K–12 curriculum: Invoking student action with democracy lessons

Published on: 
7 Mar 2019
Kristen Keim

As we witnessed during 2018’s many national and local marches and campaigns, students can be savvy activists. Their voices are critical in advocating for a safe and sustainable future. Therefore, the potential of teachers to foster understanding and critical thinking about our role as citizens is immense.

Ultimate Civics, a project of Earth Island Institute, helps teachers tap into issues that students are passionate about by exploring the United States democratic system and our rights as citizens to create change in the system. Each lesson is rooted in examples from current events, to invoke student engagement and activism in their own communities.

Earth Island Institute joined the Learning Lab Partner network in 2018, and its Activating My Democracy lessons are now available as part of the annual subscription. Activating My Democracy contains six lessons for grades 9–12, all aligned to Social Studies State Standards. An additional set of middle school lessons (grades 6–8) will be added to the Learning Lab platform throughout the year.

Riki Ott, creator and leader of the Ultimate Civics program, shares her thoughts on why the curriculum is so powerful in tapping into student activism:

Why is learning about constitutional rights powerful for both students and teachers, in your view?

Critical learning happens when teachers meet students where they are. Today’s youth are coming of age at a pivotal time for humanity, when the dual collapses of environment and culture will challenge us to spark something new. Youth sense this and are demanding true equality, not what has passed for equality in the past. They are demanding authentic democracy, not what has passed for democracy in the past.

These and other demands like a healthy, safe atmosphere, gun control and immigration rights are about systems change—and rightfully so, as the system has created these problems. Understanding and teaching constitutional rights—and the limitations on those rights created by the Supreme Court—will empower youth to fulfill their role as game-changers.

How does the Ultimate Civics curriculum connect students to their learning?

Ultimate Civics lessons use peer learning and interactive exercises to promote experiential learning. The lessons apply broadly, and teachers can use current events to foster further critical thinking and learning. For example, Lesson 6 is supported with “In Brief for Educators,” an interpretation of key court opinions and orders to guide classroom activities.

If you could suggest only one lesson to teachers, which would it be?

That depends on the students and the teacher. That said, the current most popular lesson with educators and students is Lesson 6 on climate justice. Twenty-one youth, from ages 8 to 19, sued the federal government in 2015 over not taking care of the atmosphere and climate for their generation. The Trump administration has repeatedly tried to block the case from going to trial—so far, unsuccessfully.

Media coverage is extensive, and youth across the country are following this case. It’s a current teachable moment. Lesson 6 meets youth where they are at by demonstrating how to use rights to defend what we love and how the legal system can advance human rights. Another outcome is that youth learn what they can do to support the young plaintiffs by working with their schools or local community to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Explore the Ultimate Civics lessons on Learning Lab