Students need to be educated on the value of participating in our democracy.
For Administrators

How Teachers Can Help Students Become More Engaged in Our Democracy

By Brian Gatens February 25, 2016

We all need to try harder to turn our students into better citizens.

Students need to be educated on the value of participating in our democracy.Just look at voter turnout in major national elections. The U.S. Election Project, a non-partisan organization that tracks voter turnout, says the turnout percentage for U.S. midterm elections hovers in the mid-30s and moves into the mid-60s in a presidential election. Contrast this with countries such as Belgium, Turkey and Sweden, where turnout hovers in the high 80 percent range, according to the Pew Research Center.

Clearly, the United States trails many developed countries in an activity that helps to define us as a democracy. Teachers can help turn this around. Regardless of your subject matter or the age of your students, you’re obligated to help students feel connected enough to the political process that they will vote when they get old enough to enjoy the opportunity.

Here’s how to help that happen:

Build national and global awareness

Apathy is borne from both a lack of knowledge about the political process and a feeling that there’s no way to positively participate in the process. You can fight this by dedicating time to teach your students about the larger issues that surround your subject matter.

Civic duties like voting transcend social studies and history classes. Every subject has the capacity to nurture a student’s desire to know more about it. For example, spend time during your science lesson talking about the technological advances that came from government support. Heck, point out that the Internet wasn’t invented by a private company, but started as a Defense Department project.

Show current events, but balance good/bad news

It’s important to keep your students up to date with local, national and world events. Just be careful not to soak them in negativity. The news media has long recognized that tragedy, chaos and confusion attract attention — that’s why most news is bad news.

Be diligent in offering a balanced perspective to your students so you don’t end up making them cynical about the state of the world. Yes, sharing an article about the opening of a new community center isn’t fascinating, but it’s important for the students to see that government can have a positive impact on the lives of its citizens.

Use data to develop visual awareness of the world

You must move beyond the written word to teach about the world. The incredible amount of data at our fingertips has created the science (and art) of data visualization.

To help paint a picture of the world for your students, pull some relevant charts from sites such as Information is Beautiful. Not only will you teach your students some new information, but you’ll appeal to their Internet-fostered visual memory and the appeal of having a picture teach them something new.

Foster engagement

Every school is surrounded by political structures and processes. Engaging your students by getting them involved in a local issue is a great way to help them understand how political processes play out and see how the average citizen can affect them.

If you’re fortunate, you may find a topic that relates to your students directly, but if that’s not possible, search out the issue in another area. Drive home the idea that they have to get involved to improve their experience. A local politician, political activist or a community organizer is a wonderful classroom guest, as they can speak to both their personal connection to the process and answer student questions directly.

Learn where students go for information

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking your sources for learning about the world are the same as your students’ sources. I see more and more students using social media sites such as Snapchat and its “stories” option to learn about the world.

Sites like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook all serve as resources for our students. Survey your classes to see where they learn about the world, and go from there.

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