Unlike other units in “Moose on the Loose,” the unit plan for Unit 18: Civics and Government Today does not contain additional content material for educators that deepens their knowledge of a particular historical topic. Instead, the educator overview in the unit plan discusses best practices for civics education at a time when American government and politics seem to be in crisis in our country. Increased partisanship, the breakdown of traditional norms that have preserved American democracy, and an adult population that probably knows less about civics and government than any previous generation have prompted calls for schools to improve students’ civics education. Yet most educators lack the resources and training to do so. “Moose on the Loose”—and particularly the units on constitutions (Unit 6) and civics and government (Unit 18)—attempts to lay the foundation that will help rectify these problems for New Hampshire teachers and their students.
New Hampshire state law currently requires students to begin civics education before eighth grade, and many New Hampshire schools first offer instruction in American civics and government in middle school. The little civics and government instruction introduced in younger grades tends to gravitate toward national symbols and holidays. Yet scholars who study civics education have found that substantive instruction in this topic must start at the elementary level in order for students to become fully immersed in democratic beliefs and practices. In many ways, the classroom may be the first civic experience of a child’s life. The behaviors that shape good citizenship—fair play, following rules, concern for equity—are well suited for elementary classrooms and certainly within the grasp of elementary students.
But practical lessons in social behavior and acceptable classroom habits are not sufficient for instilling in students a true understanding of democratic principles. It is essential that behaviors are linked firmly with the ideas that underlie our system of government, and elementary students are undoubtedly capable of grasping these ideas with suitable guidance and instruction. Even in middle schools, much of civics education centers around learning the logistics of how government works (how many senators come from each state, how old one needs to be to run for president) rather than the foundational concepts that have shaped American democracy.
This problem is exacerbated by an emphasis on skills over content knowledge and the general enthusiasm for getting students to “take action” when the national civics standards calls for students to “take informed
action.” The distinction between the two is critical to successful civics education and for cultivating the kind of civic behavior that a democratic society requires to survive and thrive.
The need for high-quality civics resources that focus on foundational principles is not just restricted to elementary schools, and more than any other units in “Moose on the Loose,” Unit 6: Establishing Government and Unit 18: Civics and Government Today are scalable. Although written for upper elementary students, the material is well-suited to serve as a foundation for middle and high school students’ civics instruction as well. Teachers can expand upon these concepts by adapting lesson plans and activities to delve more deeply into the complexities of American democracy.
Although there are certainly challenges in teaching substantive civics programs, there are also tremendous benefits. Civics education can help educators to:
- Teach empathy and develop students’ understanding of the common good
- Incorporate inquiry, including opportunities for students to take meaningful action
- Illustrate the wide variety of perspectives that exist in American society
- Develop students’ critical thinking skills in contexts that are relevant to their lives
- Use historical examples to create the intellectual distance necessary to evaluate complex issues, to understand how our society got where it is today, and to appreciate the work and sacrifices of those who came before us
- Engage students in civil dialogue and find common ground even amidst disagreements
- Provide current, real-life examples for evaluating sources, information, and arguments
- Develop students’ understanding of the difference between opinion and informed opinion
- Cultivate students’ sense of agency in their own lives
All of these are essential to supporting American democracy.