Blog post by Dr. Joe Harmon, PTAC Member
Due to lack of opportunity, youth in rural areas of America are not as civically engaged as their suburban and urban peers.
I feel the burden of this conclusion by Kawashima-Ginsberg and Sullivan in their study published in The Conversation. They further dubbed rural areas of America “civic deserts.” The youth in these areas are less likely to be involved in civic opportunities or volunteering.
We cannot have a thriving democracy without civic engagement from all parts of our country.
I am an 8th grade civics in rural Pennsylvania. The responsibility to engage my students in civic action weighs on me daily.
Last summer I was introduced to the work of Dr. Peter Levine from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE). In one of his talks, he asked a simple question.
“What should we do?”
These four words have become a driving force and a mantra for my teaching. Something needs to be done, and teachers like me have the opportunity to help our students see the importance of involvement. I am committed to ensuring that my students turn our little part of rural Pennsylvania into an oasis of civic engagement.
Last fall I launched a new civic engagement project.
Students researched and brainstormed issues of importance at local, state, national, and global levels. Issues such as poverty, terrorism, bullying, and environmental concerns were listed by students. I challenged them to identify how issues such as these could be addressed at the various levels.
Then, I asked them to develop a plan of action and a pitch to their classmates to convince others to get involved in addressing their issue.
They were figuring out their own, “What should we do?”
My goal was for students to take action on an issue of choice and see themselves of agents of change despite their age. You don’t need to be an adult to have a positive impact on your community.
Students were asked to carry out at least two acts of civic engagement based on their plans - once in the fall semester, and once in the spring.
The impact that my students had was astounding.
The local bike trail was scoured for litter several times, while a nearby roadway was cleared of 500 lbs of trash. Students volunteered with their churches, packing blessing bags for underprivileged students. They built refugee gardens in an urban neighborhood. Many volunteered with organizations such as the nearby animal shelter and the community food pantry. There were collection drives for the local cancer center, a toy drive for community children in need, and a plastic bag drive to create mats for those living homeless. Students attended borough council meetings and school board meetings. They wrote letters to the President of the United States about national affairs and to their high school principal in hopes of changing the dress code policy. When it snowed students walked their neighborhood to shovel the driveways of elderly community members.
Two projects were especially impactful. One group of students helped revitalize a blighted cemetery that held the remains of several Civil War veterans. Their work was featured by a local news outlet. Another group developed a districtwide Twitter hashtag (#weareredbankvalley), which was used to build school culture and raise hundreds of dollars to benefit their 8th grade class.
At the conclusion of the project students blogged about their experience, reflecting on these questions:
One of the most important aspects of this project for me, as a teacher, was to develop intrinsic motivation in my students as civic activists. For this reason, I was careful not to assign extra credit or bonus points to their project. In order to recognize the efforts of those who were interested in going beyond the project’s scope, I allowed those who participated in more than the required number of actions the opportunity to opt out of a civic issues paper that is normally required in my class. Many students chose this path of extra civic participation despite the fact that no points or grade were attached.
As I have reflected on my original goal of increasing civic engagement in our rural area and how to improve this project in the future, I have come to the conclusion that student input is key. Even though they are on summer break, many of those who have worked so hard this year to make their community a better place have been eager to provide advice on helping next year’s class.
We still have a long way to go in helping our rural students have the same opportunities for civic engagement as their suburban and urban peers. I hope that the work of my students shows that when given that opportunity, students in rural areas can change their world for the better.