Reimagining a Civics Curriculum for Meaningful Action

Laura Stott

History teacher Laura Stott from Madison Public Schools, Conn. is part of an innovation project to experiment with personalized learning throughout the year with Allison Zmuda.

Last spring, we re-imagined the Civics curriculum for all of our Madison High School students to provide an opportunity to take action on something that is meaningful to students. Over the course of twelve weeks, each student would draft a plan around a topic he/she cared about and then pursue it.

Sample topics from my Civics class:

  • Dress code: uneven enforcement between male and female students. These girls have already reached out to the Superintendent to plan a meeting with him to understand the dress code policies and the thinking behind them.
  • Gun control
  • Climate change
  • Legalization of marijuana
  • Full time therapy dogs in the school
  • Limitations on restaurant options in town/ desire for student friendly inexpensive dining options
  • Creating a town swimming pool
  • Moving the school start time later
  • Banning synthetic marijuana more effectively, dealing with the rapidly changing formulations
  • Helping YouTube creators maintain their freedom of speech
  • Connecticut’s aging and limited public transportation system
  • Conditions of roads in Madison
  • Litter on Madison beaches
  • Testing in schools
  • Unequal wages for men and women

As I piloted the project this fall, it was interesting to see how they handled the opportunity. Some students have done amazing work! Here is one group’s video presentation regarding gun control and mental health programs in schools. They met with State Senator Ted Kennedy, and spoke with him via phone as well. While they found some difficulties in fully achieving their goal, they had a first hand encounter with state government and took some big risks in reaching out to an elected official.


Identifying and Troubleshooting Challenges in the Classroom

My student teacher and I (he’s been collaborating with me throughout the Action Plan process, and has really been the guide for the students in recent weeks) did make some observations about areas in which the students struggled. He noted that in particular, we’ve seen several groups focus more on researching about and reporting on their problem, and not as much on what they actually DID– the actions they’ve taken.

We’ve also had some issues with time. Some students waited until very late in the process to actually TAKE their action, meaning they did not get a response back from an elected official, have time to make a meeting appointment, or actually carry out the change they proposed. We have been discussing ways to handle these problems. For instance, we could focus on more “check-ins” during the process; however, we then struggle with the amount of material we are expected to cover in the curriculum (finding it necessary to cut out topics).

Perhaps the project grows and develops a reputation over time, and students learn in informal ways from their peers about best practices. Perhaps we take the element of the reflection that asked students to give advice to a future group tackling their topic and present it to students at the start of the course.

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