Civic Learning and Primary Sources

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capitol-three-rights-clearElection Day is the perfect time to remember the importance of teaching students about citizenship and civic responsibility. In this article from our November issue, Noorya Hayat and Abby Kiesa with the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement discuss ways school library practitioners and K-12 educators can work together for high-quality civic learning linked to primary sources.
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Engaging Students in High-Quality Civic Learning

Civic learning is an important mission of schools, and school library and media educators can and should play key roles. Not only do these educators play a role in what information and media youth are exposed to, but engagement with information, news, and other media also creates the opportunity to emphasize and develop literacy skills needed in many parts of life, including civic life and democracy. At the core of civic life is the ability to research issues and candidates to understand policies and related discussions, as well as finding and developing solutions. As such, the skills developed through interaction with and communication about information on public issues is a critical piece of civic learning.

In 2011, the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools published the “Guardian of Democracy” report, which outlines a comprehensive view of civic learning outcomes with six proven practices as inputs and civic outcomes focused on building knowledge, skills, and dispositions. These involve in-class and out-of-class activities that can all use primary sources to provide holistic civic education. These six promising practices for civic learning are:

  • Classroom instruction for knowledge in government, history, economics, law, and democracy;
  • Discussion of current events and controversial issues in the classroom;
  • Service-learning connected to school and class curriculum;
  • Simulations of democratic processes;
  • Extracurricular activities in school and the community; and
  • Student participation in school governance.

These practices can be used simultaneously in an activity or integrated over the course of a semester to teach powerful civic lessons. Coordination between educators in different roles and subject areas deepen and connect lessons for students. These practices can ensure high-quality civic learning outcomes in K-12 students—including through the integration of digital primary resources.

Muzzy Lane’s KidCitizen: Connecting Primary Sources to Young People’s Lives

Our organization, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) is part of a dynamic KidCitizen app development team that is developing a cross-platform app to provide developmentally appropriate and “real” interactions with digital primary source elements (photographs, art, music, video,documents, etc.). The app creation is led by MuzzyLane Software and uses Ilene and Michael Bersons’ research on alternative instructional strategy that integrates digital simulations and games in the K-5 social studies classroom.

Each episode is designed to include digital primary sources from the Library of Congress (LOC) to help children relate historical moments to their lives. Children can also role play to investigate and explore primary source documents about civic and community involvement. The primary resources are curated from several LOC websites, including American Memory, National Jukebox, and Chronicling America.

School library practitioners are specifically important as content specialists that can help early-childhood educators design developmentally appropriate curriculum to teach elements of civics through primary sources. They can guide teachers on contextualizing primary resource documents through different avenues, including apps like KidCitizen. This project, funded by the Library of Congress, is in development phase and is expected to be fully disseminated in Fall 2017.

iCivics: Analytical Skill Development through Learning about an Important Civil Rights Moment

The iCivics “Eyes on the Prize” DBQuest ( allows young people to build civic knowledge while developing analytical skills through the use of a variety of primary sources. This interactive, digital tool takes students through sources related to the Nashville, Tennessee, sit-in movement of 1960 from a variety of perspectives.

Students use research skills, learn basic information literacy, and interact with a range of sources. The tool provides questions for students to apply these skills and opens the opportunity to discuss civic engagement strategies. Supplemental resources include a glossary, teacher guide, and a feature for searching by state standards.

CRFC: Researching and Discussing Current Issues through Simulations

Simulations of democratic practices based on primary source documents can also prepare students as informed and skilled citizens. One example is from the Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago (CRFC), which meticulously designs simulations with lesson plans and activities to help teachers enact democratic practices. For instance, some of the simulations designed for high school students are legislative hearings and moot courts for topics relevant to issues in Illinois. A legislative hearing will have different “interest” groups research the issue, develop arguments, and present their positions to a (simulated) legislative committee. School librarians and teachers can work together to create a legislative hearing on an issue of students’ choice where student interest groups base their presentation on research from primary source documents.

Such activities and instruction can also serve as a critical base for the development of dialogue skills and current and controversial issue discussion. A civil discourse around such issues in the classroom requires that students research issues and facts and understand democratic processes. Simulations are a great way to help deepen comprehension of such processes and help develop critical thinking and reasoning skills. School librarians can work with students to identify various primary sources that connect to current issues and work through to understanding them.

BoRI: Fostering Critical and Historical Inquiry

CIRCLE worked with the Bill of Rights Institute (BoRI) on an experimental study to determine the effectiveness of their digital textbook, Documents of Freedom: History, Government, and Economics through Primary Sources (DoF). It is designed for 8th to 12th grade U.S. history, government, and civics classes to improve civic instruction beyond rote memorization of historical facts. The institute seeks to develop civic knowledge and dispositions in students and educators through developing educational materials based on America’s founding documents and ideology of a free society.

The DoF textbook is centered on the use of primary and digital sources as a pedagogical tool to foster critical and historical inquiry in high school-aged students. It is a freely available and interactive digital textbook aligned with curriculum standards. As teachers and teacher librarians know, there is established research on the effectiveness of experiential learning, which digital platforms can provide inside the classroom. Digital images and learning material also allow for interactive exploration of events and information for deeper learning.


The examples above show some of the ways school library practitioners and K-12 educators can work together for high-quality civic learning linked to primary sources. Civic learning as an integrated learning experience of both in-class instruction and out-of-class skill development requires grounding knowledge and skills with positive and deliberative civic attitudes. School librarians can function as content and knowledge specialists to help design curriculum that incorporates the six proven practices of civic learning. They can provide teachers with ideas and strategies to use primary sources to develop foundational knowledge in students. They can also work with students to identify appropriate primary source documents. School library practitioners can be an invaluable resource in other civic learning programs, including service learning, extracurricular activities, and school governance.

Civic learning is critical for a healthy and functioning democratic society and schools are a critical setting to nurture the associated learning and skills. A school library is the place to develop and enhance civic knowledge and school librarians can not only help in building that knowledge but can also be vital leaders in connecting that knowledge to civic skills and dispositions.

Noor2046816wtya Hayat, EdM, is a researcher at the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University’s Tisch College of Civic Life, Medford, MA. She received her master’s degree in international education policy from Harvard with a focus towards global education and citizenship for the 21st century, monitoring and evaluation for improving education systems, and applied data analysis. She also has a background in economics and anthropology. Prior to CIRCLE, Hayat worked as an international researcher and coordinator in public health and nutrition awareness in the developing world. She has experience teaching and mentoring students from diverse backgrounds and grade levels, and worked as an early childhood educator in Boston. She is interested in the intersection of education, both in formal and informal settings, and civic learning and awareness in youth, particularly from marginalized and diverse ethnic backgrounds.

2046820wtAbby Kiesa, MA, is the Director of Impact at the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), part of the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University. Kiesa received her master’s from the Department of American Studies at the University of Maryland. She joined CIRCLE in 2005 and has worked on a wide range of research in addition to constant efforts to connect research, policy, and practice. All of CIRCLE’s research can be found at at @Civicyouth.

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