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Kelly voting with her husband in the 2020 election.

Valuing Civic Education and Democratic Participation

October 22, 2020

Valuing Civic Education and Democratic Participation

Director of Share My Lesson Kelly Booz shares her thoughts on the importance of democratic participation and civic education.

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Framing the Importance of Democratic Participation and Civic Education

As a lover of the Constitution, I get giddy during election time. I read obsessively about national and down-ballot contests, and I love volunteering on Election Day and talking to voters. 

As a former civic educator, I also loved getting into debates on the issues with students. I believe in teaching the skills of civil political discourse—even when we disagree—and that teaching students their vote and their voice matter is a critical lesson in democracy.  

My favorite classroom activity was the “fishbowl” debate: The class was divided into two groups and representatives from each group would debate an issue while the others watched. Anyone in the hot seat could be swapped out by a teammate with a light tap on the shoulder, and that teammate would continue the debate. Each time I did this, I would take some of our most outspoken and opinionated students and have them debate their alternative viewpoint. Despite their grumbling when assigned to argue a viewpoint they didn’t hold—on topics like gun control, education, and state vs. federal roles and responsibilities—the students almost always walked away from the experience with a better appreciation for the opposing views, even if they disagreed. 

In today’s distance-learning world, I can envision the same fishbowl debate taking place on Zoom. The student groups would prepare to debate a topic in breakout rooms, and then the teacher would bring everyone back for a Zoom fishbowl face-off. Two students would debate, everyone else would remain on mute and off camera, and teammates could tag in and out by raising their virtual hand and then coming off mute and back on camera. 

In today’s political climate, there is an awful lot we disagree on, and the political rhetoric and divisiveness seem to make even the mention of the election, a candidate or an issue a challenge for educators. 

But where I hope we can agree is that our democracy, and an education in democracy, is critical to the values we share as a whole, such as voting, having every vote count, the rule of law and freedom.

Inspiring Democratic Participation Among Students

During and after the past election cycle, we have updated our election and civic education resources to make it easier for you to teach the principles of democracy and cover the issues we faced in the 2020 election. 

Our Foundations of Democracy collection provides resources that answer questions like:

  • What is the rule of law, and how does it play out in a democracy?
  • What is federalism, and how does it work in the United States?
  • What systems attempt to limit government power?
  • What are the core principles and ideals of democracy?
  • How can we help students be informed citizens?
  • What do democracies look like in other parts of the world?

Finally, our Civic Education and Election collection covers core principles of democracy and elections, such as voting rights, gerrymandering, the Electoral College, media literacy and civil discourse. And we have many free, for-credit webinars covering topics such as voter suppression, civil discourse and how to teach civics in the virtual world. 

Kelly Booz

Kelly Carmichael Booz oversees the AFT PreK-12 online resources serving 2.1 million educators on the AFT's ShareMyLesson.com, the AFT's E-Learning professional development platform, and the production and dissemination of PreK-12 publication for the AFT's 1.7 million members.

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