Civics: Middle School Students Step Up

Posted by Colleen Pacatte on 12/22/2017

Guest Blogger:  Mr. Brian Barsotti, Social Studies Teacher at Viking School

In the past half century, one focus in education has been to bring equity to the system so that all students have a fair and equal chance of succeeding. This focus on equity stems from the broader purpose of public education, which is to prepare students to effectively contribute to our democratic processes. This philosophy dates back to John Dewey and reaffirmed by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

This year we are going back to those roots and piloting a new civics curriculum that provides students with opportunities to apply their knowledge about the foundations of our democracy and practice the skills needed to sustain it. Students are learning about how our democratic systems interact and establishing well-founded opinions about issues that are of concern to them. Students compare opposing viewpoints on a variety of civics related topics to assess their merits and debate potential solutions to perceived problems.

Students participate in progressive activities and structured discussions on topics that range from our rights and values to domestic and foreign policy. Below is a class that is engaged in a tag team round table discussion about certain foreign policy questions that made the short list during the previous presidential debate cycle. Students generated responses and proposed solutions to these tough questions. In this type of discussion, students choose from a series of questions. Three students begin the discussion in the middle of the class and provide their responses. After hearing all three responses, students discuss the viability of their responses and are tagged out when their peers on the outskirts have something to add to the discussion.

Picture 1


This new curriculum has components that extend beyond the traditional classroom. The Civic Action Committee was established to review civic contributions of our communities and the needs that were met with these services. In addition, committee members organize and facilitate service projects that engage our communities. The CAC partnered with Share the Harvest to provide Thanksgiving dinners to families in need. As you can see below, committee members collected donations for a designated family and decorated boxes for delivery, and were part of an effort that fed 285 people during a holiday that is as American as apple pie.

Picture 2

MathCon incorporates math through construction projects that contribute to the school community. Last year students constructed benches for an outdoor learning space that is adjacent to the library at Viking. For the 2017-18 school year, our members will participate in the Moving Mural Project. The Moving Mural Project is an effort to define and present the civic values that solidify our society by creating a mural that portrays the perspectives of our students. They are working hard to unveil their product at the Maker’s Faire being hosted by Viking Middle School on April 11, 2018. A schedule will be established for the mural to be transported and displayed in a variety of venues throughout the community. The theme of this project revolves around the answer to the following question: What do our civic values look like? Below are MathCon members brainstorming ideas about civic values by gathering insight from their peers and other notable figures.

Picture 3


Reserving judgment by a jury of our peers is one of the most fundamental rights in our democracy. Peer Jury is a tool to bring about restorative justice and provides a positive outlet to resolve student infractions that is an alternative to detention and suspension. It redefines the role of students in addressing misconduct by having them take leadership roles in the school and the Peer Jury process. Instead of students answering only to staff members about their behavior, going in front of the Peer Jury makes them accountable to their fellow students. 

This strategy can be effective because students can: relate to their peers, influence each other in positive ways, and help their peers get a second chance and learn from their mistakes. There are three goals to the Peer Jury process: to have students recognize the results of their behavior and reconcile with those affected by it, identify positive strengths of the student that has been referred to the Peer Jury, and come to an agreement that is attainable, measurable, and reconciliatory.

Picture 4


The Peer Jury program has reduced office referrals coming from 8th grade students by an average of 10 percent in the previous two school years and is on track to replicate those results this year. In addition, the 6th grade is piloting the program this year by dedicated teachers that want to provide their students with alternative interventions to traditional methods.

Civic learning not only promotes the knowledge and skills for civic life, it also supports systemic improvements. It increases student achievement from interdisciplinary lessons, which closes the achievement gap; builds on 21st century competencies, such as collaboration and problem-solving; and has led to better school climates and lower dropout rates because students are more invested in their schools. It also increases democratic accountability of our elected officials because citizens that are informed and engaged expect more from their leaders; it improves public discourse because knowledgeable citizens will demand more from their sources of information; and it provides for civic equality by giving every citizen the tools to be a full participant in the process.

The return on our public educational investments should not only be measured in terms of educational attainment standards, but it should also be gauged by how well the next generation of Americans are prepared to take the reigns to lead our democratic system into the future and protect the values that solidify our society.