Association of Texas Professional Educators
Association of Texas Professional Educators
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The Act of Being a Citizen

In a healthy democracy, citizenship extends beyond its legal definition or the act of casting a vote. True citizenship, according to civics education stakeholders, means participating in civil society every day alongside others.

Yet a 2017 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center discovered that, of those Americans surveyed, 37% could not name any of the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment, and just 26% could name all three branches of government. Further still, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found that only 27% of fourth graders and 24% of eighth and 12th graders were “proficient” in civics.

In an age where voter turnout continues to be low and apathy and distrust of government remain high, teaching the next generations about civics has never been more vital. Civics education stakeholders in Texas are putting in the work to ensure students become participatory citizens who safeguard the status of American democracy.

Students Acting on Civics

It’s been said so many times the phrase has almost lost its meaning, instead practically becoming an accepted norm: “This country has never been more divided.” Indeed, the first six months of 2020 alone were rocked with a pandemic and social unrest stemming from centuries of systemic racism, never mind the country’s recent political discourse. As adults in America grapple with the nature of civic society and where it stands today, those in the education sphere are focusing on a generation that isn’t even eligible to vote: K-12 students.

“The state of unrest in America and political polarization and the inability to have any level of civil discourse—all of these things really started turning people’s attention to what is going on and how you fix that,” Wendy May explains.

May is the board chair for iCivics—an organization that provides free resources, lesson plans, and educational online games to students and educators to promote civics education—and also leads iCivics’ work throughout Texas. iCivics is on a mission at the national and state levels to reinvigorate civics for the next generation of voting citizens.

Social studies and history teachers across Texas are most likely already familiar with iCivics. In fact, Texas has the second largest usage of iCivics products. Its high-tech games—which increase in difficulty as students advance through levels, prompting students to go even deeper into the learning—are often so engaging that students will play them voluntarily at home, according to May, and iCivics’ usage numbers rank with some of the largest commercial games in the world. But students aren’t just playing video games; they are immersed in firsthand experiences that bring civics to life.

“We’ve always done this thing, which I think is super exciting, called impact points,” May says of just one example. “When a student plays the games, they earn impact points that can be pledged to a nonprofit that is doing good in the community. At the end of a given quarter, iCivics donates real dollars to these charities with the most points. It’s creating agency for children, helping them understand how they can make a difference and take ownership of their citizenship.”

Brooke Blevins, Ph.D., and Karon LeCompte, Ph.D., are no strangers to iCivics and the importance of civics education. They co-direct a summer camp for fifth through ninth graders at Baylor University called iEngage, which uses iCivics’ games and then takes them a step further.

“It’s one thing to teach from a textbook, which is fine—there’s some good things from that—but it’s an even better model pedagogically if you can help students learn about being engaged citizens while being engaged citizens so they’re learning alongside actually taking action,” explains Blevins, who is an associate professor and chair of the department of curriculum and instruction at Baylor.

LeCompte, an associate professor of curriculum and instruction at Baylor, adds that while voting is important, making students understand “what it means to actually assemble, write a petition, or have freedom of speech is a very different thing.”

“We felt like we needed to push them toward this notion of more justice-oriented or participatory citizenship, but we realized we needed something more kid-friendly,” she explains. “What does it mean for citizens to see, know, and do?”

At iEngage, students pick an issue, research it, and then create an advocacy campaign. Local leaders, such as city councilors and judges, come in to speak with students so they gain an understanding of what the law says and what can reasonably be done within the structure of government. Past projects include supporting disabled veterans by improving public transportation, reducing landfill waste, creating an after-school program that would make bullied children feel included, and helping immigrants learn English by providing public transportation tickets so immigrants can attend classes.

“Oftentimes we think of citizenship in legal terms, right? ‘I’m a citizen because I was born in this country, or I took the citizenship test and I’ve been granted citizenship,’ but we argue citizenship is more than a legal definition,” Blevins says. “Citizenship is about your active commitment to your communities and to those around you, so we want young people to understand that even though they may not be able to do these formal processes of citizenship like voting or serving on a jury, they can do more informal civic roles such as researching issues, talking to community leaders, or going to city council meetings. They can work alongside other people to solve difficult and wicked problems. They have a voice and can make a change.”

Educators and Civics

In this day and age, just the mere mention of government can cause fear in educators. Talking about civics can bring up political discussions that few want to touch while in a classroom. May says iCivics hears from educators frequently, asking about how they can teach current events without getting political.

“We now have generations that are becoming voting citizens that have never had any type of true civics education while they were in school, so they’ve never been taught why they should care about being involved in their community or taught how to have an appropriate voice beyond just screaming at each other,” May says. “We need to help them actually understand what it means to get actively involved—and if you want to make a change, how you do that within the structure of your government. We’ve got to get back to teaching that in school, and we know for teachers it is difficult.”

May’s work in Texas revolves around the Texas Civic Education Coalition, a nonpartisan coalition of educators, education agencies, experts, vendors, and more who are working together to enhance civic education in the state. May believes civics education that is both robust and respectful is possible and necessary.

“Part of our job is to do better professional development to teach these teachers how to safely do it [civics education] in a nonpartisan fashion,” May says. “This is not a Republican or Democrat issue. This is about teaching students the skills and attitudes that are underpinnings of our democracy.”

The goal of the Texas Civic Education Coalition is to create civics education that falls under four pillars—civics knowledge, civics skills, civics attitude, and civic behavior—and then embed these pillars in the current curriculum. May emphasizes that the teacher voice has driven the coalition’s work. One of the coalition’s current efforts is working on the Social Studies TEKS revision (an already-scheduled revision) to enhance courses by streamlining content and teaching history and civics in a more integrated fashion.

“Texas is unique in that we have a ton of social studies time because we mandate Texas history and Texas government,” May explains. “If we revise the standards and show history teachers how to bring more civic skills and attitude training into the history curriculum, we can help them save time and equip teachers to teach smarter, not harder.”

This one-two punch of professional development to show educators how to properly teach civics as well as simplify state requirements so educators have more time to integrate civics with lesson plans is key for K-12 students’ learning. LeCompte notes that students need to know how to see other perspectives and find their voice.

“Think about it as a pair of glasses—I’m seeing it through a particular lens, and somebody else might have another lens, and these lenses aren’t exactly the same, nor should they be because your eyesight is different than mine,” LeCompte says. “Although we’re seeing the same thing, we have different lenses we’re looking through, and we need to respect those spaces and help teachers understand how to say, ‘Every voice matters.’ That’s one thing we hear over and over again from our research, from kids who have attended our camp multiple times especially, is ‘We now understand our voice matters, and our voice matters more when we know the root cause of a problem, when we’ve done the research behind the problem, and we don’t just yell out that things are wrong.’”

May agrees the meaningfulness of lessons and projects is key to students’ understanding and an educator’s ability to effectively teach.

“Sometimes there is a movement to jump to project learning, and the problem with that is, in civic education, we’re not looking to make activists of our children,” May says. “Before you turn students loose with a project, first structure the classroom setting and learning environment around the parameters of why this is meaningful. That has to be steeped in history and civic knowledge.”

Benefits and Beyond

Valuable progress has already been made through Blevins and LeCompte’s iEngage camp and research and with May’s coalition work in Texas.

For May’s part, she says the coalition is working on bipartisan legislation and also received positive responses from the governor, Texas Supreme Court, the commissioner of education, and the State Board of Education about her coalition’s goals.

Of all the different stakeholders involved in the effort, May says: “It’s the first time in Texas where they’ve all been brought together collaboratively to work together in a single direction for maximum impact. This is a real opportunity to move the needle in Texas because we have so many influential groups working together to build a consensus approach.”

The program developed by Blevins and LeCompte has also proved fruitful. The professors note they’ve seen shifts in the camp-goers’ thinking, where students no longer focus on surface-level issues or symptoms but instead dive in to find the root cause of an issue and how to advocate.

“We’ll ask at the beginning of the week, ‘What does it mean to be a good citizen?’ and they’ll say things like ‘picking up trash, not littering, voting, not speeding,’ and increasingly over the years since we’ve evolved the curriculum, they’re better able to say things like, ‘It means listening to your neighbor or working alongside other people to solve community issues,’” Blevins says.

All three women agree educators play a vital role in helping students understand their own role within a civic society. As May points out, if a school can create a “whole school civics ethos,” then you’re teaching students to be caring, engaged members of their community.

Says LeCompte: “I think that our future might be a better place if every teacher worked toward helping their students become justice-oriented citizens, and ‘justice-oriented citizens’ also includes recognizing that your sense of justice may not be the same as someone else’s sense of justice, but recognizing also that you support other people in having respectful opinions.”

“Civic education matters just as much as math and literacy and science,” Blevins says. “This work is central to the continuation and flourishing of the American democracy and of a global society.”

Students, educators, and parents can access iCivics games and resources at To learn more about the iEngage camp, visit

Author: Sarah Gray