One of the most important components of our job as social studies educators is to ensure that our students are prepared to engage with the issues of the day through the knowledge and tools that we provide them.
Unfortunately, it sometimes may seem like doing that job is more difficult than it should be. Increasingly, teachers are finding that covering current events in their classrooms results in pushback from parents and administrators. So how can we approach these necessary and relevant topics in such a way that we are in fact preparing our students to engage and to understand?
In reflecting on this question, there are several elements that any resource should take into account.
- Be nonpartisan: Offer as much of a nonpartisan just-the-facts approach as possible.
- Include background knowledge: Provide a place to begin that does not assume the student has relevant background knowledge.
- Connect concepts to current events: It should be clear from the start how the resource connects a specific concept or idea to the current event being addressed.
- Embed sources: Provide links to primary and secondary sources that can allow teachers to dive deeper into both the event and the concept or idea.
- Provide for a learning activity: Give students something they are expected to do with what they have learned.
- Offer enrichment opportunities: Provide external links that give a nonpartisan, different, deeper or illustrated approach to the event or concept.
- Contain graphics: Avoid the walls of text problem that can be inherent in some support resources.
It is with these elements in mind that the Lou Frey Institute developed the Civics in Real Life (CRL) series. This free resource, which aligns well with multiple grade-level standards within Kentucky’s Academic Standards for Social Studies, provides teachers with ways to engage their students in discussions of concepts, content and current events without having to worry about pushback.
The resources provided through Civics in Real Life are intended to guide and encourage students to think about important civics concepts and what is happening in the world around them, starting them on the path of inquiry that is at the heart of social studies in Kentucky.
What Does a Civics in Real Life Selection Look Like?
Every CRL selection is designed around a consistent structure. You will find an opening paragraph that connects a civics or historical concept to a current event, explaining why this matters. Throughout the reading, there are embedded links for key ideas or events that take students to deeper understanding. These may be to primary sources that illustrate a point or secondary sources that further elaborate on an important element that is mentioned in passing.
At the same time, each CRL will have images, charts, graphs or other visual tools that help students make connections. At the end of this one-page selection will be a task for students to complete that gives the teacher the opportunity to have them reflect and further engage. The final section is a compilation of additional resources and links for learning.
Let’s take a look at one example and how it can be used in the classroom.
Connecting Concepts to Current Events
Over the course of the past year, questions have often been raised about the role of the federal government in battling the COVID-19 pandemic. How does that role compare to that of the states, and, more importantly, what does the Constitution say about these roles?
Standard HS.C.CP.1 “Explain how the U.S. Constitution embodies the principles of rule of law, popular sovereignty, republicanism, federalism, separation of powers and checks and balances to promote general welfare” serves as an excellent starting point to allow students to begin to think about these questions. There are multiple Civics in Real Life selections that could fit this inquiry, but here are a couple that stand out.
- “Federalism in Action” introduces students to the 10th Amendment and the ways in which the federal government must balance what the Constitution allows versus what public health requires. It asks students to compare what the federal government is doing to what is happening at the state and local level, providing them a chance to see this sometimes difficult concept in action.
- Another Civics in Real Life selection that would work well with this standard is “Government Power.” This reading provides students with a clear and basic overview of enumerated, reserved, concurrent and local government powers. Embedded links further their developing understanding by connecting them to resources on the 10th Amendment, the U.S. Constitution and even on the powers granted to municipalities through state constitutions. The “To Think and To Do” task asks students to draw conclusions about what the decision-making responsibilities are at each level, directly connecting back to that concept of federalism and promoting the general welfare that we find in the standard.
The goal of the Civics in Real Life series is to help students make connections between what they are learning within their social studies classrooms and what is happening in the world around them. Selections from the series can help facilitate the student’s path through inquiry into concepts and problems that frame their lives.
If you have suggestions for topics or concepts, please feel free to contact us!
Steve Masyada is the interim director of the Lou Frey Institute at the University of Central Florida. He has been a K-12 social studies educator, state social studies curriculum specialist and assessment developer at various points over the past 20 years. He currently works on developing civics curricular resources to support effective instruction.