My opening activity for senior government classes has always been an attitudinal survey.
I want to know what they think about government. Working in small groups, I ask students to make a list of every example of government in their lives. Then, I ask them to label these interactions with positive and negative signs. The results are always papers filled with negatives.
To my dismay students show little understanding of the “social contract,” the relationship between government and citizens; instead, their attitudes were much more akin to the man who, during the ACA debates, yelled out “keep government out of my Medicare!”
What about school, I would ask. Water, roads, police, firemen. Oh, they would say. Disappointing after 12 years of schooling in a state that purports to have a “civic thread” running through our K-12 education.
At Golden Valley High School we have been running a program for the past 10 years that has as its underlying goal the plan to give students a more accurate understanding of how government and citizens can work together. Each year every junior U.S. History student is required to participate in Project Citizen.
This is a program, designed by the Center for Civic Education, which examines public policy and how members of a community can work with government entities to affect change. Students work to identify local problems, research the current policy, and then build consensus to choose a class problem. Then they examine alternative policies, essentially examining how other communities have created solutions to the same problem.
Finally, they develop a policy proposal and create an action plan to map out how they can get the correct government agencies to help them solve their problem.
For example, in 2015 students determined that GVHS had less shade than other KHSD campuses. Many of our trees, coastal redwoods, had died. They presented their project to our principal, who used their data to get funding for more trees, and also tables with shade umbrellas.
Golden Valley is the only high school in the state that requires all juniors to participate in Project Citizen. This year 18 classes with almost 500 students created projects that examined local issues such as homelessness, human trafficking, zoning, air quality, literacy, obesity and drug abuse.
Students put forward policies to address these issues. Teachers and administrators from five local schools acted as judges for the presentations.
GVHS junior Gurvir Sidhu, when asked about his view of Project Citizen, said: “It is an excellent way for students to learn skills such as research, public speaking, cooperation, and meeting deadlines. … It is something that brings people together instead of tearing them apart.”
Terri Richmond is a social studies teacher at Golden Valley High School.