An Action Call: “I Am A Citizen” Project
Arina Bokas is an author, independent educational consultant, and faculty member in the department of English at Mott Community College, Michigan. She is also the editor of Kids’ Standard Magazine.
Is civic education on the decline in America? Like many educators, the most recent presidential election made me rethink my own role in preparing students to become engaged citizens and informed participants in the American political process. In response to recent events, I developed a research project for my college students called “I Am A Citizen,” first completed by my freshmen composition class last semester.
Located in Flint, Michigan, Mott Community College, where I teach, has a diverse student body. Many inner city students, predominantly African-American, receive financial aid that allows them to attend. The college also draws many students from Flint’s suburbs that, up until a few decades ago, were home to many skilled, well-paid automotive workers. These predominantly white students come from working class families, often making just above the income line that would qualify them for financial assistance. Many students from both groups work in order to afford college. I could safely say that my composition class was evenly divided in their political preferences, with about a quarter of students being removed from politics altogether.
The Ground Rule: Ideas, Not People
From the very start, I made it clear that regardless of their political considerations, students were to treat each other with respect. Most importantly, we were to discuss ideas, and never individuals. This rule applied to the presidential candidates, their supporters, and students themselves. This was one important shift in thought that students had to embrace.
Set-Up and Expectations
Students were split in groups of five, each group working within one theme or general area of interest. When creating groups, I purposefully combined students from various social-economic and racial backgrounds to ensure a diversity of views. Individually, each student was to select a specific question that he or she would investigate within the chosen area.
To make sure that students were well positioned to conduct a productive investigation, I asked them to submit a research proposal containing their question, criteria, and hypothesis prior to collecting any data.
Students worked within their groups to develop tools for gathering information, most often surveys, and were each responsible for collecting a specific demographic sample. After the results from all members were compiled, groups analyzed the data to see whether responses differed based on respondents’ age, gender, social-economic class, or political affiliation, information that was analyzed in individually written papers.
The final outcome of this project was a research portfolio that included a research proposal, individual survey results, bibliography, first draft with peer edits, final draft, and a reflection exercise.
The Project: Building Skills and Dispositions
As my students gathered early in the morning on November 9, 2016, our nation had just awakened the results of the election. Amidst the confusion, joy, fear, and anger sweeping our country, my 18-year-old first-time voters talked quietly and respectfully as they were discussing and selecting areas for their projects.
The image of the President of the United States, the system of the U.S. electoral process, and the particular election of 2016 were three dominant themes. To help students formulate individual questions, I led the class through a “Chalk Talk” thinking routine in which groups moved from one station to another to recording their thoughts about each group’s proposed topic and build on one another’s reflections. By the end of the class period, many students had a clear idea of what exactly they were eager to research.
Examples of research questions included:
-Are values of truth and ethics in the President of the United States important to our society?
-Has our perception of personal values in the President of the United Stated changed over time?
-Does the electoral process currently in place in the United States allow the best candidates to advance?
-Does the two-party system serve America well?
The verbalization of questions and hypotheses prior to conducting research afforded students an opportunity to evaluate their own perspectives and the evolution of their views as their research progressed. Students considered throughout the project whether their research supported their preliminary view or made them reconsider it, learning to postpone judgment and objectively evaluate evidence.
Because the students were also required to examine original documents, rather than rely on the interpretation of others, and to develop their very own data collection tools, this project fostered student agency and perspective taking.
Outcomes and Observations
From the time I introduced the project to the students until the day they presented their results, we had six weeks of bi-weekly class meetings, a relatively short amount of time to tackle broad ideas. Through the presentations, project reflections, and more informal conversations, I was able to conclude that the value of this project was found in three areas vital to responsible citizenship.
1. Understanding of the political arena.
Before completing this project, many students believed that they had sufficient knowledge of political processes. Very soon, however, it became clear that there was a substantial deficit in their knowledge and comprehension. One student wrote in her reflection, “I learned that even with all of the technology we have, we don’t know much about the elections or the candidates. Maybe this is because of misinformation that comes with certain media outlets, or maybe this is because we sometimes just don’t care to take time to really understand something.“ (Jazmin H.)
For many students, the surveys and analyses of secondary sources led to unexpected conclusions. For example, most respondents over the age of 35 across various demographics didn’t consider truth and ethics to be important in the political arena. They based their trust in the President not on telling public truths but rather on their perception of whether or not the President was true to his/her word. On the other hand, public truth was an important factor for younger voters.
Students also concluded that the two-party system was limiting the presidential pool inside and outside the parties. Most respondents knew nearly nothing about third party candidates or even the third parties themselves.
2. Understanding of the role of a citizen.
One student noted the effect of this project on his sense of responsibility as a citizen: “This project gave me a new perspective on the U.S. government. Before this, I always brushed off our American politics as a sort of nuisance. Reading the Constitution and trying to understand it for the first time, learning about actions of the past Presidents and their effects on my life today, made me take a critical look at myself as a citizen.” (Patrick S.)
The surveys data demonstrated a substantial shift between generations in how people perceive their civic responsibility. Older voters had a higher percentage of civic participation and desire to stay informed than did their younger counterparts. Older people were also more likely to believe that their voices matter.
One student reflected, “I didn’t vote in this election or the last one, even though I was eligible. I honestly didn’t realize how much the presidential elections affect us, American citizens, and the rest of the world. This project has changed my perspective. I will be more involved in the future, following up on the issues and partaking in the voting process.” (Katherine H.)
3. Desire to question, seek various perspectives, verify, and postpone conclusions.
Compiling and interpreting data from various demographic samples and working in mixed groups allowed students to interact with perspectives of those with whom they disagreed. Throughout the process, students strove to remain objective as they read, edited, and listened to presentations of evidence and conclusions of others.
A number of students observed that since the founding of the country, ethical standards for the President had changed. Many of the founding fathers weren’t concerned about human rights issues as we understand them today, and different priorities were at the fore. Students commented that they realized that almost any issue involved a number of interrelated and complex factors. Differences of opinion were often a result of which factors individuals considered more relevant and important to their lives.
“I feel I am more open minded,” reported one student. “In the future, I would like to stay neutral until I fully understand and know both sides of the argument. Just because I know my life doesn’t mean I know the needs of my neighbor.” (April L.)
I believe that nearly every non-technical subject presents an opportunity for a project that enhances student civic knowledge or understanding of civic engagement. No matter how brief the exposure might be, it matters. Little by little, we all can make a change that will have a lasting effect on the future of our nation.