I shared the information with patrons by making flyers about the contest available in the library. We reached out to teachers we thought might be inclined to collaborate on this project. Two of our colleagues who co-teach a math/business class invited us to work with their class. Our presentation to their students included an explanation of the contest as well as class discussion on the importance of voting. Then, each student used Google Drawing to design a sticker.
This activity provided a creative and fun way to encourage voting.
Thank a Veteran
Our school commemorates Veterans Day with a special event for local veterans every year. Prior to COVID, the event was a luncheon. However, the past two years, the event has been a drive-by parade. Each veteran who participates receives a gift bag of mementos. This year, Greg and I invited social studies, language arts, and special education teachers to bring their classes to the library to learn and about the history of Veterans Day and to write a thank-you note to a veteran. Several teachers took us up on the offer. One hundred and fifty of the notes were used in the gift bags, and the rest were given to an organization that sponsors honor flights.
Discussing Veterans Day and writing thank-you notes gave students a chance to think about sacrifices soldiers make for the common good and to reflect on one way “ordinary” Americans can serve their country.
Finding Common Ground
My hope is that if students have a chance to focus on the less divisive aspects of civic life, they will find common ground. They can enjoy participating in a trivia contest together even if they hold differing political views. They can admire a classmate’s “I Voted” sticker regardless of the political candidates they and that classmate support. They can work together to thank American veterans even if they support different political parties.
These simple library programs won’t fix the larger problems in the American political system. However, if they allow one student to view government and politics less cynically, it will be a small step in the right direction.
Author: Margaret Sullivan
Margaret Sullivan is a librarian at Rockwood Summit High School and also serves as the Lead Librarian for the Rockwood School District. A past president of the Missouri Association of School Librarians, Margaret’s professional interests include advocacy, teacher collaboration, professional development, equity, and YA literature. You can connect with her on Twitter @mm_sullivan.