One of my favorite aspects of working for the Mathews Center has been developing programming focused on engaging young people in active civic learning. I believe that providing opportunities for young people to build civic skills and exercise civic dispositions is vital to creating and preserving a healthy democracy where citizens are involved as actors rather than spectators or consumers.
Over the past decade, a call has gone out for a renewed focus in education on preparing young people not only for college and career, but also for citizenship.1 A growing number of articles, research, and best practices on civic learning and youth engagement have made one thing clear to me: young people in the United States need more opportunities to engage in active civic learning – civic learning that goes beyond the passive receipt of knowledge. Youth need opportunities to improve and apply their civic knowledge in real-world settings.
Lisa Guilfoile and Brady Delander stress the importance of engaging youth in active civic learning in Guidebook: Six Proven Practices for Effective Civic Learning. Young people, they claim, “can only learn how to be civically engaged by being civically engaged.”2
The Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools outlines four key civic competencies young people must have opportunities to develop to be prepared for active citizenship. These competencies include: civic knowledge, civic intellectual skills, civic participatory skills, and civic dispositions.3 I believe that we must work together in our communities to develop civic learning programs and initiatives, both in and out of the classroom, that focus on developing and improving the four civic competencies.
The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University asserts: “to have a significant impact on youth civic engagement, we must work together across venues, programs, and sectors to create a climate in which youth have not only opportunities to learn and participate, but also the skills and efficacy to do so.”4
For the past three years, the Mathews Center has worked with the University of Montevallo Office of Service Learning and Community Engagement (OSLACE) to engage young people in the Montevallo community in an active civic learning pilot program entitled Students’ Institute. Students’ Institute seeks to increase civic knowledge, build civic skills, and improve civic dispositions among youth participants in grades 4 – 12.
Students’ Institute participants explore civic spaces in their community, interact with public servants, learn from citizens who are making a difference, map community assets, and name and frame issues for deliberation. Furthermore, youth participants exercise civic participatory and intellectual skills to develop sustainable community projects and initiatives. The Montevallo Junior City Council, a youth community center, and fundraisers to support youth programs constitute a sample of the students’ endeavors.
At the Mathews Center, we continually look for opportunities to learn alongside citizens. I have had the privilege to learn a great deal about civic engagement from the young citizens participating in Students’ Institute. I’ve learned that “age is just a number when it comes to civic engagement,” and that young people are willing to devote their creativity and time to strengthen their community when given opportunities to build and exercise their civic skills.
Are you engaging young people in your school or community in effective, meaningful ways? If so, I’d love to learn alongside you! Feel free to send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.