Beyond the Election: Teaching Civics in 2017

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“An informed citizenry is at the heart of a dynamic democracy.” —Thomas Jefferson

Being an informed citizen involves more than just staying current on the issues. Now more than ever, it is important that students also understand how our government operates and what powers are given to specific branches and the people who constitute those offices, from the federal level down to the county level and to the voters themselves. In this article from our February issue, Carrie Ray-Hill and Emma Humphries discuss the great resources available at iCivics that make learning about our government both interesting and fun.
Subscribers can see all of the February online issue here.

For educators across the nation, a presidential election represents a teachable moment—a months-long period in which the nation’s attention is predictably focused on the lead up to one singular event. Everything we see—news coverage, spot ads, even car commercials—are themed for this time of year. It is relatively easy to create in-school connections to the interesting, relevant, and often controversial content that the election season produces. But what about when the election is over?

The political conversation does not go away; it merely evolves from a laser focus on the horserace to an under-the-microscope examination of the new president’s activities: the inauguration, the cabinet building, the first foreign visit, the first state dinner, and so on. Just like a presidential election, the president’s first six months in office, especially those critical first 100 days, also represent a nationwide teachable moment, except even better! Why? Because there are many more lessons about our government and political system to be found after the confetti settles.

The president is not the only new elected official settling into his or her new desk in January. Countless new members of Congress, governors, state legislators, and local government officials are sworn in and expected to quickly learn the job…on the job. Indeed, elections are the only type of competition in which the prize is awarded before all of the hard work is done. After the long lead up to the election and all of the media and hype surrounding it, it’s easy to think of the election as an ending; but it’s only just the beginning!

This year has already seen an increased focus on the media and questions surrounding transparency and procedural issues within the government; from concerns over the influx of “fake news” and the public’s inability to act as discerning media consumers to questions surrounding the legitimacy of the Electoral College process. It is critical to provide students and the educators that support them with tools to promote a foundational understanding of civics and government. With that foundation in place, schools can become places for deeper conversations about current events and create more engaged and active citizens.

With this spirit in mind, the primary goal of this article is to inspire enthusiasm around the work of elected officials and equip librarians with high-quality, interactive resources to keep the magic of election season alive. Helping students understand the jobs to which all of these people were elected can increase interest and engagement in their government. It can also help to mitigate some of the misunderstanding surrounding the power of elected officials and foster more discerning consumption of news media.

More specifically, we will present free and high-quality, off-the-shelf solutions—lesson plans, games, or projects—that school librarians can deploy with minimal planning and preparation.

Ultimately, our goal is to provide fun and relevant strategies for school librarians and teachers to equip their students to participate in the nationwide conversation about the work of elected officials and the government. Now more than ever, this conversation has come to the fore thanks to social media and the Internet. We want to help you support your students and teachers join in knowledgeably and responsibly.

Ready-to-Go Resources

Some may not associate libraries with games, but we know better! We also know that many of today’s school libraries are equipped with the best computer stations on campus. Bring in students to play one of iCivics’ award-winning games that put them in the driver’s seat. They will learn a lot about the jobs of elected officials, and they will have fun while doing it.

These games are a great starting point for further student inquiry. Each game is supported through a Game Guide that provides pre-and post-play discussion questions and activities ideas. Here’s another way to blend inquiry with game-based instruction:

Have students complete a modified KWL chart having the students share what they know about the game’s topic before play (K), what they learned from the game (L), and what they still want to learn more about (W). Collect the students’ curiosities and create a plan of inquiry using the great resources of your library.

Branches of Power ( Do your students like running things? Branches of Power allows them to do something that no one else can: control all three branches of government!

Executive Command ( In Executive Command, students get to be president, working to accomplish their agenda while facing the challenges and responsibilities that crop up along the way.

Represent Me ( In Represent Me! students work as a legislator trying to meet the needs of their constituents as they consider what bills to sponsor in Congress.

Law Craft ( In Law Craft, students play a member of Congress from the state of their choice. They pick an issue that’s important to them and their constituents and take it all the way through the lawmaking process.

Supreme Decision ( In Supreme Decision, students help cast the deciding vote. At stake is the suspension of Ben Brewer who wore his favorite band’s t-shirt to school in violation of dress code policy.

Counties Work ( In Counties Work, students decide about the programs and services that affect everyone! Their choices shape the community, and citizens’ satisfaction determines whether the player will get re-elected for a second term.

Lesson Plans
Looking for lower-tech but nonetheless in-depth and interactive resources for teaching students about the work of elected officials? iCivics has you covered. With over 150 student-centered lesson plans, we can ensure that you always have meaningful learning opportunities for students.

First 100 Days. The peaceful transition of power from one president to the next is a cornerstone of American Democracy. We have created some new just-in-time lessons that help you cover the special events that occur within this transitional period and the first 100 days of a new president: setting an agenda, building a cabinet, nominating a new Supreme Court Justice, and more. Inquiry Connection: Students can track the actions of our new president with templates and use the media wisely to engage in current events.

Congress in a Flash. Need to teach the legislative branch in a hurry? This lesson is designed to cover the basics in a single class period. Students learn what Congress is, what the Constitution says about the legislative branch, and how a bill becomes law. They analyze text from the Constitution, compare the House and the Senate, and simulate the lawmaking process by reconciling two versions of the same fictional bill. Inquiry Connection: Have students find a bill to follow through the semester and track its progress.

Judicial Branch in a Flash. Similar to Congress in a Flash, this lesson plan allows you to teach the judicial branch in an efficient and engaging lesson. Students learn the basics of our judicial system, including the functions of the trial court, the Court of Appeals, and the Supreme Court. They also learn how a case moves up through these stages and discover that these courts exist on both the state and federal levels.

All in a Day’s Work. Students learn the primary responsibilities of the president and how those duties connect to the powers granted to the Executive Branch in the Constitution. Students also learn about the types of issues the Executive Branch deals with and which federal agencies handle them.

The State Governor. In this lesson, students discover the roles and responsibilities of a governor. Through a reading and board game, the class will identify the source of a governor’s power, as well as how that power is best used in a variety of situations. Inquiry Connection: Help students think through what qualities are necessary in a successful governor, then research their own governor and create a quick biography.

The Capable County. Students explore the many roles filled by their county government and the role of county governments in a federalist system. After a close examination of the county, students create their own fictional county! Learners interact with fun facts about county government and analyze the transition of county development through the lens of westward expansion.

Action Civics
An important component of any form of instruction is connecting the curriculum to life outside of the classroom and library walls. An action civics approach is one such way to do precisely that. Less time intensive than most action civics solutions, the resources below will allow you to facilitate your students’ inquiry about their communities and their governments, as well as the role they play in the public sphere.

County Solutions Unit. County Solutions is a nine-step process for creating an action plan to resolve a community issue. Through this series of lessons, students learn about current events, the role of local government, and the variety of outreach methods available to average citizens working to influence public policy.

Who Represents Me? Do your students know who represents them in the federal, state, and local government?  Do they know how to get in touch with them? This WebQuest will help students find these people by using the Who Represents Me? Contact Sheet to write down all the details for telling government officials what’s on our minds.

The Fourth Branch: YOU! In this lesson plan, students learn how citizens can influence the government. They measure the impact of their “citizen power” on each of the three branches and learn how to target the right government official with their concerns.

In the aftermath of the election, many classroom teachers turn their attention away from the political milieu to continue what is often a long and high-stakes slog through the remaining standards. School librarians are in an excellent position to keep the conversation going and inspire their students to join in. Paying attention to politics and the work of elected officials need not be a chore. Fun and interactive instructional resources coupled with ready, willing, able, and enthusiastic school librarians provide the perfect opportunity to maintain the inquiry around elections this spring and to demonstrate the importance and relevancy of these on-campus spaces.

Check out these resources and more at

Carrie Ray-Hill is the Director of Content at iCivics, Inc. Ray-Hill oversees the conceptualization and development of iCivics’ educational resources, with a particular concern for teacher usability. She is responsible for maintaining a consistent focus on iCivics’ educational mission. Ray-Hill received her bachelor’s in historical studies and secondary teaching certification from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. Prior to joining the iCivics team, she taught middle school social studies and language arts in St. Louis and Washington, D.C. Ray-Hill lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and her cat, Earline. In addition to seeking out the finest of cheeses, she spends her spare time watching BBC quiz shows, making cookies, and killing zombies.

Emma Humphries, PhD, is the Chief Education Officer at iCivics, Inc. an educational non-profit dedicated to reinvigorating civic learning through interactive and engaging learning resources. In this role, she serves as the organization’s pedagogical expert, leads its curriculum team, and supports teachers in deepening their levels of engagement with iCivics’ products so they may provide transformative classroom experiences for young citizens. She earned her PhD in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Florida with a concentration in civic education and teacher professional development. Emma has devoted her professional career to teaching, learning, and advocating for civic education. She has served as a social studies teacher in north Florida where she taught all levels of American Government and History, as a civics instructor and program coordinator at the Bob Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida, and as an instructional consultant for the Florida Joint Center for Citizenship for which she is currently a fellow. Emma has degrees in political science and education and was awarded a James Madison Fellowship in 2004. When she’s not reading the Federalist Papers or tormenting the rest of the iCivics team with FL weather reports, she enjoys jogging away her worries and attending music festivals with her husband and friends. And dessert. She loves dessert.

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